Zara McFarlane's Songs of an Unknown Tongue: The story of Jamaica’s history as an English colony for hundreds of years

When Zara McFarlane visited Jamaica, the country of her parents' birth, in 2018 it was initially for research into a possible musical.

That project is now on hold but what the multi-award-winning jazz vocalist came back with was a deeper understanding of her roots and the musical traditions of her parents' homeland. 

It led to her new album - Songs of an Unknown Tongue - telling the story of Jamaica’s history as an English colony for hundreds of years, slavery and eventual independence.

She was able to incorporate the ancient rhythms of Jamaica into her new music which was gratifying but learning about the island's colonial history made an even bigger impression. 

It’s not something she learned at school, and she says for young people today Britain’s colonial past is a vital lesson.

She said teaching this history should be made compulsory in schools. 

The singer, who won a prestigious Mobo Award in 2014, previously tackled issues of race and black identity in her last album Arise.

Songs of an Unknown Tongue delves deeper, with tracks like Black Treasure confronting the exploitation of people by the British Empire. 

British Jazz singer Zara McFarlane and Nina Nannar Credit: ITV News

Growing up in East London, McFarlane said racist abuse was the norm for her, but that if young people had learned about why black and Asian people are in Britain, it would have made a difference.  

The release of her new album was brought forward as its issues are very much the conversation of the moment, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

She has just started exploring her roots she says, and it is a journey she will continue. 

Her music will reflect what she finds.