Zap Mama: ReCreation

[14 June 2009]

By Michael Kabran

Ever since the internet made it easier to hear music produced outside your local environs—from indie hip-hop in Australia (MySpace) to street musicians in the Congo (YouTube)—more and more artists have been combining disparate genres, styles, and elements in a mad musical chemistry experiment of sorts. The hope for these artists was that this combination would a) better reflect their increasingly diverse musical interests and b) result in something wholly unique and potentially revolutionary.

Long before this trend grew to what it is today, however, Belgian pop sensation Zap Mama was creating music that liberally mixed and matched a range of styles. Band founder and leader Marie Daulne was born in the Congo and raised in Belgium and has traveled extensively throughout Africa and Europe. As a result, her music has always shown a diverse spectrum of influences and has always managed to sound timely and distinctive.

Now, perhaps due to the preponderance of genre-bending artists spurred on by the internet, Zap Mama seems to be racing to add even more styles to its sound and, in doing so, has diluted the very elements that made the group such a success in the past. For proof, check out ReCreation, which strongly reflects Daulne’s desire to cover any and all musical genres. But instead of coming off as unique and revolutionary, it ends up sounding uneven, like a mismatched patchwork of Rough Guide recordings from around the world.

Zap Mama started out as a breath of fresh air—a distinctive a cappella group floating in a sea of pop bands. But, as evidenced on ReCreation, the group has sailed into a soft, electronicky pop place. There are elements of the French chanson, trip-hop, and R&B along with a slew of traditional-sounding drums and stringed instruments that lend it a world beat vibe, but in general it’s the type of music you hear on your town’s dreaded adult mix station.

Since Zap Mama began as an a cappella group, it’s no surprise that vocal harmonies are still the group’s strongest asset. Daulne and her crew approach a song’s vocals like jazz musicians, improvising liberally in and around the main melody and harmony. Occasionally the result is quite moving, like a Bobby McFerrin experiment gone excitingly awry. By far the best song on the album is the title track. “ReCreation” is a slow-boiler, filled with churning harmonies that swirl around a meandering Middle Eastern melody. French spoken word and unobstrusive backing music lend the track an ethereal quality.

“The Way You Are”, too, featuring soul crooner Bilal, contains some great vocal acrobatics and an infectious chorus.

But while the remainder of ReCreation contains some exciting vocal moments, the lackluster songwriting and cliched arrangements ultimately soil what could be a very satisfying work.

Zap Mama’s vocals could stand on their own—they are that good. As a result, the backing music should only serve to subtly accentuate those vocals. On ReCreation, unfortunately, the banal arrangements overpower the vocals and make the album sound like a generic covers compilation. In the end, you don’t quite remember the vocals; you only remember that there was a Latin track (“Hello to Mama”) with Daulne chirping in Spanish, a French pop cover (“Parole Parole”) with that lovelorn spoken word, a hip-hop tune (“Drifting”) with uninspired rapping from G. Love, and an Afro-pop song (“African Diamond”) featuring a lion roaring, a monkey screeching, and other “sounds of the wild”.

ReCreation, in trying to cover so many different styles, is clearly an ambitious work. And perhaps that is the “recreation” Daulne was aiming for. But instead of synthesis, the result is a Zap Mama spread too thin with its best attributes (ie., vocals) diluted. This is earthy music for the street corner that will unfortunately be relegated to the background of the living room or neighborhood lounge.

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