With the release of her latest album A Ma Zone, Zap Mama high priestess Maria Daulne extends her bid to supplant Erykah Badu as contemporary R&B's reigning pro-Africa queen of the charts. Picking up where 1997's Seven left off, the CD's overly slick production buries the group's rapturous power-woman vocals while pushing to the fore groovy beats, radio-friendly arrangements, and Daulne as the sexy lead singer. The Roots and Arrested Development's Speech appear as special guests on a couple of tracks in a move designed to stress Zap Mama's progressive hip-hop pedigree, which is strange given Daulne's Belgian and Zairian heritage and her ethereal vocal style derived, in large part, from the haunting polyphony of the Central African pygmy tribes.
Though it's clearly a misguided attempt to cross-market one of the most original world-music acts of the '90s, the new disc isn't bad. But it lacks the spiritual heft of the band's less pop-obsessed earlier works Adventures in Afropea 1 (a gorgeous a cappella affair) and Sabsylma (a cappella and voice/ percussion explorations). The real disappointment of A Ma Zone (and Seven) is that neither is a fair representation of Zap Mama's electrifying live show. At the group's last Bay Area performance it thrilled a packed Fillmore with otherworldly four-part harmonies — front and center — and what seemed less a put-on exoticism, via the Badu school of R&B, and more an authentic Afro-European sensuality.
Zap Mama performs on Sunday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $18-30; call (510) 642-9988.