Album Review: Zara McFarlane Traces Her Afro-Caribbean Identity on Arise

Zara McFarlane is charting a star system of African diasporan heritage, painted with the lush rousing strokes of jazz and soul melodies, dipped in rich history and fragmented memories on her third studio album, Arise. The British-Jamaican soul singer sets about linking the various nexuses of her identity by floating between individual and shared experiences that compose this heritage. The by-product of her search, this breath-taking album, is set to be released on September 29, via Brownswood Recordings.

The album begins with a solemn Ode To Kumina, a tradition of ceremonies of music and dance transmitted through the enslaved in the Caribbean and borrowed from the BaKongo of modern day Congo. This well preserved musical tradition, hardwired into the psyche of the people that practice it, serves as a conduit for the themes Zara McFarlane addresses on this album. The deliberate starting point also allows her to embark on the musical odyssey on a solemn note as she floats through different sonic palettes from upbeat Afro-Caribbean soul drenched in spirituality to the cool and temperate UK jazz whilst sticking to a consistent sound throughout.

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Zara McFarlane

The polarity of Zara McFarlane’s voice, evidence of her dexterity as an artist as she is able to borrow responsibly from all the sounds she has been exposed to and use what she needs most to tell her story, brings this project to life. On a song like Silhouette, the stand out cut on this project, she appears just briefly, towards the end of the record, after the serenading lead of the saxophone, through a sunflower field of mellow piano chords and steady jazzy drum lines. Her voice, unannounced, immediately alters the mood of the soothing song into a passionate appeal as you chase the highs in her notes, only to fall back into bliss of the lows. Silhouette, feels somewhere between a hybrid cross of a cut from John Coltrane’s Sketches of Spain laced Love Deluxe, Sade.

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Zara McFarlane

On Arise, Zara McFarlane works with drummer and producer Moses Boyd as engineers of a hybrid sound, exploring the edges and vertices of soul, jazz, blues, pop, reggae and Kumina. Along with the band, they engineering arrangements that complement the riveting story of her heritage veiled in the lyrical narrative over 12 songs. At one point she dives into roots reggae on the reassuring Fussin and Fight bemoaning a “sighing world” then proceed to scat almost with the ethereal appeal of a tired lover on the hollow, acoustic Allies and Enemies.

The poetics of the project is another magnet that gently tugs you towards Zara’s sound. The verses typically relay some sort of call to action, be it to counter militant love or for a passive resistance against forces of oppression. The album artwork, foregrounding the red beret she wears, amidst gentle tones of army green, similarly reflect this awakening stance the project assumes. Arise uses various water based metaphors in baring estrangement, both with her heritage and freedom. This is particularly symbolic as water has been a major conduit for loss and healing for the black body and soul. Both her Jamaican and Congolese heritage corroborate this use of water, as the element is instrumental to life in both place. Songs such as the comforting Fisherman, laced with Creole phrases and biblical allusions and In Between Worlds, where the use of water as a symbols are most prominent, illustrate the complex relationship water has with memory and heritage, just as she has with herself.

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Arise album artwork

On Arise, what you get is an artist who has found her voice along with a spirit dwelling inside of it. The complex narrative, married with the array of sounds layered onto this project make for a deeply moving listen on knowledge of self and the empower that comes with making those connections on the star system that is our collective heritage.

Written by Hakeem Adam

Images via Brownswood Recordings

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