"Money changes everything," says one song. "It's money that matters," says another. In the record industry this is certainly not news. File this one under "Duh."
Not quite a decade ago Marie Daulne brought together a group of European and African women to sing hybrid folk that had guts, wit and charm, driven by little more than their passion to make music, punctuated by a bare bone accompaniment that gave the voices a huge expanse. With a youthful energy they sliced and diced French and Belgian folk music, overlaid it with Congolese pop and Pygmy vocalese. It was earthy, a bit ragged perhaps, but so full of life that Zap Mama rapidly became one of the hits of the blossoming "world music" scene in Europe.
Fast forward. Zap Mama is now a one woman ensemble with backing vocals over a slick pop band. The assembly includes hip-hop stars The Roots, Speech (Arrested Development) and super star saxman Manu Dibango. The themes on A Ma Zone are politically charged; social commentary on the rush of life, the impersonality of communications, ethic and racial alienation. Heady stuff.
There are flashes of wonder on this album; discreet fusions of Camerounian pop with blues and funk; gospel chords that float by under breathy winds and guttural groans. Almost every song starts with a surprising little vocal touch or a edgy instrumental hit. Butů but.
There's that but. It's the downfall of a thousand musicians around the world. The music industry is driven by a need for success (there's that "file under:" again), an urge to use all the technology and ideas available, to force things to be more than they are and ultimately, less than they could be. Daulne's downfall comes from an endless flood of cliches that ultimately undermine the gritty message and the power of the female voice that is so much at the pure heart of her endeavor. A Ma Zone is ultimately rendered into parts that are less than the whole; the lean, enlightening threads are left aside or buried under the fat. Those insightful (and sometimes incite-ful) intros lead us time and again into L.C.D. dance music that we've heard a dozen times before.
Marie (Zap Mama) Daulne ultimately falls victim to her own message. In the irresistibly rush to reach a wider audience, she has homogenized a music that was meant to abrade the very people she means to reach. The music may reach a larger audience, but what they will ultimately hear will be hip-hop reproductions and slick pop protocol, not the brilliance of the human mind that was the germ of this music or its deeper message of unity. - Cliff Furnald