Zap Mama salutes her mixed 'Ancestry'

Music Notes


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April 14, 2005|By RASHOD OLLISON

SHE'S FEARLESS. Like all great artists, vocalist Marie Daulne (aka Zap Mama, also the name of her a cappella vocal ensemble) isn't afraid to challenge her art, to place it in different contexts and arrange the pieces into something brilliant and fresh.

She embraces the past while moving into the future, cross-pollinating African rhythms, melodies and vocal percussion with Euro-pop, American-bred hip-hop and jazz, whatever fits the mood. The experiments may be a bit jarring, even a little awkward at times. But it's that restless, convention-be-damned spirit that keeps an act like Zap Mama so interesting. On her new record, Ancestry in Progress -- her fifth overall and the follow-up to 1999's well-received A Ma Zone -- Daulne blends the ancient (her trademark pygmy onomatopoeic vocal techniques and chants) with the present (smoothed-out, atmospheric grooves).

Zap Mama plays the 9:30 Club on Saturday night and Rams Head Live on Sunday.

"I mixed with American artists; that is the main change this time," says Daulne, who's calling from her home in Brussels. "I was inspired composing in the United States. Being in Philadelphia, eating new bread, taking the train -- it all inspired my art."

For a change of atmosphere, Daulne went to the City of Brotherly Love to collaborate with a few architects of the neo Philly soul sound, namely Anthony Tidd and Richard Nichols, known for their work with the Roots, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. In fact, Badu is featured on Ancestry, sharing a duet with Daulne on the shimmering "Bandy, Bandy."

It's a favor returned: the Belgium-raised artist performed pygmy chants on the multi-Grammy winner's unrightfully dismissed Worldwide Underground from 2003. It makes sense that the two would eventually get together: Both are vibrantly eclectic, refreshing the past in progressive, individualistic productions.

"It's hard sometimes because she doesn't understand my French accent, and I don't understand her Dallas accent," Daulne says of Badu. "Finally, all of what I choose and what she chooses come together. The harmonies of our colors come together. We don't do a lot of talking. It's about feeling our way through the art."

That's essentially the way she worked with the other American artists who appear on Ancestry: rapper Talib Kweli, a native New Yorker; rapper Common, a Chicago homeboy, and rapper Bahamadia, one of the fiercest female rhyme spitters around, who hails from Philly. The collaborations feel inspired as the music behind it all glows with bold threads of funk, Afro-Cuban rhythms and hip-hopped R&B.

"I was happy my sound fit perfectly with everybody else," Daulne says. "There was an open exchange of ideas, and it was interesting."

The hip-hop and R&B contexts weren't foreign to the performer, who grew up in Brussels the daughter of a Belgian father and a Congolese mother. As a teen, she loved American soul and early rap: Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack, Run DMC and the Fat Boys. When she was a girl, before her family moved to Brussels, Daulne was raised with a tribe of Pygmies.

There, she was exposed to polyphonic singing, but she dismissed it at the time because it was too "traditional." Besides, she was just a child; she didn't know any better. It wasn't until an 18-year-old Daulne returned to the Congo, her mother's native country, that she developed a deep appreciation for the syncopated undulations of African vocal melodies.

When she started her performance career in 1990, the year she founded Zap Mama, Daulne used as her primary source of inspiration the exotic, challenging sounds she heard in the Congo, the melodies and rhythms that had always been a part of her.

"The name Zap Mama -- I'm zapping from one culture to another, being a black woman, Congolese, raised in a white country," Daulne says, her thick French accent and smoky voice warm and soothing. "We're all from this Mama Earth. We're all born through a mama. I respect that and where I come from, and it's in the name. It's very African."

Daulne's restless spirit takes her music in many directions. Where she'll go on the next project is unknown to her right now.

"My goal always is to bring back all the sounds the African cultures created," she says. "I can see beauty and translate it for the blind mind."

Check out Zap Mama at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, Saturday at 9. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit She's at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, on Sunday. Doors open at 7, Fertile Ground hits the stage at 8, and Zap Mama performs at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20-$22. Visit for more information.

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