Zap Mama is an intercultural five-woman a cappella ensemble that sings songs from all over Africa, Europe and North America. Group founder and leader Marie Daulne is of mixed African and European heritage. During the civil war in Zaire, her Belgian father was killed; her mother sought refuge with the Pygmies in the rain forest and eventually brought her daughter to Belgium where Daulne grew up singing African folk songs, jazz standards and Catholic hymns. Before starting Zap Mama, she studied polyphony in Arabic, Asian and African music, took formal jazz training at the Antwerp School of Jazz and learned about ethnomusicology. After a return visit to Zaire to meet the Pygmies who saved her family and learn their songs — only to find the tribe had vanished along with the rain forest — Daulne began teaching singing in Antwerp and put the group together for a one-off gig at a local coffeehouse. They created a sensation and have been touring and recording ever since. Like Daulne, other members of the quintet come from multi-ethnic families; genuine multiculturalism allows them to sound authentic in a variety of languages and contexts, including Syrian folk music, Zairean pygmy chants, vocalese, Arabic pop tunes and Afro Cuban mouth music.
Adventures in Afropea 1 is a vocal tour de force. The group’s smooth harmonies and the pops, clicks, chirps, tweets and other onomatopoetic sounds they use to accent their harmonies make the disc a unique listening experience. Polyphonic Pygmy chants like “Babanz‚l‚” brush up against Syrian and Zulu folk tunes, jazzy African-American spirituals like “Bottom,” a 16th century Spanish song that sounds like a Gregorian chant and free-form improvisations like “Brrrlak!,” “I Ne Suhe” and “Plekete.”
Two replacement members, from Cameroon and Portugal, joined for Sabsylma. The group’s increased (although still quite understated) use of percussion adds extra bottom, and a few sound effects are tossed in to add the odd aural surprise, but the vocals remain the main attraction. “India” mixes Indian drum-scat interludes, sweet harmonies and subtle tablas to the mix; the vocalese “De la Vie à la Mort” displays incredible rhythmic technique; “Mr. Brown” is a softly thumpin’ bit of acid jazz with South African and Pygmy flava. Everything Zap Mama touches — whether it be hip-hop, swing, reggae, African, Indian, Pygmy polyphony, aboriginal chants or smooth jazz harmonizing — is delivered with easy grace and soulful fire.