Congolese music star Zao made a welcome comeback on the festival circuit three years ago, performing at "Les Escales de Saint-Nazaire" in France. But his return was marred by a dispute with consular officials who accused the singer from Brazzaville of helping his musicians 'disappear' after the show, when they should have been boarding a plane home to Congo.
Zao encountered further problems in 2000 when his new album – rather inaptly entitled Renaissance – turned out to be a total flop in sales terms. In 1993, civil war had broken out in his homeland, reaching crisis point in 1997/98. Zao was personally caught up in the tragedy. His production company was raided by armed marauders and he was forced to flee into the equatorial rain forest to save his life. It was at this point that the singer lost his four-year-old son. This series of misfortunes left deep psychological scars and it would be several years before "Monsieur cadavéré" (Mr Cadaverous) found the courage to start his career again from scratch and form a new band.
Zao may have lost some of his zest for life, but his biting wit remains firmly intact – and any doubts on that score are dispelled by one listen to the razor-sharp lyrics on L'Aiguille. "The new album's a logical follow-on for me," Zao explains modestly, "After fighting a war, old soldiers have to sit down and treat old wounds then set about rebuilding the country. Former fighters have a duty to reconcile people, however difficult that might be - and I'm talking about the situation in the whole of Africa here, not just Congo. That's why my new album's called L’Aiguille (The Needle). It's a symbolic object with the power to sew the broken threads of society back together again."
At the age of 53 – with his famous bob hat pulled down over his eyes and his inseparable guitar in hand – Zao is fired with an energy that would be impressive even in a much younger man. And his "Needle" is intended to prick right where it hurts, proving that the trouble-maker from Goma is still very much alive and kicking on satirical songs such as Elle a deux diables (Two Devils in Her). "I'm a product of my society,' quips Zao, "and I take a long hard look at what I see going on around me. What happens when a woman walks down the street in Africa? First you have a look at her from the front, then you turn round and take a look from behind. It's like two devils – the first one leaves a big hole in your wallet and the second will have you winding up in jail!"Tapping into the same dark humour, other potential hits on L'Aiguille - La mouche, Ze t’aime and Chérie Ani – recall the Golden Age of Zao which happened in the 1980s when the Congolese star ruled the charts with classics such as Soûlard, Moustique and Sorcier ensorcelé. For his new album, Zao has composed arrangements that shimmer with rainbow colours, mixing touches of blues, zouk and salsa with traditional Congolese rumba.
Social commentator, ironic poet, comic spokesperson - Zao has gone by many guises over the years, but he has always based his identity on a typically Congolese concept, that of the "Nzonzi." "Where I come from," the singer says, "the 'Nzonzi' is both a sage and a judge, someone who has the capacity to sit back, reflect and weigh things up. The 'Nzonzi' chooses his words very carefully and always tries to be fair and impartial in his criticism." Zao's decision to stay in Congo, even at the height of the civil war (when many other African artists opted for prolonged periods of exile in the West) was no doubt taken after mature reflection.
Zao is a singer and musician who believes creation and inspiration come from remaining close to his compatriots. "If I lived in Paris, I wouldn't have the same kind of inspiration, because French humour is a very different kettle of fish," he says. The singer, who remains deeply attached to his native Congo, actually worked as a primary school teacher before becoming involved with the music world. And he took his role very seriously, even though laughter appears to have been an essential tool in his classroom. "I remember this one pupil of mine called Paul," he laughs, "I'd asked him to keep a piece of bread in his desk for me, because the inspector was due for a visit that day and I obviously didn't want him to catch me eating in class. Anyway, what happened was halfway through the lesson, Paul suddenly sprang up from his seat and shouted, "Here's your bread, sir!" I've never forgotten that!"
Zao remains committed to playing an educational role today, too. Besides instructing people through his songs, he has set up "L'Espace Zao", a music school in Brazzaville where he teaches budding young talents to play guitar. This is, perhaps, his way of encouraging songwriting vocations amongst Congo's young generation who are currently tuned into the n’dombolo dance craze coming out of neighbouring Kinshasa. Since the death of the Cameroonian star Francis Bebey, Zao – together with Zêdess from Burkina Faso – is one of the rare satirical voices in Africa capable of holding a mirror up to African society and putting his own unique comic twist on what he sees. Long may the Congolese king of comedy reign!
Translation : Julie Street