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09.27.04 - 4:38 p.m.

ZAP MAMA : live at the Fillmore, 9/23

In the last couple of years, I've come to expect more from live performances. It used to be that I would go to a show just because I liked the band's CD or mp3s. But I am old and cranky now, and the bar has been raised. If you want me to get up off my rocking chair and stand in a loud room for 2 to 3 hours drinking overpriced cocktails and experiencing mild back pains, you better fucking PERFORM!! Wimpy indie rock bands, I am mostly talking to you.

When I went to see Jill Scott last month, I had a great time, even though the only thing I knew about her was that she sang R&B, which you will rarely if ever find me bumping in my ride. Her exuberant stage presence, her band's musical virtuosity, and the 'omegrown we'd smoked outside of Bimbo's all combined into an experience that reminded me why I go out in the first place. The crowd was giddy, and we all knew we were feeling some magic that night.

When Az. and I arrived at the Fillmore on Wednesday, it was unclear whether or not any magic would be transpiring. Four figures wearing traditional African garb were tinkling on xylophones and beating drums, while sporadic clusters of hippies danced on the mostly empty floor. The music sounded like bad calypso, although to be fair, I can't think of any circumstances under which I would use the phrase "good calypso."

I wondered if this was Zap Mama. Did I mention I had no idea who Zap Mama is? Well, I didn't. The only time I'd ever heard of them was a few years back, when I saw a beat boxing documentary at Res Fest in which their lead singer, Marie Daulne, featured prominently. She was an easy woman to fall in love with—strikingly tall and elegant, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, with a voice that was melodic even when just talking. She was one of the only female beat boxers in the documentary, and although she didn't actually do traditional breaks, you got the sense that she could make any sound she wanted to without breaking a sweat.

fig a: the cutie from Djibouti (note: not actually from Djibouti, but what rhymes with Zaire?)

Upon sidling up to the bar, I encountered Nick the architect, who told me Zap Mama hadn't come on yet. (I am contemplating labeling all people I mention in this journal, because that way you can at least form some mental picture of them. For instance, you have probably already deduced that Nick wears horn rimmed glasses and stylish jackets.) With time to kill, I wandered around, taking in the ambiance.

The nice thing about being in the Fillmore is that the entire building is imbued with a historical aura. There are posters from previous concerts plastered all over the walls in neat rows and columns. To escape the calypso, I headed up to the dining area on the second floor. Rather than pay $37 for a plate of congealed nachos, I chose to feast on the myriad examples of psychedelic 60's design. Every other poster seemed to feature Jefferson Airplane, who must have been annoyingly ubiquitous back in the day. A lot of the Jefferson Airplane art was done by this SF illustrator Wes Wilson. He created a font that is now almost synonymous with 60's rock. It's quite an achievement to have your design pass into the annals as signifier of an era.

fig b: best song title ever: "A Short Stop At The Transylvanian Brain Surgery," by Amon Düül. That doesn't relate to anything, I just wanted to throw it out there

After some rubber necking, I headed back down. By now quite a crowd had gathered. It was a diverse bunch of people, ranging from the hippies who'd been dancing earlier to suavely dressed urbanites to mothers and children. Our friends Nicole and Sven had brought their children India and Severin, and it was nice to see the whole family assembled. The lights went low and people started cheering. Then, as the stage lights came on, we saw the whole Zap Mama band assembled on stage.

In a further parallel to the Jill Scott show, there were three backup singers dressed in elaborate slinky gowns. An obese man dressed from head to toe in camoflauge manned the bass, and there were various other instrumentalists here and there. It was a big band. As the crowd's cheers grew to a crescendo, Marie Daulne strode onstage, resplendent in a crazy patterned gown and an enormous wide-brimmed purple hat. She looked every inch the diva.

As soon she came out, the crowd started going WILD. The band started into their first song, and the crowd responded with a level of enthusiasm normally only seen at Raiders games and witch-burnings. I thought the music was kinda eh. The next few songs continued in a similar vein, and despite the palpable energy all around me, I wasn't feeling it. It is a strange sensation to be in a crowd full of people who are crazy about the music, and not be enjoying it yourself. (cue smug Homer Simpson: "Everybody's stupid except me.")

The music got better as the evening progressed. Zap Mama's sound is a mixture of traditional African melodies, polyrhythmic scatting, R&B and hip hop. Their first few songs veered more to the R&B side, but soon they had veered into leftfield. Marie Daulne was at the center of it all, whooping and hollering and exhorting the crowd to dance.

I think liked most about the show was the liberating looseness of Daulne's performance. I am normally not a big fan of cries for audience participation, particularly at hip hop shows. I hate it when I’ve paid $20 and then some men on stage start barking orders at me. “Throw your hands in the air!” You throw YOUR hands in the air! I’m the one who bought a ticket! They always ask for the same thing, too. One can only throw one’s hands in the air so many times before getting bored.

But Daulne took the audience participation thing to another level. At times it felt like she was a choregrapher coordinating a bizarre yet festive dance routine. She had us hopping, spinning… I think at one point frog-jumping? I might have made that up. I definitely remember chanting “mama say mama sah ma ma koo sah," a la Michael Jackson, for what seemed an eternity. She also made us shake our keys, which produced a deafening din and had me worried that the Fillmore chandeliers might collapse on our heads. The band was clearly enjoying it all, trading licks with verve, while the backup singers added gospel-fervency to the mix.

Zap Mama played for about an hour, with several costume changes along the way. Their set concluded to uproarous applause, which lasted into their encore and after. Trapped in the traditional post-show Fillmore chaos, I had two thoughts. 1) If there was a fire in the building, we were all going to die. 2) I don't have to like a band's recorded music in order to enjoy them live! There doesn't have to be any connection at all! Thankfully, the second thought was enough of an epiphany to keep my mind off the first.

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