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Zara McFarlane - Songs of an Unknown Tongue (Album Review)

17 July 2020

Album Rating 4.5/5

Live Potential 4.5/5

Diversity in Songs 4/5

Favourite Songs Black Treasure, My Story, Future Echoes

Zara McFarlane’s latest album is an outstanding project. The album delves deep into the traditional rhythms of Jamaica, her ancestral country of origin, resulting in a beautiful meeting of jazz, Jamaican folk music and electronic beats.

Songs of an Unknown Tongue was released on Brownswood Recordings on Friday 17th July.

The album has been a long-running project for the multi-award winning vocalist since she visited Jamaica in 2018, following her successful album Arise the year before. During her visit, she researched traditional rhythms of Jamaican rituals at The National Library of Jamaica and the Institute of Jamaica, including Bruckins, Dinki Mini, Revival, Kumina and Nyabinghi.

"I listened really carefully, deeply, and began to hear the emphasis and accents," says McFarlane.

After studying these musical traditions, McFarlane returned to London and teamed up with producers Kwake Bass and Wu-Lu to create Songs of an Unknown Tongue.

The album opens with 'Everything is Connected', an electronically produced tune with synthesisers, beats and Zara's powerful voice. Deconstructed Jamaican folk rhythms, often presented as electronic beats, make for a perfect backdrop to McFarlane's voice. 'Everything is Connected' celebrates this conjoining of old and new.

'Black Treasure', the lead single released in May 2020, is the second track of the album. It is a fantastic tune and typical of the whole album. McFarlane says that 'Black Treasure' is a "declaration, proclamation and celebration of black Britishness and womanhood".

I loved seeing the video track of 'Black Treasure', linked above. The animation of a hummingbird and an island is all that is needed, allowing the viewer to give full attention to McFarlane's lyrics and sounds.

The production value of the album is one of its key strengths. The textures and the varieties in volume take the listener on a musical journey, reflecting McFarlane's own journey to Jamaica.

The third track, 'My Story', was a personal favourite. With more traditional drumming opening up the tune, followed by a simple but effective bassline and McFarlane's chiming vocals. "It was my story", is the repeated line throughout the tune, with implications pointing to McFarlane's Jamaican ancestry and her identity as a black British woman. The song, and the album, feels deeply personal to McFarlane, and deeply important to the world.

Zara McFarlane
Zara McFarlane

The sounds are complemented by consistent imagery of water, with tracks like 'Broken Water' and 'Saltwater' alluding to the Caribbean isles of McFarlane's ancestry. McFarlane's singing on 'Saltwater' really shows off her talent as a vocalist, and some of the lines really resonate for the listener: 'you won't let me be free,' she sings.

The album ends on 'Future Echoes', which displays the sounds associated with today's jazz scene. In many ways, this track seems to be the album’s crowd-pleasing hit. It has everything from the head-nodding rhythms of London jazz, matched with Jamaican rhythms and horns to top it all off.

The themes of the album, which include colonialism, race and identity, resonate loudly in a crucial time. McFarlane's celebration of her ancestral background and her use of Jamaican folk music are significant factors in what makes this album so emotive and powerful.

Zara McFarlane has produced another treasure in today’s vibrant jazz scene but it appears more important than that. The album's material is deeply personal and honest. It feels like McFarlane put her heart into this album, and the effect is beautiful and inspiring.


Buy and stream Songs of an Unknown Tongue here:

Follow and keep up to date with Zara McFarlane here:

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