TO THE BEAT OF HER CONVICTIONS Singer Angelique Kidjo is a dynamic force for peace, spirituality

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NEW ORLEANS - To get a clue into Angelique Kidjo, you only
had to witness her set at Congo Square, one of the big venues of this
city's annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, on the first Friday in May.

It wasn't just that she wheedled the burly security chief until he allowed fans to come up and join her. Kidjo commonly requires fans at her shows not only to dance, as she does endlessly, but to do so with her onstage.

Once they were there, she made a point of connecting with each one
as she jaunted through "Afirika," from her most recent album, "Black
Ivory Soul." It was as if she had 20 guests in her living room and
wanted to make each one feel at home. Each of them left with a hug and
a huge smile.

If the Benin-born, Brooklyn-based Kidjo, who comes to the
Tweeter Center with Carlos Santana on Wednesday, were just a good
hostess, you could give her marks for manners and move on. But few
who've heard her lusty voice can stop there.

Santana calls her "an absolutely incredible artist." Steve Berlin,
the Los Lobos horn player who's producing her next album, considers her
voice "a once-in-a-generation thing." Quint Davis, the New Orleans
festival's producer/director, who has booked thousands of performers
for the event for more than 30 years, is not only a fan but one
impressed impresario.

"To me, you don't think of her just in terms of world beat or
African music. You have to think in terms of Tina Turner or something,
her whole dynamic energy up there," Davis says.

Indeed, endless energy seems to be the core of this close- cropped,
bleached-blond, pop powerhouse, who says she hasn't taken a break since
1994. In addition to the show this week, she returns to New England for
two more in August, including an appearance at the Apple and Eve
Newport Folk Festival. She already has shows set well into next year,
including a February date at Somerville Theatre.

It's fair to say that Kidjo craves a spotlight and pop
success, but it would be unfair to regard her just as another idol-in-
waiting. She sings and speaks for peace and of spirituality and her
heritage. "She is just pure, raw conviction," Santana says.

That iron thread of her character was on display hours before she
ruled over Congo Square, when she communed with a theaterful of school
children as part of the festival's Educational Workshop Series. Out of
almost 500 acts in the eight-day festival, barely 20 also do the
workshops. It's the sort of move you'd expect from a UNICEF special
representative, which she's been for almost a year.

Kidjo sang for them, but only four songs. In between, she
took questions, descending from the stage at times to be on their
level. Her primary topic was the music - in between songs, she asked
her players to explain the beats and backing vocals - but she kept
sight of larger themes. "I want to show the links back to Africa," she
said after her percussionist broke down one beat. "That's important for
you to know."

Using her voice to document those links is a mission for her: She is
two albums into a trilogy on the African diaspora: "Black Ivory Soul,"
the second, plumbed the rhythms and scents of Bahia, Brazil, a New
World landing point for many enslaved Africans. The third, which will
begin production in the fall, will follow the movement of slaves into
Cuba, Haiti, and New Orleans.

Kidjo sang from a young age in her mother's theater troupe,
but later she enrolled in law school, intent on a career in human
rights. "Then I realized I would have to learn politics, which isn't my
thing, so I quit. I decided I would try to touch poor people with my
music."

Kidjo may have rejected it as a vocation, but politics are
entwined with her performing. Consider her blend of boast and social
commentary when a student asked if she likes her career: "I do, a lot.
I'm one of the few African women to have an international career. In
Africa, you're supposed to be a mother and wife, perhaps a secretary.
But not a singer."

She speaks as she sings: boldly and without pretense. Her music is
always soulful, sometimes balladic, often pop-like, with hooks that
make fans want to sing along, even if they don't know the words. Though
she speaks English well, Kidjo usually sings in the French, Fon, and Yoruban of her upbringing.

Some might wonder whether Kidjo's non-English lyrics have kept her from reaching a wider audience, but Berlin doesn't think so, pointing to Kidjo's duet with Dave Matthews on her last album to make his point.

"Let's say . . . I didn't know her music and I heard that on the
radio and went and bought the album. Would it matter that the other
songs weren't in English? Her songs are so great and her voice is so
beautiful, I don't think so."

Clearly, she has the attention of her peers. The Matthews connection
included a gig on his 2001 summer tour. This summer, of course, she's
back on the stadium circuit with Santana. They collaborated in Oslo
last December at the Nobel Peace Prize concert. They did "Adouma," the
obvious choice: Kidjo co-wrote and recorded it on her 1994
album "Aye," and Santana covered it to open "Shaman," his 2002
follow-up to "Supernatural." It's fair to think they'll do a reprise
Wednesday in Mansfield.

 

Steve Morse of the Globe staff contributed.