Daniel Freedman doesn't have to wait for a post-gig debriefing to find out whether he's satisfying his boss's rhythmic needs. As the drummer for Angelique Kidjo, he can tell he's taking care of business by the sway of her hips.
The Benin-born dynamo, who has earned international renown for her human rights advocacy and five Grammy Awards for her sinewy brand of Afro-funk, offers her band on-the-spot feedback. "If she's dancing, I know I'm doing OK," says Freedman, who's carved out a niche on the New York jazz scene as the drummer of choice for a brilliant generation of Israeli musicians, including reed player Anat Cohen, bassist Omer Avital and trumpeter Avishai Cohen.
Signing on with Kidjo was something of a departure for Freedman, but he's relished the opportunity to develop his funk chops. "It's almost like working with a little James Brown," he says. "She's kind of relentless. She's an amazing dancer, and she really projects the rhythm with her body."
Featured on her latest CD/DVD "Spirit Rising," Freedman has toured with Kidjo for the past three years, and he will be powering the quartet she brings to the Bay Area this weekend for a Cal Performances concert Saturday at Zellerbach Hall and Sunday at a Rio Theatre show in Santa Cruz presented by Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
Kidjo used to work with a much larger ensemble, sometimes touring with a 15-person contingent. But the rising cost of travel and the headaches that multiply exponentially with added personnel -- road romances can wreak havoc on a band's morale, Kidjo says -- led her to slim down to essentials. Her band these days reflects the way she's blended her West African roots with an international array of influences.
In addition to Freedman, Kidjo's quartet features young Senegalese percussionist Magatte Sow, Brazilian bassist Itaiguara Brandao, and American-born guitarist Dominic James, whose credits include extensive work with Paul Simon and Harry Belafonte.
"I like the sound that we have," Kidjo, 52, says from her home in Brooklyn. "I'm a percussive person. My traditional music has very little melody and harmony. It's all based on the drums. This instrumentation gives more space for my voice, and for every musician to be heard. We listen to each other."
While Kidjo isn't a jazz singer, she's deeply tied to the American jazz scene. Over the past four years, she's toured internationally with Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright in "Sing the Truth," a show created to pay tribute to three late, legendary predecessors: South African singer Miriam Makeba, jazz singer-songwriter Abbey Lincoln and blues-folk powerhouse Odetta.
As a longtime UNICEF goodwill ambassador who focuses on fighting poverty, war and the oppression of women, Kidjo is carrying on the activist legacy of the "Sing the Truth" triumvirate. And as an African artist who has faced criticism for incorporating Western influences rather than pursuing a "pure" sound, she's had a taste of the scorn heaped on Makeba, Lincoln and Odetta for their outspoken stands.
"People are so patronizing when it comes to African musicians," Kidjo says. "They want to tell you what to do and how you do it. So I come from a place where those women have given me the strength to stand up and represent myself. I won't let anyone write my story for me."
Indeed, Kidjo is in the midst of telling her own story in a memoir for HarperCollins.
On trips back home, she's interviewed her brothers and sisters while trying to take stock of her remarkable journey. Inculcated into traditional music and dance by her mother, Kidjo rose from a rural childhood to become the toast of Paris in the mid-1980s as the lead vocalist in the jazz/rock band Pili Pili.
Signed to Island Records by legendary producer Chris Blackwell, she quickly gained notice in the U.S. when her 1991 Island debut album "Logozo" hit the top of the Billboard World Music chart. These days, her life is a dizzying succession of international events, with performances at concerts honoring the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, or opening the Summer Olympics in London or celebrating the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
"I've been working nonstop without thinking about what I've achieved, coming from a poor family in a poor country," Kidjo says. "My father always said, if your dream is not big enough it's not worth dreaming. It's funny, you leave the country and see that everything he and my mom said was true.
"At the time, I thought, what do they know? But life teaches you."