A Shimmering 'Supermoon'

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

Why does Zap Mama founder Marie Daulne insist that one tune on each of her reggae-, soul-, funk- and hip-hop-infused albums be a traditional Pygmy song from the Congo?

Because without the Pygmies, there would be no Zap Mama, no Marie Daulne.

She was born in the Congo in 1964, four years after the central African nation gained its independence from Belgium -- a time of violent political conflict. Her father was a white Belgian civil servant; her mother was Congolese. When Daulne was only a week old, her father was killed by rebels.

"He said to my mother, 'Escape,' and we escaped into the forest, and the Pygmies hide us while we were waiting to see what happens," Daulne explains in French-accented English. The Pygmies, she adds, "saved a lot of people. We were protected by them from the rebels, who were killing mixed [race] people and people linked with the Europeans, especially the Belgians."

After an emergency evacuation by Belgian paratroopers, Daulne's mother and four sisters settled in Brussels (where the singer still lives), but over six albums and countless concerts, she continues to pay tribute to the family's saviors. On the new album, "Supermoon," it's the jubilant "Gati" that evolves a Pygmy chant into Congolese-flavored party funk.

As Daulne sees it: "My promise to them was I used your song to be known in the world and my goal is to talk about you."

Growing up with French and American cultural influences was not always the case. In high school she was a human beat box, mastering hip-hop's art of vocal percussion. "When I was growing up, I refused all this tradition," Daulne says. "It was boring . . . because it was not what we talked about at school, the bands of the moment. Nobody was talking about Pygmies and sounds from Africa. It was a little bit of shame to talk about the African roots."

Daulne was more interested in painting and art school when she heard traditional Pygmy music, with its mesmerizing polyphonic vocal techniques.

"At 20, something happened in me," Daulne says. "When you pass 13, 14, you want to look like the others, but after a certain point you want to be unique. And those sounds did something to me."

Inspired by Pablo Picasso's integration of African and European art -- "I feel maybe I'm able to do like him with sounds," she says -- Daulne embarked on a ethno-musicological pilgrimage that took her back to the Congo and other parts of Africa. When she returned to Belgium in 1989, she put together an a cappella quintet with other women of mixed African and European heritage with the idea of fusing African rhythms with European voicings. The New York Times called that original incarnation of Zap Mama "a utopian multicultural dream."

The group's first album, "Adventures in Afropea," became 1993's best-selling world music album and established Zap Mama as an international concert sensation.

Being dubbed ambassadors of "world music" proved more limiting than liberating, but Daulne didn't take long to move beyond that category. Zap Mama has evolved from largely a cappella to a showcase for Daulne, while adding instruments and incorporating musical flavors from other cultures. As the focal center of Zap Mama, Daulne now tours with three female vocalists, a keyboardist, a drummer and a DJ.

It was only a matter of time before Daulne reconnected to the hip-hop she had loved as a teenager. Her 1999 album, "A Ma Zone," featured break beats, turntable manipulation and collaborations with Michael Franti and Speech from Arrested Development, as well as rapper Black Thought of the Roots on the song "Rafiki," Swahili for "friendship." Daulne spent a year in Philadelphia working with the Roots' hip-hop collective and neo-soul singer Erykah Badu before recording 2004's acclaimed "Ancestry in Progress" album, featuring the Roots and rappers Common and Talib Kweli.

"Supermoon" features such stellar guests as Franti, Me'Shell Ndeg┬┐ocello, jazz guitarist David Gilmore and legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. Tracks include "Hey Brotha," calling for respect between the sexes, and "Go Boy," the touching tale of an African immigrant. Based on an African song, "Toma Taboo" adopts a riff from James Brown's "The Payback" to address the importance of rituals in helping people make sense of transitions from one phase of life to another.

As "Princess Kesia" attests, Daulne, 43, is undergoing that experience as her daughter (Kesia, of course) turns 13, "no longer a baby but a beautiful girl," Daulne says. "She asks me why I am crying and laughing all the time, and I say . . . 'Because you have to say goodbye to this little girl, and me, too'; I have to say bye-bye to this young mama who does the lullabies with that little girl and now has a strong and deep conversation with a teenager."

"I found my happiness in music," Daulne says. "Maybe it's not her destination. My mom says music is for amusement; this is not a job. She never thought that I would become a musician, but I found my joy in it. And you have to find where is your joy."

Zap Mama Appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club, 815 V St. NW. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets:$25, available at the 9:30 box office or at

Music Video: Where Are You? from the album "Supermoon"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company