Singer Angelique Kidjo on what she's doing in lockdown: 'I started my own garden and eating my own tomatoes'

The Grammy Award-winner will perform an online concert for the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation this week

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 26:  Angelique Kidjo performs on stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 26, 2015 in New Orleans, United States  (Photo by Leon Morris/Redferns via Getty Images)
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When Angelique Kidjo planned for this year to be one of rest and reflection, she never imagined it would be an enforced break.

The time-out was supposed to be a reward for a frantic year of touring that should have begun last March with a show at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall.

Not only was the gig, featuring a number of special guests, set to be a celebration of Africa, but it was also meant to mark her 60th birthday.

Speaking from her Parisian home before Wednesday's pre-recorded online concert for the UAE's Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, the Grammy Award-winning Beninese singer recalls knowing something was wrong when the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of the New York show.

"I realised then that this was not only serious, but it was going to change the world as we know it," she tells The National.

“Everything seems to have stopped, especially when it comes to the arts. Right now in Paris, we are in our second lockdown. The first one was OK and we managed it. This second one is honestly tougher. We are human beings and we need to move around and not be still. But I am responsible and I remain always hopeful.”

'Don’t touch your face'

Even after spending most of the past year cooped up indoors, Kidjo continued to lend that strident and passionate voice to worthy issues affecting the continent.

Concerned with the rise of infections across Africa, Unicef reached out to Kidjo to see if she was interested in singing a reworked version of Pata Pata, originally released in 1967 by late South African singer Miriam Makeba.

Pata Pata means "touch, touch" in the Xhosa language, and the new English and Covid-19-friendly version changes the chorus to "we need to keep our hands clean, so 'no pata pata'. Don't touch your face, keep distance please and 'no pata pata'".

Kidjo admits she was initially sceptical of the project.

“When I read the lyrics, I thought ‘is this really going to work?’ But then I thought how many people in rural Africa don't have the internet or television, so the best way to deliver that message is through the radio with the song," she says.

"Radio remains huge in Africa. Even the farmer, when he is working in the village, has the radio always on. I realised then that I had to do this."

With 15 radio stations across Africa joining the drive, the new version of Pata Pata went on to become an influential hit across the continent.

Kidjo continued to promote that message of safety throughout the past year with a number of streamed concerts dedicated to African viewers.

A day in the garden

In the meantime, at home, Kidjo underwent some creative therapy of her own.

"I started my own garden and eating my own tomatoes, vegetables and fruit," she says.

"I couldn't just be at home eating rice and processed food. I learnt that as human beings we have adapted to a fake world where we don't even appreciate our taste in natural food. To eat something that is grown from the ground and that you planted yourself, it made me realise how Mother Nature has always been there for us."

That humbleness also extended to the once-invisible front-line workers she passes on her way home every day. While always respectful of their work, Kidjo hopes the pandemic heightens our awareness of their contributions.

"If this whole thing can teach us anything, it is that we are all intertwined and we can't be selfish," she says.

"The people who are used to being treated indifferently, such as the nurses, the person that cleans your house and gets your groceries, are now some of the most important people in your life. After the pandemic, we just can't go back to the way things were. We all have to make room for each other and respect each other."

While it wasn't quite what she imagined, it looks like Kidjo got the break she needed.

Angelique Kidjo’s concert will stream on Wednesday, January 20, from 9pm on the Cultural Foundation's YouTube channel