THE PLACEMENT OF Zap Mama's name at the alphabet's end seems fitting, considering leader Marie Daulne's alpha-and-omega approach to music. Abuzz with rhythms and timbres from around the planet and featuring singing in English, French, and Swahili (and even the tongue of the West African Wolof tribe), the band's new A Ma Zone (Luaka Bop) is like a miniature United Nations customized to fit in the CD player—only much more harmonious.
Showbox, Thursday, October 28
On "W'Happy Mama," Daulne and company serve up tight vocal harmonies ࠬa the Trio Bulgarka, while "Kemake" (mixed by underground hip-hop whiz This Kid Named Miles) struts along like the little sister of James Brown's "Sex Machine." Manu Dibango, the Camaroonian saxophonist responsible for the 1973 hit "Soul Makossa," blows on "Allo, Allo." And if you can imagine the sound of a collaboration between the Fat Boys' Human Beat Box, the Tuvan throat singing of Huun-Huur-Tu, and Astrud ("The Girl from Ipanema") Gilberto, you've almost nailed "Gissie."
Daulne's cross-cultural influences reflect her personal history. Born in Zaire in 1964 to a Belgian father and Bantu mother, she was forced into hiding by Simba rebels as a small child. After seeking refuge with a tribe of Pygmies, her family moved on to Brussels. Growing up, Daulne's mother tried to interest her in the music of Central Africa, but she preferred early hip-hop and the sophisticated R&B of Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack. Only after she visited Zaire as a teen did the traditions of her native soil connect with the singer.
On early albums like Adventures in Afropea 1, Daulne showcased her highly physical sound via an all-female a cappella ensemble. But with 1997's Seven, she expanded her palette significantly, integrating instrumentation and male vocalists, including such notable guest stars as Spearhead's Michael Franti and reggae great U-Roy.
Months prior to its mid-October release, A Ma Zone began generating a buzz due to the involvement of the Roots. "I went to a Beastie Boys concert in Philly with [DJ/ producer] King Britt," Daulne recalls. An introduction to Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson (a.k.a. ?uestlove), who'd seen Zap Mama perform in Germany, quickly turned into a mutual admiration society and led to their working together on new tunes like the flowing "Rafiki."
Elements of drum-and-bass surface on "Call Waiting," albeit distinguished by a fluidity often lacking in the genre. "That's because a real drummer is playing, not a machine," she reveals. Daulne has followed the genre since it first began making waves in England, although her assimilation of it came later. "But I remember my mother enjoying drum-and-bass when she first heard it because the beats are the same as in her village in Africa: very fast."
Meanwhile, fans who miss the group's early sound should hang around past the last listed track and savor an unlisted vocal piece. "That's four generations together—my grandmother, my mother, me, my sister, and a child—singing a lullaby." Although the performance wasn't intended for release, the outcome proved so soothing ("It's a good vibe," Daulne notes) she sneaked it onto the album. Daulne's close-knit family also inspired the Cuban-flavored "Gbo Mata."
The busy musician and mother likes to play video games with the youngest members of her extended clan. "It's the only way I've found to relate to them directly," she says. But the sounds accompanying the action displeased her, so she took matters into her own hands. "I wanted to create my own organic music for Play Station."
The odd hour swapping the joystick with the peanut gallery aside, Daulne is acutely conscious of technology's dehumanizing effect on society, a recurring theme on A Ma Zone. That awareness drives her to craft music that speaks to listeners from all walks, regardless of their mother tongue. "I truly believe that music can heal people, [ease] pain and stress," she concludes. "When I create music, I base it on that." Screw all those chicken soup homilies: "Zap Mama is real food for the heart and soul."