One of among many moments of genius in Warren Ellis’ acclaimed Planetary graphic novel occurs during the induction of Ambrose Chase into the titular organisation: the black agent is shown his image in a strange mirror meant to symbolise Planetary’s role in things. Sightly baffled, he points out that the mirror is warped, only to be informed that the mirror is fine; the world itself being the source of the distortion.
Of course, that’s a horrible textual mangling of a wonderfully presented graphic scene, but I think one of the main reasons that the current urban scene is now so hapless, plastic and fantasy-free (after having devoured or suppressed all rivals on the commercial battlefield) lies in the ruthless efficiency endemic in every element of its composition, implementation and marketing. “Keeping it tight” is all very well if juxtaposed with the loose and vibrant, but when pursued to the contemporary extreme it just results in an airless crushing of spontaneity. Now, you could argue that this, along with “keeping it real”, is just another expression of today’s over-riding, narrow-minded, post-modern reductionist mindset, along with an inevitable market reaction to the dreaded barely pubescent female attractor (renowned for its purchasing of the trendy, flashy and superficial). Perhaps; at any rate, what’s currently causing cultural stagnation and political/spiritual alienation in the Western world results in music that’s basic rather than simple, over-stimulated rather than genuinely fun (or funny), sexual rather than sensual, and which is subject to a drought of genuine soul (be it of the organic, throats-and-fingers variant, or the machine symphonies of the Detroit-Germany axis at the root of so much modern production). Reality may be many things, you see, but simplisticly defined/confined is not one of them.
We are not amused.
So thank goodness for the return of Marie Daulne (aka Zap Mama), a maker of music as zany, zippy, silly and alive as her name implies. Recorded four years ago with the extended Roots/Black Lily family, this album—having languished in David Byrne’s vaults due to his label’s problems with distribution—reveals itself to be an enjoyably colourful fusion of her Grammy-nominated accapella records and the more recent, if less successful, experiments with more contemporary genres. In doing so it becomes a loose, funky blueprint-in-motion of all the music the African diaspora has created, as sketched by a woman of the world as at ease on the tarmac of Philly and Belgium as the sands and rainforest floor of her birthplace, the Congo. This is a collection of forward-looking songs that revel in the simple pleasure of being alive, and of music-making itself.
Commencing with a countdown to liftoff, Ancestry in Progress gently heads off into a quirky, glowing realm, riding the rising winds of the African deserts around the world. Daulne’s recent desert island discs-style selection for Vibrations magazine gives an idea of the regions visited; with compilations tracing the blues back to Mali and Maritius, or the funk of Maceo Parker back to its Nigerian roots and Fela Kuti, alongside Tony Allen’s Psycho on Da Bus, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of…, salsa, Billie Holiday, Keziah Jones, Cee-Lo Green, Arethra Franklin, pygmy chants and a little classical (”...it takes us into a very visual realm of the imagination that recalls childhood” being one of her eloquent comments.) Providing the unifying threads are the production (delivering the feel of live singing over backdrops as spacious as the sky; chatting, adlibbing and various backing vocalists seguing into and around the instrumentation’s landscape with a Yellow Submarine-esque contempt for conventional perspective) and Daulne’s extraordinary voice, which might be described as a thin yet silkily tactile amalgam of Erykah Badu, who appears on the celebration of the blissful, loose-limbed escapism of dancing that is “Bandy Bandy”, and a slightly-younger-sounding, French Joanna Newsom.
Daulne’s impressionistic, amused and emotional songs (in French as well as English) are fleshed out by the aforementioned high priestess of kook, Common, Talib Kweli (who in such company is shown up as needing to crack a smile sometime soon or else risk disappearing up his own crack forever), veteran femcee Bahamadia, ?uestlove and Scratch, who provides the entire backing to “Wadidusay?”, a match for the best material on his solo LP. On “Sweet Melody” Sade comes to mind, “Miss Q’N” is a diverting little refry of a skit, flipping and bouncing the elements of a conversation at the end of the previous track all over the place, “Vivre” gives African chanting a Latin tinge, “Ca Varie Varie” juxtaposes cod-operatic backing vocals with drum’n'bass percussion, and the delightful closer “Zap Bébés” weaves a baby’s happy spluttering into a call-and-response mélée.
Basically, this is music that remembers why life is too important to be taken seriously, and reminds us that no matter who you are, where you’re from or where you’re at, this is our shared world you’re living in. Et que c’est beau, malgré tout.