Zap Mama: Ancestry In Progress
Label: Luaka Bop
Sound/Style: Forward-thinking Afro-American-European fusion featuring vocally produced sounds
(Special thanks to world music consultant Christy Smoot for insights, background and resources)
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—The old adage about not assessing things merely by surface appearance may seem to be dusty wisdom, destined for the recycling bin in a Western world that cares little for tradition. As it happens, however, it applies in spades to Ancestry In Progress, the latest album from world beat fusion master Marie Daulne, a.k.a. Zap Mama.
Because the record’s preoccupation with contemporary American rhythm and blues constrains Daulne’s diffuse, multicultural vision this time around, newcomers would do well to withhold judgment until sampling the artist’s earlier work (conveniently enough, three previous titles have just been reissued). Given Daulne's interest in the confluence of our collective past, present and future, she would likely agree that time-honored advice like "Don’t judge a book by its cover" is a piece of our heritage we should respect, even if it’s been buried under decades of modernization.
In her recordings, Zap Mama makes it her business to preserve such cultural touchstones, both updating them and tapping into the musical connections between various cultures and eras.
The artist admits to being a nomadic sponge who soaks up whatever she finds around the globe, applying it to her ever-expanding worldview. Here, she incorporates her discovery of New York City, resulting in an album that is her most urban and commercially oriented thus far. Fans of primarily indigenous world music may find these contemporary elements intrusive. For instance, the forceful cadence of the rappers featured here seems ill-fitting in the context of Mama’s smooth, sophisticated grooves, which at times recall pop stylist Sade's sleek, caramel-coated sound.
Part of her method, though, is to enrich her music’s bloodline with the contributions of other performers, and this album is no exception. She does this effectively on "Show Me The Way," which finds her and guests Lady Alma and Bahamadia enacting a girls’ night out. With its percolating beat and African juju-style guitar, the track is the disc’s strongest world-beat hybrid, containing sage, haiku-like observations. Instead of reveling in the party life they stop to taste, the song’s characters realize they have the most enjoyment simply by being together—not by inhabiting nightspots where authentic camaraderie seems in short supply.
If Daulne borrows from modern R&B’s rhythms and techniques, she does it without resorting to the aggression and hedonism present in most straight-ahead hip-hop and rap. Her lyrics here (unlike her sometimes politically informed work) are lightweight yet meaningful, focusing on common longings, simple joys and life-enhancing lessons. On the serpentine "Bandy Bandy," she transforms an otherwise repetitive dance-floor ditty into an exhortation to "Feel yourself full of life/Shine ‘til you feel your soul awake," exemplifying this state of inner vibrancy with throaty wails midway into the lengthy track.
"Miss Q’N" imparts a hard-won anecdote about striving for status but eventually finding happiness in accepting and being oneself. The cut also highlights the trademark vocal effects that comprise the disc's sonic landscape, including dazzling displays of obscure native sounds, yelps and horn-like emulations. She gets considerable mileage out of seemingly random and fleeting fragments of laughter, gasps, excited voices and, on "Zap Bebes," the curiously musical burbling of infants. After the song fades, the singer reappears, cooing an intimate, lullaby-like tune that stands in sharp relief to the album's high-tech production. These few moments are among the most emotionally impacting on the conceptually ambitious, if somewhat melodically slight, Ancestry In Progress.
While the disc's techno-heavy approach threatens to overwhelm its humanity, Zap Mama leaves the listener to ponder the notion that the voice is not only the foundation of all music, but also the way we first learn to express even our most basic instincts. In so doing, she gives her listeners not just regenerated ethnic artifacts, but relevant examples of our shared human essence.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.