This discussion traces the evolution of Nzinga Soundz, from its inception in the mid-1980s to the present time. In their interview, DJ Ade (Lynda Rosenior-Patten) and Junie Rankin (June Reid) talk about their early musical influences, their political activism, their key achievements and challenges and their role as disruptors in the UK sound system space.
Lynda Rosenior-Patten (LRP): June and I met when we began secondary school at Norwood Girls School in Gypsy Hill. So we’ve known each other for fifty-odd years. My family come from Sierra Leone, and June’s from Jamaica. Our families had a passionate interest in an eclectic range of music genres and both our dads loved jazz.
June Reid (JR): I grew up listening to my mum’s religious music, such as Jim Reeves, Pat Boone, as well as Solomon Burke, Brook Benton, and I remember, as a toddler, clinging to her legs as she danced in house parties.
LRP: It’s also important to remember our mothers, because growing up in parallel Black migrant communities, the other commonality in the music were the shared religious convictions coming from backgrounds where faith was important. And with the religious lyrics of artists like Jim Reeves – ‘I love you because’ – we were learning about music through osmosis.
My family were very sociable, and had regular gatherings and get-togethers with family, neighbours and work friends. I always wanted to be around Sierra Leoneans, especially when they spoke in creole (Krio). We got license to be in that space by serving our aunties, and in my case offering to play music, often with June assisting me. And that’s how we began. As we began being known as DJs, my Gambian cousins would say in Krio, ‘Play some music for we no’, and so we obliged.
JR: We played music from around the world: reggae, African, soul, rare groove, Latin, soca and calypso. Both of us had sheltered backgrounds; there was no putting our pillows under the blanket and creeping out to rave. It was only when I had a Saturday job at Debenhams on Oxford Street when I was 19 that I was allowed to go out, with my mum pleading for me. Lynda worked at Top Shop, and after work a group of us would go up to a pub near to Selfridges where a DJ played fantastic soul music. We’d also go to the Lyceum off The Strand, where we saw Herbie Hancock, and Shalamar and Gregory Issacs at The Venue, Victoria, and we were always down at Crackers Soul Club on Wardour Street at lunch time. That’s how we encountered the range of music we began playing.
LRP: School and university were formative years. From leaving school and becoming a fully-fledged sound system was a process. We were at Middlesex Polytechnic together from 1977-81, and there was a party crowd of fellow students that provided a good testing ground, where we honed our skills in a comfortable and safe environment.
JR: I used to buy records at Our Price, BAM Music in Peckham, and record shops in Brixton. For some reason, I ended up at the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street in 1981 and I asked for the manager. I told him that I had just finished university and was looking for a job. He was very clear, ‘You’re not going to stay, so I’m not going to appoint you’, but I persisted that I would and I started as a cashier.
There were two Black staff there: Trevor, a security guard, and Augustine, the cleaner. So I was the first Black person working in the shop who wasn’t a security guard or cleaner. Lynda joined me a little later. I eventually pro gressed to doing stock returns and then became Assistant Cassette Buyer and was there for a couple of years before moving on.
LRP: We left university and got our first jobs during the Thatcher years at Virgin Megastore where we were able to build our eclectic collection of music, which is a distinctive feature of Nzinga Soundz. I was bored and miserable as a cashier, but we couldn’t leave because of the high unemployment at the time, so I became a music buyer. Because of my politics as a Pan-Africanist and community activist – I was always looking for something to do – I took on the responsibility of developing the African music section as well as the reggae, soca and calypso 12-inch sections; ‘the 12-inch’ was a big phenomenon during the early 1980s. Also, my dad was very knowledgeable in African music, and whenever he went to Brixton market to buy his fish and other groceries, he would buy records, including those from Jamaica. I carried my eclectic taste in music into Virgin. Even though I knew we were strangers in a very alien space as the first two Black employees in those positions, I was also very confident about my musical knowledge and knew what I was doing.
Virgin’s African music section was pathetic. It was a few records in a ‘browser’ in the corner collecting dust with a few Osibisa records, because that was the only African band white retailers were aware of. I was able to identify music suppliers who never had a relationship with Virgin before. During that time, there was the boycott of South African goods because of apartheid. But I felt it made no sense blocking these artists whose message needed to be heard, so it was important to promote South African musicians because much of their music was about the struggle and their experiences.
It wasn’t just about making an economic impact by exposing this music to new audiences, but seeking justice for these brilliant musicans. WOMAD, the World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival, was also on the rise at the time, so there was a growing and real interest in world music, particularly African music.
I developed a strong relationship with brother Graham, the sales rep from Jet Star Records, who would come to Virgin with his delivery van packed full with the latest records, and park around the back of Oxford Street. Often, June and I would go AWOL from the shop, spending hours looking through records. Ostensibly, we were buying music for Virgin, but we were also expanding our knowledge, picking and selecting music we liked. The beauty of it was that you could buy 25-50 copies of a 12-inch you weren’t too sure about, and if it didn’t sell then you could put it in the ‘sale bin’ and there was no comeback for us. I would often go to Jet Star Records to look at their latest releases, and that’s how I met Mr Palmer (the owner) and his staff there.
There were also some important record labels emerging at that time, such as Gallo Music, which specialised in South African music. I also dis covered Sterns Music, a small record shop near Goodge Street, through Charles Easmon, an African musican and member of staff there. He, along with the other owners of the shop, Robert Urbanus and Don Bayramian, punched above their weight because of their knowledge, up to date and extensive selection of African music. It became a fertile ground to learn about different African genres and establish supply links for Virgin. At the time, we weren’t aware of how pioneering or cutting edge this was, because we just came together through our shared passion for music and my political awareness and beliefs.
JR: From me helping Lynda to play at family events, we were then asked to play at weddings, parties, naming ceremonies, etc. Playing out became so frequent that we had to get our own equipment. We had help from Dada Imarogbe who was working with me at CEDDO Film and Video Workshop, and the visual artist, brother Ken McCalla, selecting equipment. We had everything except speakers, so for a while we hired speakers from Sensible Music in Islington. We would play until the early hours of the morning. I’d get a couple hours sleep and then drive with the speaker boxes to return them. Eventually, it made sense to get our own speakers, and Ken helped us select from the different types. We were now a fully-fledged sound.
LRP: On at least one occasion, we played with Sista Culcha, the legendary female DJ, who was very much a roots reggae specialist. We often played at the Mambo Inn at Five Ways in Brixton on special club night events hosted by Rita Ray, one of the leading African DJs and a member of the pop group The Darts, as well as at concerts with headline artists/bands like Burning Spear, The Mighty Diamonds and Papa Wemba.
JR: We also had a magazine programme on Sophisticated London Radio (SLR) community radio, where we featured Caribbean poets like Paul Keens Douglas and Miss Lou (Louise Bennett), and African music, such as South African pianist, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand). This provided us with a rich source of material. We weren’t interested in simply playing music for three hours, but providing our listeners with a wider cultural experience.
LRP: So in this way we were able to play for a range of different audiences: roots reggae, ‘soul heads’, Senegalese/Gambian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, South African, etc. We weren’t typical DJs in any way shape or form. We had an eclectic knowledge of music, and these elements influenced the way we played music. Being women, mothers and naturally empathetic also impacted how we played and who asked us to play.
JR: We based our name on Queen Nzinga of Angola, a sixteenth-century Angolan warrior queen, who defeated the Portuguese. She was a stellar woman and we wanted to emulate what she stood for.
LRP: Yes, there were other women leaders, such as Yaa Asantewa, and adopting the name Nzinga was exciting for us as young women. As June said, Queen Nzinga defeated the Portuguese, rallied and mobilised people, and was the ultimate tactician and strategist, and that was very important to us as young women.
JR: We grew up during the late sixties listening to pop music from Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield, as well as soul music like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Percy Sledge and Otis Redding from the sixties and seven ties. Then music in our time included David Bowie, Abba, Rod Stewart and Elton John. More recently, we’ve included artists such as Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse in our repertoire. So while we played latin, jazz, soca, calypso, soul, reggae, roots or lovers’ rock, we can also play pop music pretty comfortably, such as at an all-white 50th birthday party, where we can fling down Abba’s Waterloo, and people will drop some moves on the dancefloor as they sing along to the lyrics. There’s really two types of music: good music and bad music.
But there are also the micro-aggressions that we experience as sound women. It would be a Saturday morning at BAM Records during the eighties, and I’m having to jostle my way to the counter that’s typically full of men. At first, the three guys who ran the shop didn’t take me seriously as a woman buying music, until I started buying hundreds of pounds worth of records at one time. Then before I got to the shop, they would pull out records for me to hear, but knowing that it couldn’t be anything misogynist, because we wouldn’t play that. I still buy music from BAM over the years and Michael Fontaine, one of the original guys who ran the shop, is still there.
As Nzinga, we felt a duty to not play music with misogynist lyrics. Sometimes, we’d play something that we didn’t realise was sexist and we’d get challenged for it. We felt that was unfair because other sounds weren’t challenged like that.
We would play at house parties or dances, and guys would start looking through our record box without our permission. Sometimes, men would try and ‘nice up the dance’ or chat on the mic over our set. Lynda would politely explain to them ‘No, thank you’ and I would give them the look to ‘Gwaan an tek wey yuh self’. I was firm because they wouldn’t take up the mic as it was idly lying there from another sound led by men, but they felt they could do it to us because we were ‘girlies’.
At the Bojangles night club, the compere for the night, who was old enough to be our son, was being disrespectful, until we started playing the vinyl released before he was born. Then he was like, ‘Big up Nzinga Soundz, they’re playing vinyl you know’, while all the others guys apart from Dubplate Pearl, were playing on their laptops.
LRP: An example of how we disrupted the dancehall space, and paradoxically it was often the women who were unsettled, was when we played at The Factory before it became the Yaa Asantewaa Arts Centre. A woman was vex about the John Holt tune Stick by me that we played. She just couldn’t accept that it was women controlling the sound, and just had to find something to object to, so she complained that the record was ‘slack’. So we just ‘hauled an’ pulled up’ and played it again!
JR: Men and women tend to have lower expectations of us as sound women. For example, we played for a guy’s 60th birthday party, and there were disgruntled voices about the tracks that we, as two women, were playing, which was shared with him, but not with us.
LRP: There is a paradox that while as women we’re held to a high standard, we’re not expected to be successful. It’s a far more nuanced situation for us as women because of the experience we’ve had. For instance, I don’t know of any other sound with the versatility to play for a dedicated Gambian or Senegalese audience, whilst also having success with a dedicated Eritrean audience, who would dance in their traditional costumes during the break, and then return to the dancefloor and to the music the sound was playing. I’m not saying we are unique and that others don’t do similar things, I just know what we do.
It’s important to capture the nuances of Nzinga’s journey. At first glance things appear one way, then on closer inspection it appears differently, because we’re still discovering new things. It’s multilayered and complex, and elements converge, and I think this needs to be unpacked further.
This is what happens when you bring together women who have had a life-time passion for music, women who relate with and have been actively involved in the struggles of African people, and how those communities have been impacted in response to those struggles. As we’ve got older, we’ve become mothers, and that empathy and nurturing comes into play. And these elements were all relevant to our development as Nzinga.
African musicians like Lucky Dube and Alpha Blondy don’t just play indigeous African music, but also contemporary forms such as reggae, and are greatly influenced by Jamaican artists like Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. So, playing in typical reggae dancehall spaces where there are conscious people, but also traditions, we would be disruptive, and I would say to June, let’s drop an African track and see how we go. Years later, that same track has become a favourite that people request, because they remember it. It’s been a slow process, but a large aspect of that development is building trust. Once you have trust with your audience, you can play anything for the crowd.
JR: I won’t put down people who use digital technology mainly, but I’m a vinyl junkie. There’s the skill of queuing tracks in the dark and making sure they flow with each other. Having two thousand tracks on a laptop is very pretty, but you still have to know what to play next. I always bring more records than we need, but the real art is to carry just enough.
LRP: I love vinyl, too, but working only with vinyl doesn’t always allow us to play to audiences everywhere, such as when we played at a wedding in Barbados, which necessitated us playing on a laptop, because we couldn’t travel with the records. So, because of our interest in international audiences and increasing demands to play internationally, we have to use different platforms to enable us to play the music we want and reach new audiences. The change in sound system culture has been largely from a technological perspective with digital platforms, which has made playing music far simpler, but within that something has been lost. It’s the difference between accomplished musicians, who can play live and add their skill to the studio environment, and not having to be a musician to produce music. There is an emerging parallel in sound system culture with some talent ed young women, who are passionate about what they do. They face challenges and have shared some of their concerns. For example, they might be challenged about their identity, thinking about how they should dress to be true to themselves whilst commanding respect from male counterparts – facing some of the gender issues and assumptions that we experienced coming up. They also have the technical skills to use digital technology, such as sound effects and mixing, but packaging the music we wanted to play wasn’t a major preoccupation for us, as it is now.
The difference between us and the young generation of DJs is that we emerged in a critical landscape where global and domestic politics could not be ignored, and how Black communities responded to those struggles. We could play the tune Free Nelson Mandela, because that was the cultural politics at the time. I was active in BALSA (Black Action for the Liberation of South Africa), worked with the exiles from South Africa, and mobilised communities – doing anything from stuffing envelopes and organising events to raising funds for a range of causes. This might be to pay for prosthetic limbs for victims of land mines in Mozambique, long before Princess Diana was promoting this cause, to playing in a community-orientated space where the proceeds of an event went to a particular cause. This experience has different vibes, with interesting dynamics. Being so actively involved put a different spin on things and informed our approach to music.
JR: Part of our legacy will be ensuring that those influences from our parents and forebears are sustained, because that has been part of our journey. The music our parents exposed us to has enabled us to be open and receptive to a wide range of music in response to diverse audiences.
We played last year (2019) at the Paris-Londres, Music Migrations Festival in Porte Dorée, in the suburbs of Paris, which celebrated an era of music from 1962–1989. On the day we played there was a massive audience that included French Caribbean, Francophone African, Algerian communities as well indigenous French people on a hot summer’s day in an outdoor venue. Through our experiences we could play music that connected to the Algerian resistance to French colonial rule.
LRP: We’re women, we’re diverse, we’re eclectic, we’re experienced with vast knowledge, and we’re empathetic. We’re all these things, and we’re not typical in any shape or form. And it was because of our politics and our positioning that people chose us to play for them. I’ve always thought that we’re two ordinary people who have had extraordinary lives.
Edited transcription by Michael McMillan, in collaboration with June Reid and Lynda Rosenior-Patten (Nzinga Soundz), of Zoom oral history interview – October 2020.
June Reid has been active in the Black arts and cultural sectors for nearly 40 years. She has also worked in local government in the areas of regeneration and the arts for over 20 years. She is currently a Cultural Studies Master’s student at Goldsmiths, University of London, and will be researching UK based African Caribbean female sound systems. June is a member of Sound System Outernational which is an ‘ongoing initiative of practitioners and researchers, in association with Goldsmiths, University of London, dedicated to recognising, stimulating and supporting sound system culture worldwide’.
Lynda Rosenior-Patten has worked in the Creative and Development sectors for over 35 years and holds a Master’s degree in Voluntary Administration (MVA) and a B.A. (Hons) degree in Law, Psychology and French Language. Lynda is passionate about developing professionalism within the Creative Sector, using arts and culture as drivers for economic and social development. She founded Maestro7 Creative Management Consultancy in 2016 to pursue a desire to work independently, specialising in Leadership, Strategic Management, Enterprise and Employability Training, Programme Development and Audience Engagement. Projects she has been responsible for include: Destination Salone, a Creative Enterprise Hub project in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the Notting Hill Carnival Pioneers Festival.
© June Reid and Lynda Rosenior-Patten