Music: Zap Mama

Marie Daulne was born in the Republic of the Congo in 1960. A week later her Belgian father was slain by the Simba rebels during a revolution. Her mother escaped into the jungle with Marie and her sisters, and were taken in by pygmies. They were eventually airlifted out of Africa to Belgium, where Marie grew up as any young northern European girl would.

She loved music and had wide tastes. Etta James, Bob Marley, and the Beastie Boys were among her influences. But it wasn't until she was 20 years old that she first heard a recording of traditional pygmy music. It sparked a primitive remembrance of her infancy, and she decided to return to the congo to study pygmy song.

From Wiki on pygmy music:

Pygmy music consists of at most only four parts ... it is based on repetition of periods of equal length, which each singer divides using different rhythmic figures specific to different repertoires and songs. This ... creates a detailed surface and endless variations of not only the same period repeated, but the same piece of music. As in some Balinese gamelan music, these patterns are based on a super-pattern which is never heard.

Wow ... weird. I've enjoyed the Baka Beyond companion albums "Heart of the Forest" which is raw recordings of the pygmy, and "Spirit of the Forest" a tasteful laid-back remix/mashup of the pygmy recordings and contemporary percussion and acoustic instrument sounds.

Here are some pygmies singing.

She learned pygmy song, discovered she was a musician, and began traveling the continent on a quest for sound. Africa is a place with a lot of sounds. In her words:

"I'm a nomad. I like to discover my sound with different instruments, different genres. For me it's normal. My name is Zap's easy for me to zap in from one instrument to another, a culture, a style. I'm more a citizen of the world, not an American or Belgian."

She eventually returned to Belgium and began singing in jazz cafes. In 1989, she founded Zap Mama, an a cappella troupe of five female singers, in an effort to make audible her desire to blend the sounds of modern Europe and primal Africa. Within four years she had met David Byrne, who re-issued her first album, and was #1 on world music album charts.

Her response? She decided to change things up. Her world traveling had let her hear a manifold of sound from around the world, and her creative juices wouldn't be resisted. I won't rewrite the Wikipedia article, which chronicles four major phases of change in her career, but I will point you toward it, and recommend you have it handy as you listen your way through her albums in sequential order to hear a powerful voice and it's metamorphosis over time. Here they are on MOG.

Adventures in Afropea 1 (1993)
Sabsylma (1994)
Seven (1997)
A Ma Zone (1999)
Ancestry in Progress (2004)
Supermoon (2007) (not in MOG)
ReCreation (2009)

I don't know what rock I've been huddled under, but I knew nothing of her until I bumped into Zap Mama on MOG a couple of weeks ago. Enjoy!

Early Zap Mama (1993)

Zap Mama all growed up. :) (2009)

Zap Mama info on Wiki, Allmusic and The Belgian Pop and Rock Archives.
Her official, Facebook, and MySpace Pages.
Zap Mama on MOG.

dalethorn's picture

The first example above of the pygmy singers sounds remarkably like the Miriam Makeba tracks I have that were recorded by Hugh Masekela, I think in the 1970's. The style more than the actual voices. I seem to remember the Makeba album was supposed to be based on South African traditional songs of long ago.

droilfade's picture