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Nzinga Soundz

“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.”

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  

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 

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