POP / Really quite big: Central African pygmy yodelling is catching on. Philip Sweeney reports from 'somewhere, deep in the jungle'

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The Independent Online
Pygmies have had a good couple of years popwise. As the introduction to Deep Forest's 1992 sampled dance hit so memorably intoned, 'Somewhere, deep in the jungle, are living some little men and women . . . they are our past and maybe . . . maybe . . . they are our future'.

Maybe indeed. Pygmies loom large in the musical soundscape of one of last year's prominent 'world music' acts, the Belgian female a cappella quintet Zap Mama. Their successful and much- publicised first album featured pygmy chanting and paved the way very nicely for their newly released successor, Sabsylma.

Zap Mama's act is based on a sound collage of voices, aided by occasional percussion or recorded sound effects - a horse, market babble, water splashing. Snatches of 1950s doo-wop, Spanish madrigals, gospel, soul and Arabic song jostle and mingle with pygmy polyphony and Zairean rhymes.

The pygmy connection came via the group's founder, Marie Daulne. She was born in Zaire in 1964 to a local mother and a Belgian father. A few weeks after her birth, her father was murdered and her mother took the baby to hide among the Aka pygmies in the rainforest, before being evacuated to Brussels. There, Daulne took to building multi-track recordings of her own voice. Her mother's and aunts' songs, banter and expressive African intonation formed a leitmotif to her compositions, with the pygmy element reinforced in 1989, when Daulne went to live in an Aka village for a month and a half of sing-alongs. The new album, she says, 'is more about the urban jungle', reflecting Zap Mama's more recent New York-Paris-Brussels axis.

Central African pygmy yodelling is also a peripheral reference in the vocal experimentation of the British Asian a cappella singer, Sheila Chandra, who releases her new album, The Zen Kiss, this week.

Sheila Chandra's beginnings were less extraordinary than Daulne's, but by no means run of the mill. Born in south London to Indian parents, she went to the Italia Conti stage school at 11 and starred in the television series Grange Hill at 13. At 17 she had a Top 10 hit as a member of the first Anglo- Asian pop group Monsoon, which promptly disbanded. Chandra moved to the Lake District with her producer, song-writing partner and later husband, Steve Coe, and began to write and produce solo albums; at first mixing sitar, percussion and synthesisers but increasingly focusing on her own voice and a minimal drone accompaniment. After a break of five years, her 1990 album Roots and Wings featured an old Scottish ballad 'Lament of McCrimmon', set to a sombre monotone drone on an electric tamboura, an imaginative marriage of the Celtic and Asian.

While Zap Mama combine disparate musical elements in a jerky, fragmented kaleidoscope, Chandra tries to link different forms seamlessly - by interposing vocal ornamentation between an Arabic melody and a Celtic one, for example. Chandra has also intensified her use of spoken bols, complex onomatopoeic nonsense phrases rather like scat singing, used in Southern Indian classical music to transmit meter to dancers and percussionists.

Thanks to its mantra quality and lyrical associations, The Zen Kiss has a rather New Age feel to it, reinforced by the hand-drawn moon logo on Chandra's letterhead, and the date of recording noted on the sleeve as 'round the Neptune / Uranus conjunction of October 93'.

Deeply earnest about her music, Chandra has abandoned live performance, only a year after taking to the stage, for research and experiment: 'You get an incredible feeling of connectedness discovering links through music,' she says. Somewhere deep in the jungle a good few pygmies are probably saying the same thing.

Zap Mama play the Hackney Empire on 14 May

Sheila Chandra's album is on Virgin / Real World