Zap Mama: The second coming of Zap Mama

After a four-year absence, Zap Mama are back with a new album. Phil Meadley asks Marie Daulne, their Belgian founder and leader, what took her so long

There was a time when Belgium's premier a cappella group could have been the next Spice Girls. They had been nominated for a Grammy for their debut album
Adventures in Afropea' in 1993, and the world was their oyster. "The record company wanted to mould us into a poppy girl band, but I said, 'No, you'll kill me', and I stopped," explains the band's leader Marie Daulne. "Everyone was asking why I wanted to stop when we'd finally arrived at the top. But I felt that it was completely wrong. I wasn't ready. I wasn't strong enough. The manager said that if I stopped then, I'd be killing my career, but it was my decision."

There was a time when Belgium's premier a cappella group could have been the next Spice Girls. They had been nominated for a Grammy for their debut album Adventures in Afropea' in 1993, and the world was their oyster. "The record company wanted to mould us into a poppy girl band, but I said, 'No, you'll kill me', and I stopped," explains the band's leader Marie Daulne. "Everyone was asking why I wanted to stop when we'd finally arrived at the top. But I felt that it was completely wrong. I wasn't ready. I wasn't strong enough. The manager said that if I stopped then, I'd be killing my career, but it was my decision."

Three albums on, and after a four-year break (during which time she had a baby), Daulne is now ready to face her pop demons. This is in part due to her music being embraced by the US hip-hop and soul community, and her relocation to Brooklyn. "Now I'm a strong woman and I'm proud of it," she states, succinctly, between band rehearsals in Brussels. The next day she is due to fly off to Singapore to promote her new album, Ancestry in Progress.

Most noticeable in terms of contributions on the album are Philadelphia's The Roots, with whom Daulne first worked on her 1999 release A Ma Zone. The renowned hip-hop collective returned the favour by asking her to appear on their Grammy-winning album, Things Fall Apart. "They saw me perform in Germany and were amazed by the sounds I made with my voice. Rahzel was impressed by my beatbox style, especially as I was female and they didn't know a lot of females who do beatbox.

"It made sense to mix these two styles for the album. It became important for me to bring my a cappella style to the modern world of urban music. It made me realise that there was a long life to the concept of Zap Mama."

The album features an array of US urban talent, from The Roots' ?uestlove to the rappers Common, Talib Kweli, Bilal, and the soul poetess Bahamadia. There's also a track with Erykah Badu. "She called me, said I was a Queen of Africa, and invited me to support her on her US tour. She understood that our sounds come from similar origins. That was proof to me that she's real."

Richard Nichols, who had previously worked with Badu and Jill Scott, did executive production work to give the album a sleek soulful edge. "I've always loved soul," Daulne says. "When I was with The Roots, we were talking about our ancestors, and transporting their spirit through our music. It's natural progression for African ancestors to meet American ancestors because they are brothers."

"I don't want to be part of the world-music scene because it's really categorised as Third World music, and to me, there are a lot of children born in the Third World who grew up with their soul in the urban world, so all urban music has ethnic elements. It's like seeing African art as a whole without discussing one particular artist.

"It's good in one way because at least it gets recognition, but people don't understand that Africans and Indians are just human beings. They just happen to be poor human beings."

Daulne's mother is Congolese and her father was Belgian, and although she was born in Isiro, Zaire, she grew up in Belgium. "I kept hearing all these urban sounds around me," she says. "On the radio, you'd hear British, American and French bands. But at home, my mother sang African songs, and we joined in.

"When I left home, I missed those songs, and in the school choir, I wondered why we didn't use African harmonising. So my sister and I started to sing African melodies, and Zap Mama was born. I wrote my first song at 15, and my artist friend Nina said that what we were doing was amazing. She helped me to find a gig, and from that day, it has been non-stop."

Daulne's long association with pygmy polyphonic singing originated with her mother, Bernadette Aningi, a Bantu woman from Kisangani. Her father was Cyrille Daulne, a white civil servant from Belgium whom her mother met after fleeing to the city to escape an arranged marriage. Marie was their fourth child, but a week after her birth, her father was murdered by Simba rebels who were opposed to mixed-race relationships. Her mother fled into the jungle, fearing for her children's lives. The three older siblings were sent to the pygmies, whom the Simba feared because of their reputation for working with spirits. Bernadette was subsequently arrested by the Simba, then released. She travelled to the east of the country to collect her children, before being airlifted to Kinshasa with other mixed-race families and then flown to Belgium.

"The pygmies saved a lot of families like ours. But at the time, nobody talked about it, so I decided that when I grew up I would try to raise awareness of pygmies and spread their philosophy," she states. "That's why I created Zap Mama. It's interesting that their culture has developed a philosophy of humanism, and ours has developed material things and technology. From them, we can take a lot of positives for our world; and with all our inventions, we can return the favour. Often, people say that we must leave the pygmies alone because they choose to live in isolation, but that saddens me because Africans can't travel as easily as Europeans. If some pygmies want to learn about computers, they have no right to do so. I'm offended by that."

Nowadays, Daulne lives in a very different world. Although she says that she remains a second-generation hippie at heart, she has won many celebrity admirers over the years. "I'm comfortable now being with all these poppy people - Badu, Lenny Kravitz, The Roots. I was with Tom Cruise the other day, and wondered why people were so scared of celebrities, because they look at me and wonder how I can be so creative. I say it's because I have a goal.

"But often, creative people aren't the ones who make big money. For example, Madonna is sexy but she's not creatively sexy. It's all down to good marketing. Of course, these people are rich, but I'm very rich inside."

'Ancestry in Progress' is out now on Luaka Bop/V2

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