Changing Channels 

Slip into the cross-cultural a capella groove of Zap Mama

To “zap,” says Marie Daulne, “means to switch channels or cultures.” She is speaking from experience. When she was three, her Belgian father was slain by rebel ethnic cleansers when war broke out in Zaire in 1964. Marie and her Banru mother took shelter in the jungle with a tribe of Pygmies, before eventually escaping to Belgium. She grew up in Brussels with a palate of musical experiences that ran the spectrum from the polyphonic singing of Pygmies to the wafty heights of classical European musical sophistication. But Marie preferred Stevie Wonder, and others in the tribe of early American hip-hop. Later on, she was known to listen to the Fat Boys.

She has been steadily widening the scope of her groove ever since, exploring many of the tendrils of the African diaspora with her group, Zap Mama, mixing and re-mixing with the sounds of former colonists and slave-masters.

But let’s get one thing straight: Zap Mama is not some recycled buffet K-tel fusion “world beat” eclectic mishmash of cut-and-paste nouveaux musical fare. Because of Daulne’s range of exposure and her musical genius, the sounds of Zap Mama move seemlessly between genres, creating a groovical fluidity that is consistently in the zone, always true to its common denominator of Mama Africa.

Zap Mama started out as a female a capella group, harmonizing cross-cultural sounds from Moroccan Mawal to the Delta blues. Their first two albums could squeeze honey from Sweet Honey and the Rock, but that proved just the beginning. In their more recent work they have added male voices to broaden their musical register. They have added instruments as well, because, as Daulne puts it, “The voice talks to the head. Instruments talk directly to the body.”

More recently, Zap Mama has been mixing it up and emulsifying with the sounds of Africa-in-the-Americas—soul, hip-hop, R&B, rap, reggae, funk, soukous, soca—without losing the solid harmonic sense of Zap Mama’s a capella roots, or the occasional Pygmy gutteral bleat.

With her newest Album, A Ma Zone, the musical orgy continues: music that speaks to the mind and body and puts them both in motion. The lyrical theme of A Ma Zone is the interface between humanity and technology. Musically, it is Zap Mama’s most energetic work to date. As always, it features Daulne’s breathy voice, sometimes sultry soulful, sometimes French, sometimes chanting like sapphire sunlight through a Coca-Cola Jungle creek. She is all of the sabor of Sade against a backdrop of voices doing what loons do, of human mouths doing what beep-boxes do, of drums doing what the heart does. Oui Oui monsieur, ees var goot. Zap Mama is a tropical streetcorner jam, pure as downtown Saturday night, the roots and the fruits of African music.

Simply put, if you want to hip, hop, breakdance or grind, or just kick back to some deep sounds, you won’t find a better option in our fair little town. Come and listen. If you don’t get it, well, then I would have to refer you to Louis Armstrong who said about jazz: “If you have to ask, you ain’t ever gonna know.”

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