It takes courage for a musician to depart from a successful recipe to the extent that the British singer and songwriter Zara McFarlane does on Songs of An Unknown Tongue. The disc is not a complete shift from the paradigm of her three previous albums, but it is a radical spin on it.
First, what has changed. McFarlane's last album, Arise (Brownswood, 2017) was, like its predecessors, an acoustic set played by a band drawn from McFarlane's fellow luminaries on the new London jazz scene. These included guitarist Shirley Tetteh, trombonist Nathaniel Cross, tenor saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd, who was also the producer. Horn arrangements, written by McFarlane, were features of most tracks. Songs of An Unknown Tongue, on the other hand, is fundamentally an electronic set and is played by a wholly new lineup of musicians. These include multi-instrumentalists Kwake Bass and Wu-Lu, who are also the producers and arrangers. Horns, played by Soothsayers' founders saxophonist Idris Rahman and trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, are included on just two of the ten tracks.
Next, what is unchanged. McFarlane's spellbinding, crystalline voice continues to be acoustically recorded and reproduced and the primary focus of attention. Her lyrics, as before, are strong on message and relate to the experience of being a black person in Britain, touching on race, identity and the legacy of colonialism.
McFarlane's performances aside, what binds Arise and Songs of An Unknown Tongue together is her embrace of her Jamaican heritage. What makes them distinct from each other is how that heritage is referenced in the material, lyrically and instrumentally. Born and brought up in London, McFarlane made an extended trip to Jamaica in 2018, when she penetrated further into the country's folk culture and spiritual traditions than she had been able to do on previous, shorter visits. She devoted much of her time to researching the African-derived rhythms that shape the country's folk music. On her return to London she worked with Wu-Lu and Kwake Bass to present them in a modern electro-acoustic context.
On the new album, McFarlane addresses the iniquities of empire head on. Penultimate track "Roots Of Freedom," for instance, talks about "revolution" and even "retribution"when the British empire finally banned slavery, compensation was paid, not to the slaves, but, incredibly, to the slave owners. There is anger here and it is justified. But Songs of An Unknown Tongue is not a bitter album. It looks forward to a brighter future while acknowleding the past and confronting present. It is deep, immaculately crafted and beautiful.
Everything Is Connected; Black Treasure; My Story, Broken Water; Saltwater; Run Of Your Life; State Of Mind; Native Nomad; Roots Of Freedom; Future Echoes.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.