ZAO - biography
Zao wields his needle, “L’aiguille”, sewing up rifts in his ravaged country and repairing the fabric of his career as an international singer and humorist, ripped apart time and again. First, he barely survived a pitiless civil war in the Congo. Then France’s immigration policy slammed the door in his face. So what has Zoba done? He tells the truth, in his own words. And he carries on talking: “I say you shouldn’t sew up a mouth that smells bad, a toothless mouth. I mean you shouldn’t hide vital things, it’s better to see the heart of the problem. There’s a Congolese proverb that says: the old man’s mouth always smells bad, but it still says good things.”
Zoba Casimir, aka Zao, is a man of experience. On the 24th March 2006, he celebrated his 53rd birthday. But having been born in Goma Tsé-Tsé in the Pool region cost him dear during the 1997-98 civil war. Refusing to share power, the masters of the war taught the children forcibly conscripted into the militia to look on him as an enemy, because he was related to the Pool clan. Some even claimed he was responsible for the disaster. After all, he did sing “Everyone’s corpsed” in “Ancien Combattant” (Veteran Soldier), his worldwide hit. This hilarious anti-military, anti-colonial caricature, sung in the slang of the tirailleurs sénégalais (France’s colonial infantrymen), the delicious forofifon naspa, was hijacked to serve the slaughterers.
So the farce turned into tragedy. He, the urban poet, the former schoolteacher turned idol of African television and stage, the hilarious intellectual warmly welcomed by France after he won the Radio France International “Prix Découvertes” in 1982; he, the moralistic comedian, was forced to flee to his native village. Hunted, he went to earth in the forest with his family, surviving on whatever they could gather. Nine months of suffering that robbed him of his four-year-old son; distressing events still painful to recall. Today, Zao says that “Artists do not belong to an ethnic group or tribe, they belong to everyone. We have an important part to play in society. Just because I’m a victim, it doesn’t mean I should give up. On the contrary, it makes me want to continue, to tell all those people that ignorance is the great sickness of Africa and leads to the worst situations. That’s the meaning of “L’aiguille” (The Needle).”
In the days of the “Marxist-Leninist” government of Denis Sassou Nguesso (1979-90), Zao, originally a schoolteacher, became a civil servant in Brazzaville. The success of his songs - “Sorcier Ensorcelé” (Witch Doctor Bewitched) in 1982, “Corbillard” (Hearse) in 1983, “Soulard” (Drunk) in 1986, “Moustique” (Mosquito) in 1988 and “Patron” (Boss) in 1989, all in the same vein as 1984’s “Ancien Combattant” (Veteran Soldier), forced the schools inspector to find him an office job. “When I came into the classroom, the children would start laughing. They mimed what they’d seen of me on TV,” Zao recalls. His new status enabled him to go on tours of Central Africa, East Africa, France and Europe. But then the Congo’s political transition of 1991-92 brought chaos. A first cycle of civil war broke out in 1993, the year when his album “Zao” was released on a major label. The conflict spread in June 1997, wiping out the patiently-amassed fruits of a European career built from France, earnings he had used to set up a production company in Brazzaville. Everything was swallowed up; his property was looted.
On “Renaissance” (Rebirth), the album he released in 2000, his new songs, such as “Lampe Tempête” (Storm Lamp), seemed tarnished by his recent ordeals. But however hard it was for him to get back on his feet, the humour was still there, providing a more dispassionate view. Zao’s performance at the Saint-Nazaire Les Escales festival in August 2003 was to be the preparation for his eagerly-awaited return to the stages of France. But sadly, the eight musicians backing him vanished just before they were due to return to the Congo. “The French Embassy in Brazzaville decided I was an accomplice and I haven’t been able to get a visa to return to France since then,” Zao explains. “I played no part in the musicians’ disappearance, but I had to take responsibility for the situation. Unfortunately, those young musicians didn’t realise that happiness wasn’t necessarily to be found in Europe. I’ve been going to France since my first album, but I’ve never stayed there. Now they’re in Europe without the proper papers, doing nothing, and that’s terrible!”
Now, two years of efforts to put together a new band have been crowned by this new album recorded in Brazzaville. On it, Zao pins a new insect into his collection: “Mouche” (Fly); we laugh at his jokes: “Elle a deux diables” (She Has Two Devils) and “Ze t’aime” (I Love You); and his decisive eloquence shines through in his burlesque portrayals of African society: “Virginité” (Virginity), “Mon Enfant” (My Child) and “L’aiguille” (The Needle). “I don’t know where my songs come from. My brain works and I write,” says Zao. “I only sing the truth. I’m the product of a society that shapes me, and I draw my inspiration from events. While things that go wrong must be condemned, I don’t want to smear anyone, only to leave marks.” As he makes a new start, we can only acknowledge his talent. As an artist, Zao plays a salutary role.
ZAO – album « L’AIGUILLE» CD Lusafrica 462622