The Jungle Book

With their mix of Pygmy chants and hip-hop beats, Zap Mama journey into "the exotic"

No one open-minded enough to sample international pop's wares wants to be accused of deriving illicit thrills from romancing the Other. Hence David Byrne's haphazard New York Times screed of October 3 that emblazoned the words "I Hate World Music" across the front page of the Sunday arts section. Amid kernels of conventional wisdom, American pop's most imaginative globetrotting dilettante warns of the dangers of cultural tourism. "Viewing people and cultures as exotic is a distancing mechanism," he points out, ignoring the fact that distance can be a valuable tool. True, art of a vastly dissimilar culture can indeed communicate "the vibe, the feeling, the attitude toward our lives in a way that is both personal and universal," as he says. But even the most enlightened First Worlder would have to acknowledge the subtle interaction between what is strange about a foreign music and what is familiar--a dynamic Byrne's best music took for granted.

Fortunately, the former Talking Head's need to oversimplify hasn't hampered his ability as an A&R man. Over the past decade, Byrne's Luaka Bop imprint has "discovered" a variety of panglobal pop weirdos, few as striking as Marie Daulne, the center of gravity in the polyglot Belgian a cappella troupe Zap Mama. Born in Zaire and reared in Brussels, Daulne is an authentic cultural mongrel, freely fetishizing her artistic impurity while herself harboring an alienated craving for the exotic. "You can see the Pygmy look at you with something savage, wild," she told me recently of her return to Zaire ten years ago. "When you are born in the urban world, that is scary. And exciting."

Speaking on the phone from New York City, where she hopes to relocate soon from Belgium, Daulne admits to a fascination with the "primitive." She speaks of her roots with an air of the Western naif, and a sense of perpetual discovery informs her comments about her new album, A Ma Zone, which sets Zap Mama's chants to hip-hop and drum 'n' bass beats. "When my mama listened to techno, she started to sing, because it is exactly the same rhythm as the music of her village," Daulne says. "She taught me a lot of new songs."

Society is returning to a more instinctive and tribal state, the singer insists, her pronunciation of "tribal" shortening the "i" enticingly. If her Zairean birth makes Daulne an exotic on the continent, her huskily accented, halting English makes her doubly so to American ears.

It's a characteristic she plays up when detailing her homecoming among the Pygmies in Zaire. "Every full moon, they do a big...well, it's a big party," she says. "All of them do the same sounds--de di, de di, de di." She giggles. "Some people play the drums and the rhythm goes toom, toom, toom. In the middle of the forest, all the animals, all the insects--I cannot explain because it is...so powerful. You are in touch with the earth."

She pauses over the memory. "We were a little afraid, because we don't know what's gonna happen. Then we start to dancing with them, and we receive power. And now I understand. You lose yourself."

Daulne uses this scene to illustrate her concept of the "urban Amazon," the woman (or, she takes pains to add, properly attuned man) who carries this spirit of interconnectedness back to the city. It's a role that, in its identification of tribal powers with vague womanism, might summon intimations of Lilith fairy dust or the condescension of Sweet Honey in the Rock. But Zap Mama's two remarkable a cappella albums of revamped Pygmy chants demonstrate the graceful contrapuntal uses to which old ideas can be bent. The most fascinating track on the group's Luaka Bop debut (released under Byrne's exoticizing "Adventures in Afropea" imprimatur) turns out to be a simple sneeze followed by a variety of chanted blessings.

A Ma Zone fumbles even more tantalizingly toward modernity, a switch in emphasis Daulne sees as a boon to both cultures. "When I go to the clubs, I hear the same thing as with the Pygmies," she says. "But in the urban party, nobody gives sound. Everybody goes home alone. In the forest, you use your breath to think. You can fall on the floor because there is so much oxygen. It makes your head turn. After a while, you're flying."

Daulne is not the first to note such parallels of ritual. Unfortunately, most "tribal" house music and ethnotechno in general is offensive or just plain schlocky, lately abetted by the willful misuse of the hapless digeridoo beat. Even the earnest American hip hoppers whom Daulne enlisted for A Ma Zone could have stumbled at this precipice. What might culture warriors such as the Roots or Speech make of Mama Africa? On "Rafiki," when Daulne intones, "no more rush, no more haste, no more need to worry," a listener might feel plenty worried. If that line ain't just another packaging of juicy primeval truths for world-music saps, why are those fuzzy vibrophones covering up the "tribal" beat?

Duh: That ensemble is just Daulne making the most of her Francophone sibilance. The French inflections now tainting her previously Americanized brand of soul remind you why rock 'n' roll wasn't invented in France and why for the most part le hip hop français ne rock pas la maison. Forced to rely on a language distinguished by breathy, nasal subtleties rather than the crass plosives of American English, the singers smooth their vocal edges.

A Ma Zone at least proves that Zap Mama relaxes best in rich, rhythmically busy textures, not their customary sonic tabulae rasae. The playful synth-tuba-bass figure lent by Speech to "M'Toto"--a New Orleans brass twist on "It's Your Thing"--even suggests that the Arrested Developer may be the Jimmy Carter of hip hop, more valuable now that his term has expired than when he was in power. And when "Call Waiting" showcases masterful deep-breathing exercises over loops of sampled telephone tones, the flutters and bloops of mass communication sound as "natural" a background for the imagined urban jungle of "civilization" as crickets in the forests of Zaire.

Of course, no matter how inclusive an international sorority she forms, Daulne is a markedly individual soul. Like most huge personalities, she seems to yearn for total immersion in an experience greater than herself. "If you are shy, you forget yourself," the singer says of her band's performances. "And you don't have to think. Our society thinks a lot."

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