Zara McFarlane: Ancestral Tongues

Serena Antinucci By

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I am hopeful that we are experiencing a time of real awareness and positive change. I am most interested in how this moment can inform historical contexts and instigate a more well rounded view in how we learn and discuss history —Zara McFarlane
Songs of An Unknown Tongue is the fourth album by multi-award winning English singer Zara Mcfarlane, released on July 17 on Brownswood Recordings. Three years on from Arise!, also on the Brownswood label, the singer performs a more personal, in-depth exploration of her musical and cultural roots. After a journey in Jamaica, her ancestral motherland, McFarlane opens jazz to the influences of the Caribbean tradition, to ancient rhythms that dialogue with contemporary sounds and beats, in a network that intensifies step by step. The success of this modern production, generating a bold electronic landscape, is also due to the two producers, Kwake Bass and Wu-Lu, who worked with her on the album. Songs of An Unknown Tongue marks the beginning of a new path for Zara Mcfarlane. It is the definition of her identity after returning home. A musical, spiritual and political evolution that contains messages in which we can all recognize ourselves.

All About Jazz: Your last album Arise was released three years ago. Songs of an Unknown Tongue is your fourth album. It is produced by producers Kwake Bass and Wu-Lu. Back in 2017, you explored Jamaican musical traditions and connections with jazz. What angle did you have in mind when you started working on this new album?

Zara McFarlane: I wanted to write an album that was rhythmically led and fused electronic elements. I had the opportunity to research early Jamaican folk music in 2017, initially for an idea I had for a different creative project, but it evolved into this album.

AAJ: In 2018 you returned to your roots in Jamaica and deepened anthropological-musical aspects related to the tradition of the island, its ancestors. Ethnomusicologists would say that you conducted a real field research. What did you discover about your musical roots?

ZM: Unfortunately, I did not get to conduct field research and see the music live but I was able to see video footage of the traditional ceremonies with the music, dance and rituals at the Institute of Jamaica. There were various traditions that I learnt about some are related to specific events such as Bruckins which is in celebration of Emancipation Day, Jonkanoo in association with Christmas, but the majority are related to the lead up to funeral proceedings.

AAJ: So you have worked with the rhythms associated with the old Jamaican rituals, such as Bruckins, Dinki Mini, Revival, Kumina and Nyabinghi. Did you know them already or did you discover them during your trip?

ZM: I had heard of Kumina and Revival but I had not heard of the others prior to speaking with the folk expert Marjorie Whylie. She took me through the rhythms by playing the different components and explained some of the rituals and dancing that accompanies the music. And also the context and meaning behind some of the traditions.

AAJ: On the album you collaborated with producers Kwake Bass and Wu-Lu. How did that collaboration come about? How was it collaborating with them?

ZM: I approached the guys with an idea to create a rhythmically led album that would intertwine these traditional rhythms within more electronic soundscape. Bringing the old with the new. This was the starting point. This began an exploration of how to present the rhythms exploring live percussion, then sometimes replaying the live percussion into the computer to create digital prints of the rhythm to then explore more synth/electronic sounds with the original rhythm. Lyrically and melodically I chose to utilise the themes of call and response, storytelling and various subject matter inspired directly by the folk traditions, as well as Caribbean history and my own personal perspectives as a black British woman were explored.

AAJ: In "Black Treasure," the first single of the album, one can feel deep pride for your black roots. As you said: "it's a declaration, proclamation and celebration of black Britishness and womanhood." In the other tracks you celebrate freedom, address issues such as colonialism, African slavery, race and identity. These issues are strongly linked to today's protests. How are you experiencing this moment?

ZM: It has been a difficult time. I am hopeful that we are experiencing a time of real awareness and positive change. I am most interested in how this moment can inform historical contexts and instigate a more well rounded view in how we learn and discuss history.

AAJ: I really liked the cover art of the record. Who is the artist, and what does it represent?

ZM: Thank you. Sajjad.wrk on instagram did the artwork. It is a scene of the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. It has the hibiscus flower that is a one of the well known flowers of Jamaica. It is a beautiful collage of Jamaican images.

AAJ: The album contains many references to symbols linked to life and death rituals, together with a search of how your roots have shaped your personality. The English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said that "the home is the place from which you start, from which everything begins." Where do you feel your true home is? Jamaica or England?

ZM: I was born in UK but I have an affinity to Jamaica as it was a place that I went to many times as a child. I have fond memories of being with my grandparents and family there. The heat, the smells, the beach, the sea, the mountains and trees; the best memories are in Jamaica.

AAJ: Are you already working on future projects?

ZM: I have been really focused on this record for the past year or so, I have been enjoying the pause lockdown has given us but am now ready to tour! Lets go!

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