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Members include Marie Afonso; Marie Daulne (born in Zaire, Africa; studied at Antwerp School of Jazz); Sabine Kabongo; Sylvie Nawasadio; Sally Nyolo; Lene Christiansen; Tonya Daese; Chantal Willie. Addresses: Record company--Luaka Bop/Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694. Website--Zap Mama Official Website: http://www.zap-mama.com.

In 1993 Zap Mama--five European women vocalists of African descent--was offered the opportunity to do a Coca-Cola commercial; at first, the group resisted. "But we do like Robin Hood," Marie Daulne, the group's founder, told Melinda Newman of Billboard in 1994. "I thought there is money there that can go to help people. I see poor people and think, 'Maybe one day when Zap Mama is over, I can help people.' Then I thought, I can help people now."

The women in Zap Mama (pronounced in the French manner, with the accent on the second syllable of "Mama") decided that they would use the income the commercial generated to build a school in Africa. That opportunity and its resolution is typical of the group, an a capella world music outfit that has helped the genre in its movement toward mainstream recognition. While Zap Mama was born from a desire for cultural preservation rather than profit, it has won success at a business level: for 11 weeks, their United States debut album held the Number One position on Billboard's world music chart. But the surplus of that success has gone back into furthering their initial motive, as the Coca Cola commercial demonstrated.

When Zap Mama was formed in 1990, Marie Daulne was the force behind it. Although all of the women in the original line-up considered Belgium their home, Daulne's complicated past exemplified the hybrid national identity that characterizes the group. In fact, that background became the subject of a 1991 documentary film, Mizike Mama, that went on to impress a wide audience in Europe and America, receiving awards at film festivals on both continents.

The daughter of a Belgian father and an African mother, Daulne was born in Zaire in the early 1960s, soon after the country threw off the fetters of Belgian imperialism. Daulne would have entered the world via a middle-class home in a major African city, except that uprisings in Zaire forced the family to flee after her father's death.

Born Into Conflict

Daulne's mother took refuge at a nearby village of Pygmies. "My mother is Bantu," she told Larry Birnbaum in Pulse!, "but she is from the forest in the northeast near Sudan, not far from the pygmies. The rebel group killed the white people and threw them in the river, but the pygmies saved a lot of people." There is some confusion about the exact circumstances of Daulne's birth: Deborah Kirk recorded in Harper's Bazaar that Daulne was born before her mother fled into jungle; other reporters have generally claimed that Daulne was actually born in the Pygmy village. Nonetheless, it was that location that kept them safe.

"The rebels were terrified of the Pygmies," Daulne told Kirk, "because they were always singing. But they--and the noises they made--protected us until my mother could take us to Belgium.The Pygmies who gave them refuge not only guaranteed Daulne's safety, but also provided her with the musical influence that would set her apart from other world music aspirants. When Daulne first created Zap Mama, she made the Pygmy chants an integral part of their sound. "The way the Pygmies sing is very spiritual," she told Kirk. "They repeat sounds over and over, and the vibration creates a trancelike state."

Once it was safe to do so, Daulne's mother moved the family to Belgium, where Daulne, her mother, five other sisters, and an aunt continued to sing the traditional music of Zaire and the pygmies. While in college, Daulne studied jazz before deciding that she wanted to focus on a different kind of sound--a sound that gathered and blended musical traditions from around the globe. The Antwerp School of Jazz provided her a brief period of formal training; Gene Santoro noted in the Nation that she also "studied Arab, Asian and African polyphony."

In 1989 Daulne was preparing music for a solo album when she decided to return to the jungle in Africa where she had started life to meet the Pygmies again. She discovered something else there as well--her musical vocation. "When I heard them chanting," she told Kirk, "I suddenly understood the sheer power of the human voice. I knew right then that I wanted to sing, too, to convey as much with my voice as I can."

Daulne also discovered that she couldn't work as a solo artist. "I saw in Zaire that I have to mix with other people," she told Birnbaum, "because with me alone, the polyphony is not there. I knew there must be singers in the world I could mix with, and I found them."

Zap Mama Formed

In 1990, Daulne started singing with Sabine Kabongo and Sylvie Nawasadio, neither of whom had a professional background. After the ensemble gathered four other women, they began performing in venues around their home city. The original group, like Daulne, displayed a mixed heritage. Daulne told Birnbaum, "We have a Zairean memory and a European memory, and together we find the same vibration, because we have European and Zairean music inside." She explained further her belief that that kind of hybrid could transcend differences by recognizing and playing with them: "We have French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, Zulu, Lingala, and Baboudou. And we invent a language--onomatopoeia. It's the language of humans, because every human makes the same sounds."

Zap Mama received some of its initial support from the French Belgian Community Government's cultural department. Soon, however, the group came to the attention of Teddy Hillaert, a manager, through performances at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, where they made a strong impression on him. "It's a mixture of humor, dance, color; it's really powerful," Hillaert told Billboard writer Thom Duffy in 1993. "Their show sold out so quickly, I said 'This is amazing.'"

Hillaert decided to become a part of the phenomenon, signing on as Zap Mama's manager. Marc Hollander, the managing director of Crammed Discs, a Belgian label, also saw the quintet in 1991 and decided that he, too, wanted a contract with them. "Their mixed Afro-European orgins enable them to bridge the gap between both cultures," Hollander explained to Duffy. "They present Western audiences with an impression of Africa which is half-real and half-imaginary.... They research and reinterpret certain forms of traditional music, but from a semi-European standpoint, with a lot of humor, and a vision which doesn't lack social and political content." By the summer of 1991, Zap Mama was in the studio recording, and their self-titled debut album followed soon after in October of 1991. The European sales were impressive, and the album eventually went gold.

Zap Mama continued to pick up fans at a gradually accelerating pace, thanks to the Crammed Disc recording and their live performances. While the group's European following grew, Americans also began discovering the debut disc in import bins. The ensemble earned some of their early exposure in the United States through insightful deejays at a college radio station at the University of Santa Monica, where the album topped the station's unofficial charts for several weeks.

A few astute reviewers began to take note of the quiet phenomenon. Marc Maes, writing for Billboard in the summer of 1992, dubbed Zap Mama "flavor of the month on the international circuit." Randall Grass heard the import disc in 1992 and spotlighted it in the Village Voice. "A circular close harmony pattern presents an extraterrestrial backdrop for a dreamy, at times Sam Cooke-ian lead melody," he noted. He praised their "positively ground-breaking amalgams of African, Arabic, and European melody, and snatches of South African mbube amidst a little Bulgarian mystere."

Support of David Byrne

By 1992, Zap Mama was being watched by several American labels, including a new one created by David Byrne--the force that drove new wave supergroup the Talking Heads in the 1970s and 1980s--and his business partner, Yale Evelev. The offices at Luaka Bop, Byrne's label, received a Zap Mama video and CD that winter or spring, sent on from the French Music Office in New York. Executives from Luaka Bop and other companies came to New York City for a few weeks in July, when Zap Mama performed several engagements for the New Music Seminar, the annual convention for cutting-edge trends in the music industry.

Byrne and Evelev determined that Zap Mama would be the appropriate vehicle to launch the new label, while Daulne decided that Byrne would be a fitting sponsor of their American career. "I don't know the music of this man, but I know this man is good," she told Duffy. "We have the same passion." Evelev informed Duffy that the quintet made a similar impression on him and Byrne; he noted, "It's very popular music but there's a real artistic underpinning to it. It's not somone saying, 'What can I do to be successful?' It's someone saying, 'This is the music I want to do.'" Adventures in Afropea 1: Zap Mama repackaged the first Crammed Discs release for American listeners in 1993; Billboard would eventually declare it the best-selling world music album of the year.

As the lineup of the ensemble shifted in its first couple of years, before they had solid American marketing, reporters often offered conflicting lists of names. In the summer of 1993, Billboard recorded the vocalists as Daulne, Kabongo, Nawasadio, and Cecilia Kakonda. Larry Birnbaum, on the other hand, had a member list that consisted of Daulne, Kabongo, Nawasadio, Cecilia Kankonda, and Marie Cavenaile--the only member of solely Belgian descent. By the time Luaka Bop had the group's second album prepared for release, however, the line-up appeared to have solidified, Kabongo and Nawasadio staying with Daulne, while Sally Nyolo and Marie Afonso came on board.

Like the group's debut, Sabsylma met with very positive critical response and strong sales for its category. "Zap Mama is riding the crest of world music's growing wave of domestic and international acceptance," Billboard's Duffy wrote. "Previously," reported Daisann McLane in Rolling Stone, "other groups have attempted a poly-global sound, but the a capella women of Zap Mama are the first who have made this concept work--perhaps because they focus on the one instrument common to all world music"--the human voice. Amy Linden argued in People that Zap Mama "artfully and beautifully blurs cultural and linguistic distinctions." The Nation's Santoro was struck by the group's "lapping vocals and dazzlingly varied array of technical and sonic approaches."

Byrne and Evelev saw Zap Mama as an opportunity to challenge the boundaries of music categories, hoping that Zap Mama's appeal could seep over from world music into other genres. In particular, the label increased the group's U.S. exposure early in 1993, when the band travelled with the well-established alternative rock outfit 10,000 Maniacs. "We have tried to give Zap Mama the approach of a pop band, not a world music band," Hillaert told Duffy.

More pop music tours followed the release of Sabsylmo, including dates with jazz artist Bobby McFerrin and on David Byrne's own tour. The promoters made a special effort to draw on Zap Mama's strong stage performances. "The way to really understand Zap Mama," Peter Standish, a manager at Warner Bros., told Billboard's Newman, "is to see them [perform]. They are mesmerizing. That's how we got them on [television show] Arsenio Hall. People from the show came down to a concert and were blown away. They really know how to work a crowd."

Retained Ties to Their Roots

The members of Zap Mama felt that their success lay in their reputation in Zaire, where bootleg tapes are distributed through an underground market. Here, rather than entertaining Western audiences and earning money, they can restore a sense of pride and history to Africans and Westerners of African descent. Daulne explained to Birnbaum that, "In Africa they want to change, to become like white people, but I tell them, 'Stay like you are.' In the beginning my mother didn't understand why I always asked her about traditional music, because everybody wants to do American-style music.... Colonization changed the mentality of our parents. After Zap Mama, my mother and my aunt began to sing together again, and now my aunt says, 'Thank you.'"

Despite this traditional orientation, Daulne and the other members of Zap Mama continued to look for ways to build bridges between African traditions and newer forms of Western music. Their 1997 album 7 was their first to introduce instruments to their sound, and it featured collaborations with Jamaican dub artist U-Roy and spoken-word (or outspoken-word) virtuoso Michael Franti. The 1999 release A Ma Zone moved toward the African-American mainstream, with a guest appearance by Roots MC Black Thought yielding a hit single, "Rafiki." The album featured French-language rapping from Daulne herself on the track "W'Happy Mama," as well as other African-American influences ranging from jazz upright bass to turntable performance.

The following year Daulne moved to New York, drawn by the sheer global reach of the city's musical diversity. She worked on the soundtrack of the film Mission Impossible II and then moved to Philadelphia to join the creative hip-hop community centered on the Roots, on whose 1999 album Things Fall Apart she had in turn made a guest appearance. Daulne collaborated with various American musicians, joining the band of neo-soul vocalist Erykah Badu for a 2003 tour. Despite a four-year hiatus between albums, Zap Mama maintained its relationship with Byrne's Luaka Bop label.

In 2002 some members of Zap Mama performed with rhythm tracks added by a DJ under the name Zap Mama DJ Project. By 2003 a re-formed Zap Mama, now including vocalists Chantal Willie, Lene Christensen, and Tonya Daese in addition to Daulne, was back on the road in the United States. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch review of one of her shows showed that the group had lost none of its magic and pointed to the new directions Daulne was taking after having absorbed American influences for several years. "Daulne was a marvel, chanting, rapping, tongue twisting, and beat boxing," wrote reviewer Kevin C. Johnson. "She used a sample machine to record her own vocals, then sang with the vocals. She cartwheeled, flipped, split, and broke out into some old-school hip-hop dance moves." Zap Mama released a new album, Ancestry in Progress, in 2004. Mixing French and English lyrics in roughly equal proportion, the album had Badu, Common, Scratch, and Talib Kweli as guests.

by Ondine E. Le Blanc and James M. Manheim

Zap Mama's Career

Group founded by Daulne, 1990; performed in Brussels, Belgium, area for a year; released self-titled debut album on Belgium's Crammed Discs label, 1991; signed by Luaka Bop, 1992, and released Adventures in Afropea 1: Zap Mama, 1993; released Sabsylma, 1994; released 7, 1997; released A Ma Zone, 1999; group re-formed after Daulne moved to U.S., 2000; released Ancestry in Progress, 2004.

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