Sounding like a one-world (but non-moralizing) Sweet Honey in the Rock, Zap Mama's take on transcultural unity stunned and delighted American globe-trotters from the outset. The group's "instrumentation" five years ago consisted almost entirely of what the producers of their stateside debut, Adventures in Afropea 1, grandiosely dubbed, "The original instrument, the primary instrument, the most soulful instrument: the human voice."
The multiethnic, Brussels-based quintet claimed to incorporate "a myriad of vocal traditions from all over the world, but mostly the funky African Diaspora mixed with Euro-American traditions." All of which was (and is) true. Zap Mama draw material from diverse and often remote sources, such as the haunting polyphony of Zaire's rain forest Pygmies (on "Eie Buma" and "Babanzele), a clerical opus from an anonymous 16th-century Spanish composer ("Din Din"), and onomatopoeic expressions ("Plekete," "Brrrlak!").
Despite critical acclaim, the group chose to deviate from their initial approach on subsequent recordings. Nineteen ninety-four's Sabsylma engages in lively rhythmic tag between voices and percussion, and the recently issued Seven introduces numerous nonvocal elements while exploring an odd soul funk-cum-reggae direction. Further, what at first seemed like a collaborative effort by five powerful women now comes across as a production vehicle for lead Mama Marie Daulne. Granted, the Zap Mama concept was Daulne's from the start (apparently inspired by her Walloon, Bantu, Belgian, and Zairian ancestry), but the original quintet is nowhere to be found on the latest disc. Instead, the album is rife with vocal overdubs and stylized bids for crossover success, which made expectations for this Fillmore appearance dubious at best.
The strained cheer of warm-up act Amandla Poets put a disheartening spin on the show from the opening notes. The local world-beat septet dropped reggae-steeped Afro pop that leaned too heavily on an affected Rasta patois. With leading members Dumile Vokwana and Elouise Burrell hailing from South Africa and the United States, respectively, and the rest of the crew claiming roots in Nigeria, Cameroon, Hungary, and Suriname, the Jamaican posturing simply did not sit well -- even by Capetown jive standards. Jogging in place with fists in the air in sky-blue PJs, Vokwana looked like Raggedy Andy flopping along to an aerobics video. This image was a far cry from the intended "forward ever, backward never" message of his "phambili" rallying chant. Laughable choreography combined with predictable arrangements, a monotonous bass/drums mix, and put-on didactics further contributed to the evening's initial disenchantment, which was heightened by the near-capacity crowd's forced attempts at partying high. As if on command, aged hippies, tie-dyed youths, and African queens with dreads (and weaves) waved hands skyward and bounced to the lightweight beats, determined to get down no matter how cliched the music. "Oh, Jah," I prayed, "please don't let Zap Mama be a nouveau-reggae band, too."
Once Daulne and her double trio of vocal accomplices and spare instrumental support glided onto the stage, it was clear that the leader had not abandoned her original vision in the least. In fact, the added groove factor of electric bass and slamming backbeat (on about half the songs) greatly expanded the range of the a cappella format without sacrificing the appeal of an all-vocal outing.
The front-line quartet of virtuosic singers now seemed less like Sweet Honey in the Rock and more like an Afropean En Vogue: dreamy soul sistahs with a passion for spectacular presentation. While the accompanists performed on hand drums and guimbri (an African bass lute), the Zap Mama core effortlessly launched into a kind of otherworldly polyphony. The women strutted under the spotlights, captivating the audience with charming showmanship and perfect harmonies abetted by petite earphone monitors. In Wodaabe-like face paint, framed by gorgeous headdresses, they acted out a silly drama that pitted one member against the other for center stage. Though the language was incomprehensible, the message was clear: We were in for an absorbing and entertaining show.
Roughly half of the nearly two-hour set came off of the new album. The shimmering live arrangements of tunes like "Telephone," "Belgo Zairoise," and "New World" underscored the serious limitations of relying on the multitrack recording studio as a song-building factory. Zap Mama was more raw and essentially more real live than on disc, but no less polished.
On "Telephone," manic stage movement mirrored the comically colliding salutations: "Hello?" "Halloh?" "Blllrrrring!" The piece escalated to a frenzy and concluded with band members whirling, voices ringing like a symphony of crickets. On "Belgo Zairoise" the multi-instrumental backing unit copped a lively dance beat on bass, drums, and Afro-pop guitar. The singers donned sashes to accent their formidable hip sway and trilled choruses, which included sensuous phrases like "ooo ooo ooo ahh" and "shimmy shimmy," among other more difficult-to-transcribe inflections. Despite the catchy riddims, which ended with an undulating nod to Bob Marley ("No man, no cry"), the packed house barely moved a muscle, as if spellbound by Zap Mama's impossible rhythmic finesse and sexy-fun butt-wiggling.
When it came time for audience participation, however, the Fillmore crowd proved to be up to the challenge. They followed syncopated claps and non-English sing-alongs with rare dexterity. After getting the fans going on a familiar beat before the vocal intro to "New World," Daulne chuckled a chorus of "We will, we will, rock you!" to much applause. Then she initiated an interesting split-group round of "po - tiv, po - tiv, po - tiv" into which the bandmates inserted "zee," for a rousing "po - zee - tiv" refrain that yielded to the Zap Mama credo: "It's not too laaaate ... for makin' a new world."
Normally, this type of idealistic proselytizing sends me reeling to the bar, but Zap Mama's one-love perspective was convincing, if only for the duration of the show, plus a few hours afterward. Rooted in the sensuality of breath (where an unintelligible whisper becomes a universal language) and four-part harmony (where the collective voice makes real the power of unity), Zap Mama inspired through song and dance where others have failed with dogma alone.