Marie Daulne is ready to share Zap Mama with U.S. audiences once again. Those who have fallen under her spell are acutely aware of this. Judging by fan sites and MySpace comments--which frequently address her using cosmic tag words like 'energy,' 'soul' and 'holla holla!'--Daulne might want to look into tax exemption for religious entities.
For the last month, she has been holed up in London putting the pieces together for the live experience of her seventh album, Supermoon. While most bands have a small list of stage props (string of Christmas lights, stuffed-animal mascot, trippy lamp), Daulne approaches her tours like a Broadway producer. For costumes, she relayed her Supermoon 'visions' to a friend, who then hunted across the U.K. for the best in lunar wear. Then time was spent teaching new dance steps to her performing ensemble. Finally, another two weeks for technical junk, since Daulne likes to have a video for each of her songs.
And one simple thing seems to inspire all of this. Namely, the color purple. A simple shade, a tint, a hue--if it strikes her right--can guide entire years of Daulne's life. A few years ago, everything Zap Mama was drenched in blue. Then everything was sapphron. For Supermoon, it's regal.
'The periods of my life are related to color,' says Daulne, who studied art history and painting in college. Painters, she says, 'often have a shape or period of their life where they're painting around one color, and I understood that completely. Studying those artists helped me realize who I was.'
It's also a color that marks her earliest, darkest memory.
'I remember a nightmare night. I remember the green of the vegetation. I remember the smells of the woods, the warmness.'
This memory is of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and something that happened when Daulne was seemingly too young to remember anything. She was the fourth child born to Cyrille Daulne, a French-speaking Belgian, and Bernadette Aningi, a Bantu native. When Marie was only a week old, her father was murdered by Simba rebels, who opposed mixed-race marriages. Fearing a similar fate for her and her family, Bernadette placed Marie's siblings in the care of local pygmies (whom the rebels feared because of their ties to the spirit world). She carried Marie on her back into the jungle to hide. She was eventually arrested by the rebels, but--able to speak their language--convinced them to set her free. By that time, Belgium had begun airlifting its citizens and their families to safety. Too young to mourn, Marie Daulne became a European under the worst of circumstances.
Throughout her childhood, she, her five sisters and her aunt would sing the traditional songs of Zaire and the pygmies. She became a dancer, a graffiti artist (with a few police encounters) and a painter. After deciding that painting was 'too isolated as an expression of art,' she entered the Antwerp School of Jazz.
She didn't really consider singing her main art form until she was reintroduced to her past. In 1984, after hearing a field recording of pygmy music, she stopped planning her solo album and returned to Zaire.
'I went back as a woman,' she says. 'I saw a lot of bad things. Situations of life and poverty. When I was 18, life was so big and full of color and natural and pure. Joy was easy. Everywhere I go people are smiling and laughing, and people said Africa is so hard and poor. It's like everywhere--you can find difficulty.'
She was there to learn the songs of the natives who had cared for her siblings two decades earlier. Hearing the pygmies' onomatopoeic vocal techniques, she felt their trance, heard their subtle humor, sensed their spirituality. She also realized the pygmies were echoing the world around them.
'It's like three birds kind of had a conversation,' she says, mimicking the deep, muted whistles of birds over the phone. 'And I decided to develop that more and more. But they weren't following the rhythm properly! I kept thinking to myself, Come on, keep the beat down!'
This naturalist approach to vocals--plus a better beat--was the basis for Zap Mama, which she formed in 1990. The idea was 'five singers who would be one as the pygmy,' Daulne explains. 'There is no chief.'
What Daulne and Zap Mama were able to achieve using only their voices--a polyphonic, polyrhythmic, percussive mix of songs from Zaire, Tanzania, France, Spain and pygmy tradition--was stunning. Initially, they received some funding from Belgium's department of culture. A Belgium indie label, Crammed Discs, released Zap Mama's self-titled debut in 1992. A few college deejays in Santa Monica picked up on the release. Billboard shrugged them off while The Village Voice hailed their arrival.
When Zap Mama came to the United States for the first time in 1992--to perform at New Music Seminar in New York--record labels were practicing their pick-up lines. Included among the suitors was Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. He and his business partner, Yale Evelev, were looking to start a record label that would challenge the conventional wisdom of the time: If it's not in English, it's not relevant.
After seeing Zap Mama, Byrne decided it was the perfect group to launch Luaka Bop Records. Daulne--who has said she didn't know who David Byrne was but felt he was a good man--agreed. Luaka Bob reissued Zap Mama's first recordings in America as Adventures in Afropea 1: Zap Mama. By the end of the year, Billboard announced it was the top seller for 'world music' (a term that Daulne doesn't particularly care for).
Of course, there were limitations to Zap Mama's success. Casual music listeners weren't likely to part with their disposable income for an album they couldn't relate to. There were no power chords. There was no lead single about American teenagers' romantic malaise. There was a sex symbol for a lead singer in Daulne, but she was an enigmatic cross between Congo spirituality and Dutch urbanity. A bit too National Geographic meets weird European people.
Not expecting listeners to like it--and not having a station on which the music wouldn't sound horribly out of place--commercial radio, of course, ignored Zap Mama.
But almost universally, it seems, seeing Zap Mama perform in person erased that cultural divide. Tours with 10,000 Maniacs and Byrne himself helped. After seeing this Afropean 'world music' in person, the producers of The Arsenio Hall Show put pygmy song on national TV. (Granted, the show had a programming bias for black musicians, but there was no shortage of black American stars to book in 1992. Yo! MTV Raps! was still on air, Dr. Dre had just dropped Chronic and a lucid Whitney Houston soundtracked The Bodyguard.)
Musician Michael Franti remembers the first time he saw Daulne.
'In about '94 or '95, I saw a video from her first record, and I was blown away,' he says. 'Marie's one of the most beautiful women on the planet. She just has an inner glow and a strength and charisma, which is where her beauty comes from.'
Franti befriended Daulne while the two were performing on a TV show in London. A few years later, while driving through Brussels on a rainy day, he witnessed what she'd learned from the pygmies first-hand.
'We put on the windshield wipers and they created this rhythmic sound,' he remembers. 'She started mimicking them and making up this vocal rhythm and melody. Within a few blocks, all the other girls were harmonizing with it. It's amazing that she can find one little sound in the organic or mechanical world and make it into a song.'
Daulne has since collaborated with Franti numerous times, most recently on a track called 'High Low' for Franti's upcoming album. She's collaborated with more hip-hop icons (Common, The Roots, Talib Kweli) since her move to New York in 2000--which she says finally gave her a sense of place.
'I've never been welcome in any country as my own country,' she says. 'In Europe, they talk to me as if I'm from Congo. In Congo, they act like I'm from Europe. The first time I felt at home was in New York. I said, 'Here is my country. Everybody is from somewhere else. I feel so comfortable here.''
Hopefully not too comfortable. After all, Zap Mama's appeal has always been one of cultural jaywalking--a Zaire native raised in Belgium who mixes pygmy song with hip-hop. In other words, Africa meets Europe meets Africa meets America. Or black meets white meets black meets white, black and brown.
For Supermoon, the color is purple. On the cover, Daulne wears purple eye shadow and lipstick. The photograph is partially cast in shadow, her face its own moon halfway through cycle. Her soft gaze is directly on the camera, making the viewer--or, in this case, the fan--part of her experience.
'My attraction for good music is not specifically [attached to] a well-known media artist,' she explains. 'In my perception, artists who have an incredible sound or composition [are] way more important than any superstar. I decided to give a name for those people--'supermoon'--as perfect as a moon.
'When the audience appreciates the art of the artist, the audience becomes the sun and makes the artist shine as a full moon.'
That appreciation, Franti says, includes watching her vocal gymnastics and thinking, 'Fuck, how does anybody do that?'
Zap Mama performs with Deep Rooted and Coco Thunn at Belly Up Tavern on Saturday, Aug. 25. Doors open at 8 p.m. $18-$20. 858-481-8140.