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Weekly Alibi World (of) Music

By Michael Henningsen

AUGUST 18, 1997:  To Marie Daulne, there is but one culture. It is the worldwide culture that incorporates all nationalities, customs and a rich collective past. "It is my gift to be able to take essential parts of different cultures and put them together," she explains, alluding also to her own cross-cultural background. Born in 1964 to a Belgian father and Zairian mother, Daulne's childhood and youth were marked by tribulation and ultimate triumph. Her father, a civil servant, was killed by rebels during the war for Zairian independence when she was just three weeks old. Shortly thereafter, Daulne was whisked to Brussels where her family--including her mother and sister--were welcomed by her slain father's family. But while the relative safety of life in Belgium gave Daulne refuge and opportunity, she was raised as a typical Belgian child whose Zairian heritage was effectively suppressed.

A return to her African roots happened quite by accident in 1986, when Daulne was injured while dancing in a stage show. During her long period of recovery, she passed time listening to field recordings of pygmy songs. It was this experience that inspired her to explore her heritage--she visited her mother's Zairian village for the first time when she was 20--and ultimately to form Zap Mama, an a cappella group of women vocalists.

Two phenomenal releases were soon to follow the group's formation, 1993's Zap Mama and 1995's Sabsylma. Both released on Luaka Bop, a world music division of Warner Entertainment, the records received unprecedented critical acclaim. Prior to those releases, what was dubbed "world music" by Western culture had been sadly limited to sampling excursions on Enigma and Deep Forest records and scattered, slightly better attempts by artists like Paul Simon and David Byrne. Still, exposure to world music for an embarrassing number of Americans meant listening to samples or interpretations of traditional music by people who weren't indigenous to the cultures they were experimenting with.

Daulne and her Zap Mama partners, on the other hand, made records that were more than musical samplings of far-away cultures and traditions or collections of folk music from other countries--the first two Zap Mama records are alive with the human voice, soul and mystery. Zap Mama makes music from places in which their roots were firmly planted. "A man in Mali told me that there are seven senses," explains Daulne. "Everyone has five, some can use their sixth. But not everyone has the seventh. It is the power to heal with music, calm with color, to soothe the sick soul with harmony. He told me I have this gift, and I know what I have to do with it. They all did--Billie (Holiday), Bessie (Smith), Aretha (Franklin), Nina (Simone): soul healers one and all."

On Seven, Zap Mama's third and most recent release (also on the Luaka Bop label), Daulne has taken her unique brand of soul healing to the next level. While the two previous releases relied solely upon women's voices to convey spirituality and musical magic, Seven marks the introduction of musical soundscapes of both African and Western descent. Guest artists, including Spearhead's Michael Franti and rasta legend U-Roy, also add to the new album's mystique. Through combining native African percussion and other instruments with elements of hip-hop, R&B and folk music (a version of Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man" is the album's first single), Daulne and her extensive crew have approached world music in such a way as to have created a whole new world of music. The breadth of musical ground covered by Zap Mama on Seven is magnificent. It is perhaps best exemplified on tracks like "Baba Hooker," during which homage is at once paid to Delta blues guitarist John Lee Hooker and the Gnawa trance musicians of Morocco. Similarly, "Telephone" is based on traditional Pygmy songs and the "Mission: Impossible" theme. As incongruous as that may sound on paper, on record, in the capable hands of Daulne, it sounds as though it was meant to be.

Daulne herself believes that she has a divine responsibility to bring Africa to the West, to mix the sounds of both cultures and create something universal and new. "I feel I can be a bridge between two cultures," she says confidently. "The first and second albums were about the voice, what came before. This album (Seven) is about introducing those sounds into modern Western life." And while the introduction of acoustic instruments may come as a surprise to those familiar with earlier Zap Mama, one listen to a standard like "Damn Your Eyes"--Seven's oddly placed centerpiece--as performed by Daulne and her collaborators is more than enough to convince anyone that this is living music.

The Zap Mama touring band consists of Daulne (lead vocals), Tonya Saw (vocals), Angelique Willkie (vocals), Wahtanga Rema (vocals and the only male singer in the group), Lene Norgaard Christensen (vocals), Manou N'Guessan (bass) and Bilou Donnex (drums), most of whom contributed to the recording of Seven. Few artists have managed to present world music to a wide range of audiences, but Zap Mama have the unique and admirable ability to reach diverse audiences with their delicate approach. That's not to say, though, that the band take their music lightly. Their personalities captivate without the music, the message or the stage production becoming overbearing or preachy. There are certainly elements of Zap Mama that speak out strongly against bigotry, hatred, war and everything else that stands in the way of common ground for all humankind. But Zap Mama infuses a purity of wisdom into their music and performances that disallows anything other than positivity and hope. From blowing gently across bottle tops to swinging bells, splashing water and dancing about the stage in carefully choreographed steps, Zap Mama conjures mesmerizing joy and beauty out of sheer energy and controlled chaos. Never before has such a complex gathering of musical styles come together so brilliantly and with such sophistication.

Singing in French, English and Wolof, Daulne has taken center stage in this incarnation of Zap Mama, delivering her soul-stirring voice joyously and with an obvious love for humanity and what she believes is her calling. She teaches something new with every note she sings, regardless of whether a particular set of ears can translate the words. Her lessons are deeper than that: Daulne is the embodiment of artistic desire intermingled with faith in one's destiny. The combination is deadly--transforming her into something much more than a vocalist or musician. Daulne herself is Zap Mama, and Zap Mama is alive within each of us. There is the matter of individual identification and acceptance of such a gift, but Daulne is convinced that her music--her destiny--holds the keys to the union she envisions so clearly in her work. And it is with stunning beauty and intensity of emotion that Zap Mama calls out. On "Warmth" Daulne sings: "The only possibility I see/Is to let the music flow through me." Exactly.

--Michael Henningsen

Zap Mama performs Saturday, Aug. 23, at Popejoy Hall. Tickets are $20; call 851-5050 or (800) 905-3315.

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