Zap Mama: Supermoon

Zap Mama
Heads Up

I used to regard Marie Daulne with suspicion. It’s easy to be suspicious of ambitious people. Everything they do seems to have an ulterior motive. They smile and you think, “Aha, I know why you’re smiling, and it isn’t friendship” — and then they tell us that everyone in the world should love themselves and love one another, and you think, “Mm-hm. Oh, I’m sure you really believe that. I’m sure you’re not saying it because it’s easy, everyday, feelgood shorthand calculated to give us all the loving fuzzies. Mmm-hmm. I’d love everybody too, Ms Daulne, if I had a stylist winding my hair up in seashell loops and dressing me in those artful mock-retro skirts and modish tabi. Bah! I remember when Zap Mama used to look like an actual group — I mean, you and a number of other women. Now it’s only you on the front of the album. You and your big eyes. You and your hip-hop fusion and your R&B and your French singing and your Central African jungle pygmy polyphonic choruses. Bah! Humbug! Growl!”

Eventually it turned into too much of a hassle not to like her and so I stopped. Her good humour seemed genuine, and her inventiveness was too entertaining to be dismissed. She likes to please a listener. Listening to Supermoon it’s easy to imagine her sitting over the album as if it were her stewpot, tasting a little spoonful here and there and throwing in a dollop more this or that when it was needed, maybe a cup of aural cornstarch to thicken it up. “They’ll enjoy this!” she seems to be thinking. Her last album, Ancestry in Progress, was a pygmy-fusion homage to American urban music, but in Supermoon (the title is a twist on the word superstar — “I am looking for singularity / I am not a superstar”, she sings in the title song, no, she’s a supermoon; we’re talking hard satellites here, none of those gas balls) the range of music she gives us is broader.

The urban rap and R&B resurface but this time they share space generously with chanson singing and accordion, with the country-folky twang of the title song, with quick Franco-African guitars, with the glassy noises that composers often use to suggest rain dotting the ground, and with the squirting and sugary tweaks of the autobiographical “Hey Brotha”. They’re cute, these squirts and tweaks, In fact, despite her obvious admiration for US hip-hop, her music-making spirit has always been more French than North American — it’s sweetened and flirtatious rather than beefy and muscular. She borrows the idea of rap without taking on the crudeness that is part of its strength. Her beats are strong but the squirting noise turns them into playful raspberries. (It seems to me that native French pop generally prefers to give you the come-on, even when that leads it into affectation and floss, while the US prefers to square off and punch you in the eye. Daulne, born in the Congo, is a French-speaking Belgian by migration; her father was a transplanted Walloon.)

The wall-of-sound Central African polyphony that she has been using since the earliest days of Zap Mama still runs through almost all of the songs. It’s sometimes expressed by the voices, sometimes by the instruments, and sometimes suggested by truncated hip-hop beats, the kind that seem to bounce back and truculently swallow themselves. As long as Daulne trusts this chorus effect the album is entertaining. It’s when she calms the music down and tries to make it sound simple and affecting that Supermoon starts to lose momentum. “Go Boy” owes something spiritually to Phil Collins and “Another Day in Paradise” although it’s not nearly as syrupy. (It doesn’t help that I can’t listen to this song’s hunted-boy lyrics and soft Africanisms without thinking of “Pearls”, that repellent blob of sympathy porn from Angelique Kidjo’s latest album.)

Her flirtation with country-pop in “Supermoon” sounds fine enough, and, with some promotional support behind it, might even chart. I’m not convinced that more country-pop was what the world needed, but there you go. Supermoon‘s problem is that it’s not as much fun as Ancestry in Progress, and Daulne is at her best when she does fun. I wonder if Ancestry was an album she’d been wanting to make for a while, wanting and planning so intently that afterwards she wasn’t sure which direction to choose next, and decided to test herself on a little bit of everything.

In some ways Supermoon is a progression (you can hear that she’s grown more daring since 2005’s 7, the album that introduced instruments to Zap Mama’s ’til-then a cappella sound) and in other ways it sounds as if she’s treading water, waiting for a fresh burst of inspiration to drive her. I hope it won’t drive her into the arms of another “Go Boy”. It would be pleasing to hear her go for broke, go mad and honestly stuff herself — as satisfying as watching a waif model, all wellhead eyes and chicken bones, eat a full meal and lap the juice off her fingers afterwards. Like an oyster, she could use some new grit for her pearls.

RATING 6 / 10


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