Marie Daulne, the leader of all-female Afro-European Zap Mama, says the name of her group's fourth release -- "A Ma Zone" -- is both an assertion of personal space and an embrace of the famed female warriors. That combination of intimacy and toughness, mirrored in Daulne's versatile voice, with its coos, whispers, cries and roars, has always been central to Zap Mama. What's new here is the embrace of technology -- its drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, percussion and even male voices, all of which were off limits in the Zap Mama a cappella formula used since the group formed in 1990.
This group, based around Daulne and four other female singers, now melds ancient roots with high-tech modernity. For example, the new album's best track, "Rafiki," sets Pygmy chants firmly into a club-ready hip-hop mix. And why not? Daulne has been spellbound by American pop ever since she moved to Brussels as a young girl; she'd learned Pygmy
singing before that in Zaire. In the new Zap Mama, nothing is too far out, and the openness pays off. "Rafiki" is as catchy a number as the group has ever recorded.
Other tracks on "A Ma Zone" offer dreamy soul balladry ("Ya Solo") and slinky, sensual funk ("My Own Zero"). A few rev up with hyperkinetic drum 'n' bass grooves ("Songe," "Call Waiting"). Daulne even samples the saxophone of Cameroon's Manu Dibango on "Allo Allo." The singer likes spare, muscular backing for her layered vocal arrangements, and she's assembled a superb band, including Congolese guitar veteran Dizzy Mandjeku, and a powerful, young, female bass player from Ivory Coast, Manou N'Guessan-Gallo.
Onstage at New York's Irving Plaza earlier this month, the players lurked along the edges of the stage, leaving the center free for the five divas. They danced, donned costumes, wielded props, acted out little dramas and sang in a breathless succession of styles and inflections. The show bordered on shtick at times, but Daulne's mimicry of soukous crooners, reggae raspers and even James Brown's freedom cry was always dead on. And what other performer teaches her audience to sing Central African polyphony?
Some fans may long for Zap Mama's quainter, quieter days, but all the prior work has really been a prelude to the material on "A Ma Zone." Daulne has found her place in pop. The group's lineup has changed considerably, but now it has stabilized, along with Daulne's concept. Zap Mama is poised to enter the new millennium as an international hip-hop group, not a world music novelty.