Zap Mama and Antibalas played The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on 2/21/15. We sent M. Sloves to review and D. Lee to shoot.
The first thing I thought about when I showed up for Zap Mama with Antibalas at The Broad Stage was the venue. The Broad Stage is part of that new school wave of architecture that dots LA from downtown to Santa Monica. Organic curves of lightly stained wood panels stretching toward the ceiling. Balconies perched atop lotus shaped walls that wrap like a membrane around the main seating area. If the building wasn’t designed by Frank Gehry, it certainly has his architectural DNA smudged all over it. Sort of a poor man’s Disney Hall. Visually striking, yet it begs the question: what the hell are Zap Mama and Antibalas doing playing here? There’s no room to dance and the crowd was at least 80% filled with season ticket holders, basically the very wealthy, the very white, and the very very old. This was a Dorothy Chandler Pavilion crowd, folks more inclined to observe with their eyes than to let loose with their ass.
We would see.
Apparently I missed the memo about Antibalas playing WITH Zap Mama as a backing band (not as an opening act), so I was a little surprised when the lights dimmed and Marie Daulne aka Zap Mama stepped onto the stage. The evening opened with one of her patented a cappella compositions – Marie and her backing singers blending vocal instrumentation with creative breath work and spoken word. As stunning as it is to listen to, it’s also worth watching carefully to see the process, the folding of the mouth and tongue into odd shapes that enable them to add layer upon layer to their orchestral beatbox until they’ve filled the room with a cosmic sonic energy that matches the images projected behind them of shooting stars and celestial orbs rocketing through the universe.
It’s a pretty wild exhibition of the potential that we hold in our breath. My yogi friends might call it prana (intake of energy) and apana (outpour of energy). Not to get too hippy-dippy here, but there was definitely some transcendent and spiritual qualities to what these three women were creating. As the music –still a cappella—slowed down a beat and the energy began to decrescendo, the images behind the band started to shift from the mysteries of the cosmos to the awe of a sunrise over a tropical rainforest. A move from the prenatal to the natal. An awakening. And with that awakening came the slow addition of non-vocal instruments. Enter the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra onto the stage.
If you’ve ever been to a pot luck, then you know the genius of the 7 layer dip. It’s in the layers. And that’s what Antibalas brought to the table. Zap Mama and her two BAD ASS backup singers already laid the foundation. As Antibalas entered the arena, rhythmic beats and visceral eruptions of brass added structure and power to the evolving composition. Each sequential layer of percussion and horns and strings helped to fill in the space around the singers, adding a sense of completeness when you didn’t even know that there were pockets of emptiness to be filled.
Right about now is when it finally dawned on me why we were at the Broad. The show was a performance in the formal sense of the word. Zap Mama and Antibalas were telling a story and it actually kinda made sense to be sitting down and listening. But dude, it’s still Zap Mama and Antibalas. Bodies must move. It’s a karmic imperative and a scientific fact. So it was no surprise that a small but committed group of SMCC global dance majors and a cadre of others made restless by the confines of a seated venue eventually made their way from the cheap seats (of which there really are none at the Broad), to the front side aisles to revolt against the man and to honor the artists by expressing themselves creatively through the joy of dance.
And speaking of creative physical expression, not sure anyone beats Antibalas’ lead singer Amayo. As Zap Mama stepped back to take a breath, Amayo stepped forward with what I later learned is his unique blend of Kung Fu, music, and dance: FU-ARKIST-RA. Talk about a guy who simply Does. Not. Give. Any. Fucks. Stalking the stage in orange patent leather loafers and a full denim jumpsuit unbuttoned down to his waist. You either gotta be from the continent or the Venice Boardwalk to pull off that style. With face paint and long braids wrapped and tied up into a Kid ’n Play hi-top fade, Amayo is a force of nature so irresistible that he actually got the blue hairs in the audience to get down with some call and response.
And Amayo is just a part of what makes the entire Zap Mama + Antibalas experience so intense: they all represent the phenomenon of creativity intersecting with talent, intersecting with execution in a syncretic blend of music and language that neutralizes the inability to understand individual words. With Zap Mama and Antibalas, the individual words and literal translations quickly become irrelevant because you know that this family of artists is chasing the universal through the sonic. So it’s okay to abandon the precision of meaning for the feeling of the sound. Because if you let it, it will open up meanings far more precise and compelling than the dictionary definition of any English, French, African, or other language could ever provide.
And Zap Mama is sexy. I may forever regret saying this but between Marie and her backup singers, Zap Mama is like the Destiny’s Child of Afrobeat.
But before my credibility is totally shot, let get back to the music. As Amayo filled in during the Zap Mama break, the dancers in the aisles –a pretty classic blend of culturally curious frat bros, burning man alumni, KCRW interns, and middle aged amateur salsa dancers– were kept fully satisfied. Antibalas did what Antibalas do, they unleashed brass horn madness over thick percussive heartbeats, the waves of musical explosion punctuated by the projected visuals of colorful mandalas bursting across the screen behind the band. As they eased off, the brass section opened up for a super-porno bassline that was the first of a series of solos: keyboards, bongos, trumpets…by the time they reached the guitar section, it felt like the soundtrack to a cop chase in 1970s Brooklyn…or Kinshasa…or Lagos…a West African Sabotage with dudes doing Kung Fu in dashiki tunics and platform shoes. You think Amayo got in my dome a little bit? Definitely.
At this point, Zap Mama returned for Act III and instead of pulling in the reins on the Antibalas apeness, they just rolled with it. The performance had become a party and there was no intention to turn back. A cover of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”, more rotating solos, images of weird sperm rockets exploding on the projector screen…it might have started to feel like things were becoming a bit unhinged except that Marie Daulne always carries herself like a total boss. So confident, smooth, and polished – not just in her vocals but in the way she looks and the way she moves. Marie may look half her age but I just don’t think there’s any way a younger woman could control a room the way she does. And I certainly don’t know if anyone of ANY age could have ended the night the way she did: cheesy 80s/90s pop world beat Caribbean vibes that had me expecting the cast of Friends to dance on stage in a conga line that suddenly gave way to a ruthless bassline and funk soul homage to the JB’s – a bizarre back and forth with freezes and stops, and call and response, all led by Marie channeling the spirit of an afro-Parisian James Brown that in the last moments of the performance achieved what I would have believed impossible: she got the entire house of grey-haired aging socialites dancing and jumping around the halls of The Broad. Like a bizarre outtake from Cocoon, it encapsulated everything that the evening represented: the universal cannot be denied.