Zara McFarlane (from the album Songs Of An Unknown Tongue, Brownswood Recordings) (by Chris Wheatley)
Songs of an Unknown Tongue is the fourth album by British singer-songwriter Zara McFarlane. It's been three years since 2017s Arise, a memorable and very modern record, which nevertheless brought to mind the adventurous 1970’s compositions of Alice Coltrane. With this latest release, Zara McFarlane seeks to explore the esoteric spiritual and musical tapestry which comprises the rich history of her ancestral home of Jamaica. It is clear from the outset that this is a project which Zara has infused with deep passion and consideration, having spent time researching at both The National Library of Jamaica and the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston. That research lead to a lengthy study of rhythms associated with the traditional rituals of the land. Bringing these rhythms back to her London base, McFarlane set about analyzing, deconstructing and recombining these elements into a personal exploration of heritage, history and spirit.
Echoing Alice Coltrane's own release, Universal Consciousness, Songs of an Unknown Tongueopens with “Everything is Connected,” a startlingly original composition which mixes processed beats, hand-drums, swirling keys and McFarlane's celebrated voice into a complex and shifting song that flutters and drives. Straight away the Jamaican influence is obvious. Those cognizant with classic reggae or calypso will discern much that is familiar in the hypnotic patterns and cadences which sway beguilingly as McFarlane sings of sacred moments intertwining through dreams.
It is a bold and breathtaking start, which lays down a template for the rest of the set. Zara McFarlane weaves traditional and physical elements with electronica in a manner which results in a wholly organic and warm-sounding music. Her voice is clear as crystal, free of histrionics and full of feeling. The songs appear to defy gravity, floating like bees and unfolding like flowers. Not since Jah Wobble's album, The Light Programme, have I heard electronics utilized in such a thrilling manner. “My Story” is a bubble upon a stream, drifting gently, with slow bass, rolling hand-drums and drum machines, gentle keys and, of course, those beautiful vocals. “Broken Water” echoes and glitches, fades and thuds. McFarlane often overdubs herself, setting up a rolling crescendo of voice, accenting and chanting to great effect. As the journey continues it becomes impossible to discern the natural from the constructed. There are no harsh angles here, no sharp edges, just wide oceans of mesmerizing semi-alien water, beckoning you in, through and under, to the well-spring of the soul.
Jazz aficionado's may find this a step too far from traditional shores. That would be a crying shame. Alice Coltrane would surely have adored the off-beat vocals, shimmering keys and nuanced delivery. Jazz is at the heart of Zara McFarlane and, like Coltrane, she is able to produce challenging and complicated music which is simultaneously inviting and very human. Lose yourself in “Saltwater” for example; an impressionist water-colour of synth washes, reverberating calls, keyboard drones and strong currents. Album closer “Future Echoes,” in contrast, is a funky, skipping number which rattles and whirls like a Motown pop hit filtered through the lens of Talking Book-era Stevie Wonder.
The true wonder here is that every second of Songs of an Unknown Tongue feels uniquely connected. McFarlane weaves a constantly coherent, constantly charming and exciting narrative from disparate elements which, in her hands, do not sound disparate at all. At the culmination of the ten tracks you will be left simultaneously enervated and relaxed, refreshed and inspired. Songs of an Unknown Tonguewill put a smile on your face and a light in your heart. Who could ask for more?
Listen and buy the music of Zara McFarlane from AMAZON
For more information, please visit the Zara McFarlane website