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Zena Edwards

Born in Hackney and raised in Tottenham, Zena has become known as one of London’s ‘new generation’ of female performance poets. In 2007 she was nominated for the Arts Foundation Award for Performance Poetry and won a Hidden Creatives award in 2012. She has toured extensively round the UK and Europe and has shared the stage and anthologies with some of her most admired predecessors, including Linton Kwesi Johnson, Sonia Sanchez and Roger McGogh.

Zena is known for the easy power of her words, the opulent delivery and the complex manipulation of her voice. She defines the fusion of poetry and music by including traditional African instrumentation – the raw magic of the Kalimba and Kora – and new technology to layer her mellifluous singing and spoken voice.

On 15th November at the Southbank Centre, London, Zena Edwards will be performing a new work written for the 21st birthday of Serious – the producers of the EFG London Jazz Festival (LJF). This work was supported through Women Make Music so we asked Zena some questions about her music and the new piece.

PRSF: How did you first become involved with Serious?

ZE: I was part of a Serious project called the Future Sounds of Jazz as a spoken word artist in 2003, working alongside musicians like Jason Yarde and Bembe Segue. This commission is an incredible opportunity – I’m honoured to be support for the great Hugh Masekela at the event.

PRSF: This commission puts music on an equal footing with spoken word. How have you approached writing it?

ZE: Previous work has explored the dialogue between the three arts forms of music, spoken word and visuals and my last one-woman show was centred around anger, women’s voice and the Greek Myth of the Furies. But for this commission I was asked to focus on myself – and with the spotlight fully turned on me, I had to ask, what do I call myself?

The industry will call me a poet, a spoken word artist, a singer, an actress, but ultimately I am a writer who tells her stories in all of these ways. I thought about how storytelling is not restricted to those gifted with a specific ability to write or sing or make music, but to regular folk, everyday people who are full of character, with human strengths and frailties. So I am a woman with an Afri-Carib-British (African Descent, a Caribbean heritage with a British experience) story to tell through my music, which is a very eclectic mix and blend of sounds and flavours.

PRSF: What music has influenced your style?

ZE: At home my mother listened to old Motown soul, funk, country and western and blues. Reggae and hip hop have given me a voice, a black political voice, through rhythms and bass lines that resonated with the conflicts I felt from living in a mainstream culture where I never felt fully accepted. But I loved British rock and alternative music – the ambiance of Dire Straights, Queen and Pink Floyd and the storytelling of Steely Dan and Kate Bush. Joni Mitchell introduced me to folk and I found myself drawn to Celtic myths and melodies – they are reminiscent of West African, Malian, Senegalese and Gambian songs in the pentatonic scale.

Jazz has been a huge part of my life since University. I’ve fallen in love with Nigerian and Ghanaian music and the vocal harmonies and rhythms of the more traditional Xhosa and Zulu music of South Africa. So, in writing this commission I wanted to pay homage this huge palette of influences and the nuances I’ve absorbed.

PRSF: Finally, what artists are you listening to now or have been influenced by the most?

ZE: Gregory Porter – he has an authenticity and a storytelling style that reminds me of crooners like Nat King Cole and Bobby Womack.

Julie Dexter – relentlessly honest and one of the best percussive scat vocalists.

James Blake – I listen hard to how he uses inflection and intonation to get his point across.

Dianne Reeves and Oumou Sangare – my biggest female influences. These artists are incredible live – the mark of a true storyteller.