The adage that music is a universal language may be shopworn, but when molded by petite powerhouse Angelique Kidjo, it takes on a decided ring of truth. Singing in French, Portuguese and Yoruba, with a smattering of English thrown in for good measure, she takes the term “world music” literally, emphasizing common ground rather than exotica.
Kidjo’s new Columbia album, “Black Ivory Soul,” obscures her strengths in something of an effort to position her as a purveyor of safe demi-exotica — a Sade for the too-hip-for-smooth-jazz set. While she certainly has the mellow purr to carry out such a mission, the diminutive singer exudes a palpable sulkiness when asked to play too soft and gentle.
As such, songs like “Iwoya” (which lacked the interaction that carries the recorded version, a duet with Dave Matthews) drifted somewhat aimlessly. Likewise, “Lemanja,” despite its dedication to a voodoo goddess of romantic love, ambled along so placidly that a peck on the cheek was about as passionate a reaction as it could’ve generated.
Kidjo was much more effective when mining the Afro-Brazilian veins that crop up throughout the music of her native Benin — as evidenced by a tantalizing take on “Oloofoo,” a song she composed with South American kindred spirit Vinicius Cantuaria. On these more invocatory songs, acoustic guitarist Rubens de la Corte did a fine job of negotiating the twists and turns between samba and high-life melodies.
Kidjo’s soaring vocals often were cleverly matched by viola player Allison Cornell, who slid an octave or so under the lead vocal line with her instrument while offering a vocal counterpoint closer to Kidjo’s range. The blend was particularly effective on longer, more hypnotic pieces, like a grooving “Idje Idje,” but dreamier material tended to get lost in the translation.
More often than not, however, Kidjo bowed to audience requests, trotting out older material, including a powerful encore rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” and going the extra mile — literally, up the club’s stairways and through its dance floor — to get a party started.