Columbia Records, 2002, 85799 - artist website, label website
Angélique Kidjo's new album is dedicated to the border-blind affinities between her native Benin and Brazil's North-Eastern region of Bahia. The lyrics of the opening number dream that "Bahia is so far from the Motherland, but the spirit is still alive. One day we'll come together. I want to cross that bridge that leads from Ouidah to Bahia."

Combining her trademark high-energy African funk power and lush harmonies with the cosmopolitan sophistication of Brazilian tune smiths Gilberto Gil, Carlinhos Brown and Vinicuis Cantuaria has resulted in a heartfelt, upbeat album. It relinquishes some of her former over-produced R&B reliance in favor of a folksier embrace of the basics.

From the propulsive axé-driven "Tumba" dance fest and anthem-like title track to Gilberto Gil's "Refavela" look at abyssmal inner city ghetto conditions. From the gently lilting incanation to Iemanja as the Divine Mother, to the dreamy chorus-backed "Okan Bale" with its tribal kora riffs or the bouncy "Ominira" - Black Ivory Soul delivers beautifully on unearthing the pulsing ley lines that connect the two remote continents through music.

The weakest track here is the one worn proudly on the jacket sleeve sticker, her duet with Dave Matthews. It's the only half-shadow in an album otherwise gloriously unencumbered by ballast or nods to commercialism. With Black Ivory Soul, Angélique's famous voice has found a lyrical vehicle whereby to reconnect with her roots. She leaves behind the high-gloss Parisian sensibilities of earlier Pop productions for an atmosphere at once grittier and more emotive, and one suffused with the life-affirming glow that seems so endemic to much Brazilian music.

The entire album is seamlessly fashioned from a single thread that only raptures with her closing and French minimalist rendition of Serge Gainsbourg's "Ces Petits Riens". Though surprisingly counter-intuitive in the album's greater context, this nigthclubby ballad is still delivered without compromise. It serves as a welcome reminder of Kidjo's artistic scope as one of the superstar divas in the World Beat arena.

Simply put, Black Ivory Soul is an unapologetic feel-good release. And just as coming out of an over-hyped, emotionally bland and forgettable blockbuster will, it'll have you question why we don't spin such uplifting material more often. Why choosie depressing or nutrionally empty crap that leaves us worry what's become of this world?

When a beacon of Kidjo's caliber lights up the day, our hearts simply know. If light we don't see all around, it's because we don't radiate enough of it into the world to pierce our cloudy vision. Black Ivory Soul forcefully rends such clouds. We're reminded that behind them no matter how stormy, the sky remains as blue as it's always been.