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For vocalist/composer Marie Daulne, founder and lead singer of Zap Mama, multiculturalism was a birthright. She was born in Zaire, the daughter of a Belgian father and a Zairean mother. When she was still an infant, her father was killed during an episode of so-called "ethnic cleansing," causing her mother to flee with her children. The family took refuge with a band of Pygmies until passage to Belgium could be arranged. It was there that Daulne was raised, and she still calls the country home. But she feels that referring to herself as a Belgian is too limiting. Her opinion? "I am a citizen of the world."
Likewise, the Zap Mama style is a complicated stew that journalists have been unable to categorize. But Daulne, 33, has no difficulty defining it. "Zap Mama is like an essence," she says. "It is roots I put in the earth, and it's like a tree slowly grew up and wants to attach to the Western world with different kinds of music: jazz, soul and pop music. But the essence is songs inspired by Mama Earth."
Despite this common theme, Zap Mama has undergone numerous changes since its 1990 founding. The combo began as an all-female a cappella quintet that fused African rhythms with European voicings. But to Daulne, the blend heard on the act's debut recording, 1991's Zap Mama (released by David Byrne's Luaka Bop imprint two years later as Zap Mama: Adventures in Afropea), went beyond mere sonics.
"When I did my first album, I was looking for girls that were the same mix as me--African and European," she says. "Because I wanted to put these two sounds together to prove that to have blood from white and black was perfect harmony on the inside. Because I feel very happy and very normal with myself. Very free. I know that in the United States some people have a problem with what is possible with black and white together. But when we listen, we can recognize something very positive in it. I can prove that, because I have these two bloods in me. Also, I wanted to prove, with the simplicity of using only our voices, that without materials we can be very free and happy. We don't need a car to be happy or to be like society dictates that you should be, with this type of dress or that type of look. I wanted people to know that if you don't choose to follow that, you can be very free, too.
"On stage, I do a lot of jokes around that idea. We are all humans. All of us in this world, no matter where we come from, want to eat, to make love. We all really want to do the same things. So, inside, we are the same no matter where we come from. And we have so many ways to help each other in order to get past the difficult things in our life. We must understand that no matter our difficulties, every day brings new things and new ways to fight against the bad and for the good. And if we know that, we can help each other." During workshops she conducts in Brussels, she notes, "ladies come to me and they say, 'Marie, I have a problem because I'm 45 years old and my husband has left me. I feel so alone is this world.' Maybe their husband leaves them because he thinks they are too old and their children have grown and left. So I invite these women to go to Africa to meet other women of their same age. Because I know that in Africa, there are songs and situations to heal a person of this kind of anguish. And when they come back to Belgium, they are so free and happy. It is beautiful to see. I look at this and I am sure that if another culture can help a woman or a man from a modern world, that can be very cool."
The second Zap Mama disc, Sabsylma, expands upon the notion of cultural intermingling by adding ingredients to the group's already complex musical recipes. While continuing to work using only their voices, the singers incorporated Moroccan melodies and Australian bush rhythms into their creations. Daulne sees these changes as a logical extension of her original concept. "I decided to bring sounds from other cultures and invite people to discover new sounds, new culture and, via culture, maybe attract them to Zap Mama."
On 7, Zap Mama's latest release, the band moves in a surprising new direction. This time around, the songs feature percussion, guitar, drums and assorted string instruments. Moreover, the all-female format has been ditched in favor of a more diverse crew of musicians who work to support Daulne's haunting vocals. The result is a more accessible and commercially appealing effort that has won accolades for Daulne from People and Time and led to appearances on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and CBS Sunday Morning.
Daulne credits Michael Franti, leader of the hip-hop/soul act Spearhead, with inspiring many of 7's highlights, including her cover version of "Poetry Man," a Phoebe Snow chestnut that has received substantial radio play. "Michael proposed that we do the tune," she divulges. "He said to me, 'Marie, you mix various African and European sounds in such perfect harmony. But what about the American sounds?' So I said, 'Yes. Let's do it.' It was very exciting because just two days ago we were taping a TV show and we met Phoebe. She came and sang with us. It was fantastic."