Zap Mama

1997: Virgin 7 24384 28162 5

  1. Jogging à Tombouctou
  2. New World
  3. Baba Hooker
  4. Belgo Zaïroise
  5. African Sunset
  6. Damn Your Eyes
  7. Poetry Man
  8. Warmth
  9. Téléphone
  10. Nostalgie Amoureuse
  11. Timidity
  12. Eie Buma
  13. Kesia Yanga
  14. Illioï

The first time I heard Zap Mama was while waiting for access to a computer at Paris’s very cool Le Web Bar one Autumn afternoon in 1998: their DJ played “Belgo Zaïroise” and “African Sunset” back to back, and by the middle of the second of these I had to go over and ask him what it WAS, it was so infectious and lovely….

I’d heard “African Sunset” before, as it’s on Miriam Makeba’s Welela (which a friend had played for me about eight years earlier and which I later obtained for myself), but I didn’t recognize it at the time. The sound of these both was deliciously rich in world-music flavors and rhythms, and I was hungry for more.

When I actually got a copy of the album, I found it was a mixed lot—to my tastes, anyway, whereas I’m sure that for many other people this is a great album through and through. All the energy and diverse intensity seems to be in those two songs, and in “Téléphone.” Most of the other tracks drag on with too much This or too much That being stretched out over more time than it takes for the point to be made; some of them do develop into something different midway through, but even then half of them turn into something even less compelling.

As I said, my tastes aren’t everybody’s. For example, I absolutely cannot stand Rap; because of this, her otherwise exquisite cover of Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man” becomes not a rendering but a rending, and when I play it I find myself seriously out of sorts even if I skip the tedious rap in the last section because there’s still pathetic “y’know wha’m say’n” bullshit her “duettist” throws in here and there, soiling what was a fine and luxurious gem (and I mean her cover version, not just the original song…Marie Daulne gives it a lovely, irregular reading that works very well with the lyrics and her own “sound”).

I do like “Jogging à Tombouctou” (especially its near-endings from which the song resurges as a yummy surprise, “YES! more of what I was grooving on!”), “Ele Buma,” and “Illoi,” but as I said, they’re far longer than their content sustains. “Timidity” takes far too long to say what it says, and then it descends into some jarring screams that guarantee I hit the Skip button if I haven’t already programmed the track out of my playlist of the moment. “Kesia Yanga” is the nearest miss, for me: after the beginning’s beautiful sad vocal harmonies, the track moves subtly to a more quickly-paced and lively style while giving the sadness a new presence…and then it stays there for the rest of the track, repeating itself and repeating itself and going almost nowhere aside from a scat section. Which I find frustrating.

“Téléphone” is a little repetitious too, but at least it has an opening and a closing and some storyline in between. The rhythmic structure is quirky as hell, the topic’s one she is clearly fascinated by (the voyeuristic/eavesdropping/disconnected nuances of communication), and the soundscape is adventurous and darkly playful. So it’s this track and the two I first mentioned that keep me playing the CD as often as I do…and they really are exemplary tracks.

OH! I totally forgot to mention that her cover of “Damn Your Eyes” is really, really good. It’s quirkliy unique, for sure, and moves at a jerky pace that takes a little getting used to (it seems to be always on the verge of running out of steam but plods on somehow), but by the end I can’t think of how any other version of this song sounds, as I’m so into her reinvention of it.

A final note, added belatedly but always in my mind when I look at the physical CD release: its booklet is a disgracefully wasted opportunity. Sixteen full-color, glossy panels! SIXTEEN! And what occupies them? Blurry photos. Lyrics? None. Track details? Consigned to footnote status in flyspeck-size print (with track titles rendered further illegible by being set in a display typeface). As a graphic designer and person who wants to better appreciate the music on an album, I find this downright criminal.