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Language is no barrier when Zap Mama celebrates humanity


Over the phone, it isn't always easy for Marie Daulne to make herself understood.

Though her English isn't bad, she has a tendency to fall back on French pronunciation and grammar, and there are some words that escape translation altogether. Given that English is, at best, her third language -- her father is Belgian, her mother Zairian, and she grew up speaking both French and Pygmy -- that's understandable. But it can make interviews slow going.

Onstage with Zap Mama, however, things are different. This a cappella combo, which Daulne founded and directs, is used to making the kind of connections that reach across cultural differences. As a result, language is rarely a problem for the group.

As she speaks, Daulne is in Chicago, where her group is on tour behind its second album, "Sabsylma." (Don't worry about the title; it's not from some obscure language. " 'Sabsylma' is the first syllables of our names," says Daulne. "Sab-ine [Kabongo], Syl-vie [Nawasadio] and Ma-rie.")

"I think everywhere, they can understand Zap Mama," she says. "When we are onstage we move a lot, and imitate with our bodies what we sing. So if nobody can understand our language we speak, then sometimes [we sing] not with language, just sound. And if we move onstage to imitate what we sing, then people can understand it."

Some of that comes from recognizing the commonality of human experience, and the fact that all humans use the same sounds to express basic emotion.

"When you're tired, you ahhhh," she says, sighing. "When you're happy, you laugh. In Pygmy, American, Belgian, Zairian, Canadian, Inuit, Eskimo, everywhere. It's the same laugh. And we play with that, with this, how it's the same with everybody. I think if people recognize something in Zap Mama, it's this."

Of course, it helps that Daulne is used to navigating cultural differences. "I'm born in two cultures, and I think it's easy for me to discover and understand another, because I have a Belgian family, and I have an African family," she says. "When I go to visit my African family, it's different than when I go to my European family. I have to change and understand and respect each difference in each country. It's like a father and mother."

But like any child, Daulne has preferences of her own, and definitely sees advantages to the African way of life. "In African society, they put a value in different things," she explains. "It's in nature -- the seed, the water, the wind. And for Europeans, the value is in the TV, the power, the house and the money.

"Together, it's interesting, because here we lose something. We lose some of the essence of the human in a modern town, because society needs to give a direction for the people [beyond] just to sell and to buy.

"An old man in Pygmy said to me that we don't have to put love in material things, because the bad spirit goes in. But when you only love humans and nature, the good spirit goes in.

"I said, Ah. That's the difference. Modern people are very violent and unhappy people, and we transform a lot of things into self, self, self. In Africa, in Pygmy, they are very pacific and enjoy it. Maybe if you go back to this form of survival, maybe we can smile more."

For Daulne, that insight has since taken the form of a musical mission. "With my music, I want to remember why we are here. We are here to love people, to make babies, to eat, to drink and to survive -- not only to get money and material things."

With a message like that, is it any wonder Zap Mama doesn't need translation?

Phone Zap

To hear excerpts from Zap Mama's album "Sabsylma," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6233 after you hear the greeting.

Live Zap

When: Tonight, 8 p.m.

Where: Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. N.W., Washington

Tickets: $25

Call: (410) 481-7327 for tickets, (202) 783-0360 for information

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