Zap Mama formed in the early ’90s as an all-female, a cappella group fronted by African native Marie Daulne. The Congo-born, Belgium-bred singer learned a different way of singing when she spent time with a pygmy tribe in Africa. Marie and her work with Zap Mama is a reflection of a woman inspired by culture. She has a unique sense of self that is both African and European. This gives her a sensibility and confidence that makes her music that much more powerful.
Zap Mama’s latest record, Ancestry, is the culmination of collective culture told through music. While Zap Mama’s eponymous debut was strictly vocal-a cappella style-each successive album evolves and incorporates each new place Marie visits. Her first record was made possible by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame. His interest helped expand Zap Mama onto the world music stage where artists like Sting sung the praises of the band’s creative sound. It was only a matter of time before Marie integrated the sound of American soul music, and on the record, A Ma Zone, she utilized technology, adding percussion and keyboards, as well as some great guest appearances from members of The Roots and Arrested Development. The connection between Marie’s African roots and American hip-hop was being forged.
The writing process for Ancestry and all subsequent Zap Mama releases are different, according to Marie. “It depends. Each song has a different story. I may have a sound that I loop, and the sound brings me to my imaginary world and it depends on where I am to develop my idea. Sometimes it may come from lyrics that I wrote somewhere that I write in different places like the airport or waking up in the night, and sometimes after a movie or after I listen to another artist. But mostly, with, me it’s sounds that inspire me.”
Songs like “Yelling Away” on Ancestry are fascinating experiments in vocal melody. It’s unpredictable where the song will go, yet it seems as if the song is already there. Marie explains, “I learned this way from somewhere. I didn’t go to school to learn about music and harmony, but I learned from the music I hear. I think it’s because I’m born of two cultures. From my African heritage, I receive a lot of different harmonies and sounds and ways to express melody and probably all of this makes up what I do. And growing up in Europe, you have so much different culture. You have Italian, Spanish and Eastern European music, and I decided as a teenager to discover all of these different harmonies. Because of my double heritage, I said, ‘If these differences bring a plus [sic] on my culture, if I go to other country to discover these other vocal techniques, I will have more and more.’
“So I decided to discover as many as I could find. East European, Northern European, people of the Inuit from the North. I went everywhere. To India and Australia to discover all that I can!”
She adds, “What I decide to do is discover all these vocal techniques and bring them to the Western world.”
Marie worked with the Philadelphia Roots Collective, made up of the hip-hop group The Roots, Common, Mos Def and many others. It’s a collective similar to Afrika Bombaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation, a group that later gave inspiration to affiliate hip-hop innovators, the Native Tongue Posse, which included such groundbreaking artists as De La Soul, Digable Planets, Queen Latifah, Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers and Black Sheep. Unity, peace and love are all part of these pro-culture and pro-active movements in music; Marie is also part of that sphere. She brings a voice from two cultures and propels an agenda of mixo-musiculturalism with her own brand of music.
Working with Anthony Tidd and Rich Nichols of The Roots for Ancestry helped Marie cross that short distance between world music and hip-hop. “The Roots. Well, I met them or the Ahmir (Roots drummer ?uestlove) at a Beastie Boys concert in Philadelphia, and he recognized me and said, ‘Are you Zap Mama? Are you the one that does the sounds with all the singers?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘I like your feeling (style).’ I had known of Rahzel (Roots human beat-boxer), and I loved what he was creating, and the sounds he created with the band were inspiring. I thought that I could hear my sounds in their music as well.
“Then, when [that] was said, the day after I was there in the studio. They invited me to do some of my sounds in one of their albums, and that was where the relationship develop[ed]. The hardest [thing was] that at the time my English was so little that I had no way to express myself, so I didn’t know how it happened in the Philly world or the United States, or the way it work[ed] with studios. I was there, like in the middle of an ocean with my sounds, my spirit and my vibe. They knew what I felt at the moment, and they enjoy[ed] it. And I then asked them to do some beats for my songs, and they did two songs for A Ma Zone, and I called them asking them again if they want[ed] to do one or two more songs for my next record, and Richard (Nichols) said, ‘Send me a demo.’
“He got the demo and told me they could do the entire album. They love my sounds and love the spirit, and it was easy for me to work with them because I can express myself better. There are a lot of other people like Common and Bilal and Erykah Badu who are on the record.”
If music is communication, then Marie is an example of how well sound translates feeling. She says, “The cool thing is finally I meet musicians that have the same relations with music that I have. Here in Belgium on my first album, there were only voices. There was looping, but organically it was us doing the same sounds over and over. Like singing ‘a, tet-tet/ a, tet-tet,’ and I was telling stories in these sounds, and put the harmony and the composition of doing music isthe same of what the hip-hop world or The Roots was doing. It was the same with Michael Franti (Spearhead, Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcracy) in my first experience. They were doing this same thing within a loop, adding a beat, then adding a vibe, and we listen[ed], then [went] to eat and [came] back and listen[ed] again, one or two hours a night.
“We [came] back the day after and [found] the inspiration to add more sounds, and I [said] to them, ‘It’s exactly the same way I create music,’ and I was so happy. Finally I found my family. Because here in Belgium and in Africa, it’s not exactly the same. The way I build my sound is the same way the Afro-American was doing music, and I say probably that this mixture of African and European that Americans have [done] since [a] long time ago, and it finally makes it easier for me to explain the similarity of the African and European. Those ancestral sounds are what connect us. Some say it’s African music that I do, but definitely not. I’m not African at all. My harmony is from Europe. I use things from all over the place. I use all these sounds and people can hear it. It’s because we are all human-we all want the same things.
“We all want to find a lover, fall in love, eating and sleeping and enjoying. Even when I spent time with the pygmies, it’s the same thing. People are sharing a drink together and laughing. It’s really after I discovered all the sounds I discovered people and how they really aren’t that different. I try to find the essence of humans.
Whether when I was with the pygmies, they love the same way the big President Bush loves. The laugh is the same; they have different way[s] to see and different goals. But we have all the same problems too–the power and egos and sometime[s] the old people of the village struggle for the power, but that doesn’t kill thousands of people. That is the difference of being a president of a country. I always was very shocked about the innocence of the people being abused or oppressed, so I try and focus on just being a human, and I love to spend time with kids.
“Kids are really more human than adults. I try and remind each person that we were that, each of us was an artist and a painter and a singer. We shouted and were climbing and that was our freedom moment. I try to remember all this early childhood when creating sounds.”
Even though Marie’s English was slightly broken in places, her eloquence in describing her passion and motivation to create is understood. Zap Mama will be heading out on the road in the United States this winter. Please take an opportunity to go and experience the band live.
This was one of those interviews that was exciting. It took me out of my comfort zone musically and helped me expand my palate. I was familiar with the Native Tongues and Roots Collective, but I went back and researched further, which turned me on to earlier movements in African American music such as Northern Soul, and Southern Soul (Stax), and inspired me to shell out some cash for that great Trouble Funk disc, Live/Singles on Henry Rollins import. Information leads you to something. Connection leads you to further discovery.