The voice of multi-culti fave Zap Mama may not be comfortable with stardom, but she does embrace her "singularity."
On the cover of Zap Mama's first record, Marie Daulne appears in a colorized, slightly smudged photo as one of five women in traditional African garb. Fourteen years later, the seventh Zap Mama disc is dominated by a tight, glamorous close-up of Daulne.
That stark contrast captures the musical and personal odyssey that Daulne (pronounced DOO-lin) has experienced in her career, and her life. She was born in the central African country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During its war of independence against Belgian colonialism, her Belgian father was murdered by Simba rebels. Her African mother, pregnant with Marie, fled to a village inhabited by Pygmies, who sheltered them for nearly a year before they relocated to Brussels.
Although raised in the predominantly French culture of Belgium, Daulne was always taken by the African music that her mother would play, and encourage her and her half-siblings to make. That spiritual kinship was cemented when she returned to Africa at age 18. Standing in the middle of the forest, she suddenly knew that one day she would be a musician.
It took more than a decade for that dream to be realized. By then Daulne had auditioned scores of female singers, searching for the right combination of voices for an a cappella ensemble.
"The power of voices was my thing," she said in a recent phone interview. "I wanted to show the world the capacity of five women exploring with our voices and our minds, nothing else." She also felt she was channeling the spirit of her Congolese ancestry. Thus, rather than use her own name, she called the group Zap Mama.
Although its first two records relied more extensively on Pygmy-influenced vocal yips, yodels and rhythmic trilling, Daulne has always sought a pan-cultural sound. By the third Zap Mama record, Daulne had dissolved the group, emerging as the sole lead singer while deploying a band more oriented to American pop and R&B.
"I was able to use the new technology," she said, explaining at least part of the motivation behind her stylistic shift. "I got a computer, and in the middle of the night when I have an idea I can do a recording, and that leads to more and more ideas."
It also enables some striking collaborations with musicians she admires. "Me'Shell [Ndegeocello] was in Brussels and came to my place and I played this song for her and she helped me out," Daulne said, describing the bassist's contribution to "Toma Taboo," off the new disc, "Supermoon," a song that also features jazz guitarist David Gilmore and the 58-year-old Belgian rock vocalist Arno.
Daulne eventually assembled 38 songs (which she winnowed to 11) for "Supermoon," her first Zap Mama record in three years.
"I knew the title before I started making any of the songs," she said. "I lived in the United States from 2000 to 2004 and it is a place with so many stars. When I met a lot of big celebrities I realized I was not a big star and that I didn't want to be, because your life would be a habit, stuck in this and that. I prefer the singularity. I prefer to be me."
Fortunately, the acoustic guitar and whispery vocals on the title song undercut the notion that Daulne doth protest too much about eschewing what she calls "chrome-plated celebrity." Besides, there are a handful of much better tracks, including the swirling mélange of hip-hop, doo-wop, drum 'n' bass and Afropop on "1000 Ways"; a unique marriage of reggae and soukous music on "Gati," and a procession of conga drum, piano, handclaps and kalimba on "Go Boy." There are thrown-off tunes like "Hey Brotha," a collaboration with rapper Michael Franti of Spearhead that Daulne describes as "an ice cream song, with feel-good vibes," and weighty numbers like "Affection," about the death of her best friend two years ago.
"I didn't get to tell her how much I loved her, and the lyrics come straight from that," she said. "How can a person be so warm and open and then gone like this? But it is easy to perform 'Affection' now, because I am strong," she said, referring to her current tour with a backing trio (keyboardist, drummer and DJ) and three female vocalists.
Being strong is also the impetus behind the elegant photos of Daulne that adorn the album.
"I always used to hide myself, and I'm not complaining about it, but now it is time to show my eyes and my femininity and my delicate side," said Daulne, who turned 43 this year. "I am proud to be so feminine, because I have taken the time to develop the inside of my femininity. Now that I have that, I can face anybody. And if anybody challenges me, there is no problem."