Worldly: Zap Mama does it right

>>Zap Mama: Ancestry In Progress  (Luaka Bop)

In a strange twist on the spirit of the season, I ran into a friend last week who invited me to boycott big spending this holiday season in an effort to fight today's rampant commercialism. It sounded like a good a idea. Shoot, I'm about as short on cash as the offering plate in a Christian church in Kabul anyway.

If you're broke like me and have to weigh carefully every purchase this year– or even if you're lucky enough to have money to burn– take note of an album that will brighten your holiday atmosphere: Ancestry In Progress by Belgian-born African singer Zap Mama.

I can't begin to explain the excitement I felt when I first heard this record. First of all, I'm always in search of artists who are true representations of the infinite possibilities of music. Zap Mama is world music, but not the kind by a bunch of third world musicians dressed in traditional garb waiting for a donation from UNICEF. I'm talking world music that blends elements from all over this green/blue earth to create something so unusual and encompassing that it appeals to anyone anywhere in the world.

Signed to David Byrne's (yes, the Talking Heads guy) Luaka Bop label in 1991 on recommendations from Sting and Peter Gabriel, Zap Mama has made tremendous waves on the international scene. With the vision and vocals of Marie Daulne as the centerpiece, Zap Mama has transformed a female a cappella quintet singing traditional west African and soukous music into Daulne's vehicle for blending ancestral music with the sounds of the West.

Thus Ancestry In Progress is an expressive look into what can happen when the spirit of music from the motherland combines with modern elements of '70s soul, jazz, drum 'n bass, and hip hop. Attempts to mix these styles have been made before, but never have I found the merger done so tastefully and effortlessly.

Think Sadé blended with Arrested Development, Miriam Makebe, and Bobby McFerrin. If that makes you dizzy, try not to think about it too hard. Just imagine the sound of a five-part vocal arrangement of a west African tribal song riding out for 20 seconds. Instead of some obscure percussive instrument coming in, a soulful backbeat played by ?estlove of The Roots drops instead, accompanied by acoustic guitar, upright bass, and then later that obscure percussive instrument.

Oh, yes, I did mention ?estlove, the drummer/producer who has had his hand in the rebirth of soul music (neo-soul). Zap Mama does enlist his help for a few numbers on this album, as well as contributions from the likes of Erykah Badu, Lady Alma, and rappers Common and Talib Kweli.

But the guests don't make the album. In the end, it's about the sexy, sassy, soulful, spiritual sounds of Zap Mama. So if you're looking to spend less than $20 this holiday, you might wanna pick this up. I guarantee your lucky friends will still be enjoying it long after the chia pet's hair has fallen out and George Foreman's grill is a rusted relic out on the patio.

"Ancestry in Progress," by Zap Mama