Antibalas and Zap Mama in Atlanta

Wesley Hodges on January 30, 2015

Antibalas and Zap Mama

Variety Playhouse

Atlanta, Ga.

January 27

It’s rare to be so familiar with a band’s discography and live prowess and enter one of that band’s shows with such a lack of expectations. Having seen a smattering of Antibalas sets at various festivals over the last decade-plus, I was well aware of the sustained burst of danceable joy their Afrobeat / funk sounds can induce in a crowd. However, I had zero knowledge of the vocal ensemble Zap Mama (led by the multitalented Belgian and Congolese vocalist Marie Daulne) until last night and, with this being an early show in the tour, there was no proverbial ‘word-on-the-street’ chatter about what we might expect.

Bucking the trend of most funk or Afrobeat shows featuring a lead vocalist, Zap Mama (sans Antibalas) began the night with only their voices, introducing the crowd to their beautifully layered harmonies and Afro-pop infused vocal techniques. Emphasizing voice over the highly danceable rhythms Antibalas would soon lay down was a deft move as the four ladies quickly gained the crowd’s rapt attention and adoration.

After the impressive vocal introduction from the four abundantly talented ladies that comprise the touring Zap Mama ensemble, Antibalas joined in the fray, inviting out Akil The MC from Jurassic 5 early on as a nice and well-received surprise. Songs from Antibalas’ last (self-titled) LP were featured early on, as the always vivacious, one-of-a-kind Antibalas vocalist Amayo took to the stage for “Dirty Money” and “Ratcatcher” among other familiar tunes. A number of new Antibalas tunes entered the mix (I noted one titled “Hook and Crook” on the setlist) and a few Zap Mama originals, evidencing a good amount of pre-tour rehearsal that likely went into producing such a smooth and near flawless production.

One of the big standout moments of the night was Antibalas’ arrangement of the 1984 Rockwell/Michael Jackson pop joint “Somebody’s Watching Me.” With a very subtle reference to the NSA, it’s preposterous to think how this classic, somewhat silly pop tune has evolved into a seemingly prophetic allusion to today’s Big Brother culture of paranoia. Most probably weren’t looking too deep into it, as this was one of the more well-received tunes of the night and a rare chance for the audience to sing along.

The standout, jaw-on-the-ground moment came late in the set when Zap Mama bassist and singer Manou Gallo took a minute to showcase her abilities, running through a blindingly fast and technically perfect array of slap-based riffs and harmonics in a similar vein as masters like Victor Wooten or Tal Wilkenfeld.

Finally, after a stage break for the encore, Zap Mama managed to wow the crowd again by singing each member’s name in the sixteen-piece ensemble, an impressive upgrade from the general “give-it-up-for-(insert name here)-on-the-(insert instrument here)” intros. Zap Mama demanded and received full audience participation during the encore, getting the crowd low to the ground. Alas, all sixteen members lined the front of the stage, bowing down after a night that served as an invigorating reaffirmation of the Brooklyn band’s collective musical prowess, and a memorable introduction to Zap Mama’s unique style.

Looking back a day later, the back-and-forth interplay between Antibalas and the members of Zap Mama was the most impressive element, utterly seamless and, the addition of a female presence brings a welcome balance and refreshed energy to Antibalas’ already extraordinary live show. Despite the polyrhythmic and inherently ‘difficult’ nature of Antibalas’ music and equally challenging nature of Zap Mama’s blended vocal tapestries, somehow it all fit together as it would if these two collectives had been a singular touring force for years (instead of only a few shows).