Zap Mama: often path-breaking, always funky

Boston Globe, October 5, 2005

World-music tastemakers are divided on Zap Mama. The Afro-funk outfit, led by Belgian-Congolese singer Marie Daulne, broke out in the early 1990s with a roots a cappella sound before throwing off the shackles of ethnic categorization with more international pop and funk efforts. While the pundits debate authenticity, the band has continued its march toward the multicultural future, bivouacking Monday at the Paradise for a rousing, rear-end-shaking performance.

Like Blondie, Zap Mama the band is often confused for its lead singer. But the beautiful, kinetic Daulne is part of an eight- member mix and just one of its polyethnic roster of dynamic women, which includes two superb backing vocalists, a crack bassist (looking super bad in camo shorts and black boots), and a keyboard player with a powerful singing voice.

Nor did the men lag behind. The show’s energetic high point came when the guitarist emerged out of the groove and upped the tempo into a soukous-style crescendo that unstuck the last wallflowers. And special mention goes to the DJ, a Sahrawi (native of the Western Sahara), who delivered one of the more expert displays of scratching recently heard beyond the ingrown circles of turntablism.

At its laziest, Zap Mama settles into a reliable funk groove that can last as long as the audience wants to dance to it. At its most creative, the combination of black musics old and new, local and global, anchored by expert vocal harmonies, is utterly path- breaking.

Zap Mama’s sound reflects growing kinship with the current elite of oddball geniuses in black American music, such as OutKast, the Roots, and particularly Erykah Badu, with whom Daulne has become great friends. Like Badu, Daulne offsets a thinnish voice with sheer charisma and creativity, and there was more than a little Badu-ism in her crazy hair, sinuous gestures, sci-fi Egyptian priestess robe, and bug-eyed shades.

The goofy name notwithstanding, opening act the Platinum Pied Pipers was an excellent surprise. Born in Detroit one founder comes from the hip-hop crew Slum Village and based in New York, the group works in the intersection zone of black rock, funk, and soul where Funkadelic and Fishbone are influences. With a raffish suit-and-tie stage presence and two singers one man, one woman who could really sing, the group worked the initially nonchalant crowd to the point where all heads were nodding.