Zao

Born : 24/03/1953 in Goma Tsé-Tsé (Congo)
Language : French / Lingala
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : world music

It is humour above all which characterises Zao's style. Much more than a mere entertainer, Zao reveals the disorders and problems of his continent. Through laughter and irony, he transmits a political message profoundly of its time.

It is humour above all which characterises Zao's style. Much more than a mere entertainer, Zao reveals the disorders and problems of his continent. Through laughter and irony, he transmits a political message profoundly of its time.

It was on March 24 1955 (53?) that Casimir Zoba was born in Goma Tsé-Tsé, a district of Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo. Music filled his childhood: his father was a great fan of the sanza, a kind of small piano with metal touches. Like many children in Africa, Casimir was trained in the church choirs and traditional dances from the age of 12 onwards. It was a revelation for him, so much so that he joined several groups and bands in his secondary school, such as Adhérents or the Gloria. His enthusiasm for music was such that his parents found he was overlooking the rest… From 1973 to 1975, Casimir, known as Zao, sang in the highly angelic choir of the Church of the Three Martyrs, just to put him back in the path of righteousness, so to speak.

Schoolteacher

But it was soon back to more terrestrial interests when, around the age of twenty, he was taken on by the band Les Anges (more angels!) for percussions. The Congo, under a Marxist regime at the time, sent its hit groups, among which were Les Anges, to sing in "brother" countries such as the USSR, Cuba, East Germany, and Nigeria. Despite this stage success, Zao had decided to be a schoolteacher and went to teacher training college in 1978. 

At the same time he continued to perform with Les Anges until the early 1980's, when he began to sing solo. He was soon talent spotted, receiving the Prix de la Découverte from Radio France Internationale in 1982 more particularly for his song "Sorcier ensorcelé". The Zao style was set: songs with sometimes highly sensitive themes, even taboo in Africa like witchcraft, were clothed in a kind of humorous, second-degree comedy. The resulting humour was without doubt the mainspring of his success. 

Fighter

This prize was followed almost immediately by the Prize for the best song at the Festival des Musiques d'Afrique Centrale in 1983. This time, it was the song "Corbillard" which struck the jury with its unusual theme. Here, Zao tells the story of a dead man who does not want to go to the cemetery and who tries to persuade the hearse not to take him there! This hit attracted Barclay, the French label, which signed Zao the following year. His very first album came out in 84, entitled "Ancien combattant", an eponymous title which became one of the singer's most famous songs and his first hit. The song, which is anti-militarist, discusses a taboo from a caricatural, deliberately aggressive angle. Both committed and burlesque, Zao stands out in the African, and especially the Congo musical landscape, generally more concentrated on Soukouss.

His first album naturally led him to Paris , even if he never settled there, unlike other African musicians. In 1985 he was invited to the Festival Nord-Sud near Paris. The following year, he brought out his second album, "Soulard", and sang in many small Parisian clubs. Up to the end of the 1980's Zao brought out practically one record a year. In 1988, it was "Moustique", which contained the track "Apartheid", a Zao criticism of the segregation still in force in South Africa at the time. Then, in 1989, his devastating humour was again to the fore with his album "Patron" (Boss).

On the crest of his popularity, Zao began producing his own records and devoted himself more especially to the traditional music of his country. Early in the nineties, he produced a famous sanza player, Antoine Moundanda.

Zao the African

He went back on the road again in 1991 with a band of 18 musicians. At the Bataclan in Paris he appeared in the first half of Zaire musician Ray Lema's concert. Zao felt close ties to him, not in style but because he also made music different from the ordinary Congo Soukouss or Zaire rumba. They were both passionately in love with the traditional sounds and had explored other musical avenues. 

He returned to the Bataclan in December 1993 for the promotion of his album "Zao". Tempted by the new technology, he remixed his "Ancien combattant" and "Moustique" tracks. The new modernised versions are not always to the taste of his African fans, who nevertheless flock to each of his appearances. Zao tours Africa a great deal, where his shows, often with him in various disguises, delight the crowds. Aids, women, bureaucracy, corruption, and other sensitive subjects in Africa are all laughed at in his songs, the humour of which sugars the pill. His career is centred mainly on Africa and he appears more and more rarely in Europe. In 1997 he toured the CCF (French cultural centres) in Benin and Burkina Faso among others.

In 1998, Congo was in the midst of a bloody civil war and Zao was forced to flee Makélékélé, the neighbourhood of Brazzaville where he had made his home. He and his family sought refuge from marauding mobs in the equatorial rain forest, where they lived for over eight months. Tragically, the singer's four-year-old son died as a result.

Zao made a comeback on the recording front in 2000 with the release of "Renaissance", a new album featuring 13 new songs including "Lampe tempête." Unfortunately, this new album proved to be a complete flop in sales terms.

In August 2003, Zao made a comeback on the festival circuit in France, performing at the "Escales de Saint Nazaire." This concert was to have been a prelude to a future tour. But the singer got into trouble with the French authorities when his eight backing musicians disappeared after the show, failing to board a plane home to Congo. Zao was accused of having aided and abetted them and the French Embassy in Brazzaville refused to accord him a visa for many years to come.

Zao re-emerged on the live circuit in Dakar, Senegal, performing at "Africa Fête" in December 2004. The singer made no secret of his disappointment and disillusionment with the music world at that point, claiming he was ready to end his career.

2004: "L'aiguille"

Fortunately for music fans, Zao regained his lust for life and went on to release a new album on the Lusafrica label in May 2006. The album, entitled "L'Aiguille" (The Needle) was recorded in the Congolese capital and featured songs in both French and Lingala. Zao tackled serious topics on songs such as "Mon enfant" (My Child) and the title track "L'Aiguille", but his legendary humour also resurfaced on tongue-in-cheek songs such as "Elle a deux diables" and "Ze t'aime".

In June 2006, Zao performed in Marseilles, in the south of France, bringing the house down at "Africa Fête." On 21 June he played a concert in Djibouti for "La Fête de la Musique."

June 2006

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