Interview by Jenna Mahale, a writer from London.
Photos by Abigail Holsborough, a photographer from London.
On an overcast Sunday morning, radio host, DJ and producer Zakia Sewell begins her latest NTS Radio show with a sentiment of comfort. “If you’re feeling a bit shady”, she says softly, “I hope by one o’clock you’ll be feeling tip-top. That is the power of music, after all.”
After the show, she tells me over tea that it is her mother who has inspired her to use music in this way, by being one of the most positive people she knows. “I try not to be too cringey about it and pretend like I’m some kind of spiritual guru on the radio, but I’m quite interested in those kinds of ideas, about spirituality and the power of music to put you into different states. I read a lot of stuff about it, and that kind of funnels through into my shows.”
Genre-wise, the content of her monthly show, Questing, is described as “spiritual jazz, psychedelic soul and other celestial grooves from across the planet”. This may seem like a relatively broad brush of labels, but it is probably the most accurate way of describing the sonic space that Zakia occupies. Visiting Zakia as she played her April 2018 Questing show made for a competitively diverse soundtrack – including flute funk, vocal jazz, and even an Earth, Wind & Fire song. I heard 1966 track called Sakura by the US folk singer Odetta, followed by a song by The Awakening, an American spiritual jazz group.
“I had quite a rich and diverse musical upbringing”, Zakia explains. But growing up in Hounslow, West London, this is not the easiest thing to come by. “It’s not exactly a hub of cultural activity”, she laughs. “My mum moved to Ladbroke Grove when I was about 15, so that was quite an important turning point for me because it suddenly meant I was plunged a bit closer into the city: Portobello Market, and shops, and music, and just a more vibrant, lively atmosphere.”
“I felt a bit more like it was a place that reflected me and my interests, and what I wanted to do. The other thing is that both of my parents are musicians and I grew up around a lot of music, gigs and rehearsals.”
Mildly overwhelmed after graduating university, Zakia set out looking for a break from “intellectual activity” and stumbled upon a job at Honest Jon’s Records on Portobello Road, just two minutes away from her mother’s house. “It was the best job ever. Two whole days a week of just pure listening, but also getting recommendations, listening to what customers were listening to. I was getting more interesting in collecting music, so I started collecting vinyl. Through that, I started thinking, ‘I’d quite like to share to this somewhere’”.
She started working at NTS as a production intern but never dreamed of having her own show, admitting that had she been left to her own devices, she might not have had the courage to put herself out there. “I didn’t see myself as necessarily worthy of having a show, but it’s kind of blossomed. And in terms of the work, again, it was just kind of by accident. I was doing some research and ended up getting into production.”
NTS Radio has indeed been credited with “revolutionising digital airwaves” in the wake of the destruction that streaming services have brought upon the medium. It repeatedly stays true to its tagline, “Don’t Assume”, through its consistently dynamic programming and steady influx of diverse, underground talent. As Zakia knows, “NTS is really challenging the boundaries of what can be played on the radio. I feel like I can do whatever I want on there; I’ve got such freedom and I really like that.”
The station’s commitment to diversity is something that’s been very important to Zakia, whose heritage provides her with great inspiration. “I love to draw on my heritage. The joy I get when I find some field recording that was actually recorded on the tiny island that my grandma was from — that means a lot to me.” For a documentary broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this month, she travelled to Carriacou – a 12-square-mile Carribean island (and the home of her grandparents) – to explore the Big Drum tradition, a West African dance ritual passed through generations since slavery.
As she says, “I think it’s really special when you can convey your excitement and a sense of your heritage with the music you choose. I want people to hear that you have a connection to something other than what’s here in Britain.”
Wanting to hear more sounds from Zakia’s heritage, we asked her to pick three songs that have changed her life and tell us a bit about them. Here they are:
The Creator Has a Master Plan by Pharoah Sanders
“This is one of my dad’s favourite songs and must have infiltrated my ears from an early age – silently and secretly working on my psyche, both musically and spiritually. It’s been there, all along, in the background, but it’s only in recent years that I’ve really been able to comprehend the depth of the message – it’s a powerful one!”
Light Flight, by Pentangle
“The first gig I ever saw was Pentangle at the Royal Festival Hall. I was deep in soul, RnB and grime as a teen, but seeing them opened my ears to a different sound – something that wasn’t very hip in school but that I felt an affinity with. Seeing Pentangle was my first experience of folk and psychedelia which I’m still allured and fascinated by today.”
For My Own Money by Carriacou Callaloo (Alan Lomax Collection)
“This CD of music from Carriacou, recorded by Alan Lomax in the 60s, was my entry point to the music and the culture of my grandparents and their homeland. I never really visited the island as a child but through the music and the voices in these recordings I began to make my own connection to my heritage, and decided to go back and make my BBC Radio 4 doc on Big Drum! So thanks, Mr Lomax!”
Zakia will play The Shack on Saturday night at this year’s Brainchild Festival.