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Interview: Zema

Interview: Zema

Interview: Zema

By on - Photos by Sista Irie - 1 comment

"It was at this point I began to understand the vibe and understated power behind reggae music"


Zema (pronounced zay-MAH) has been described as one of today's top female modern roots reggae vocalists. She has just finished a tour of Europe with the legendary Gladiators who also worked with her on her recently released sixth album 'Jubilee'.

Her musical career began at the tender age of seven with piano and creative dance lessons before her interest prompted her to pick up several other instruments in addition to singing. Originally from Detroit she now lives in Kingston, Jamaica, where she has performed at large stage shows such as Western Consciousness and Rebel Salute sharing the stage with such legendary performers as Bunny Wailer, Luciano, Ky-mani Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Buju Banton, and Third World.

Zema's music has been called “healing music for the 21st century” by Roger Steffens (preeminent reggae archivist), with her style of conscious reggae music bringing a universal message of love, justice, racial harmony and spiritual upliftment.

Before a “divine intervention” when she met Bob Marley at the cancer clinic in Germany, where her mother was also being treated, she performed and recorded R&B, rock and pop music with numerous bands. It was this meeting though that she says lead her "to understand the vibe and understated power behind reggae music".


You have a new album out 'Jubilee' tell me about it, is the title a reference to it being the 25th anniversary of you being in the music business?

Yes, 'Jubilee' is a celebration of what I have been trying to achieve musically through the help of the Almighty as I have never had a manager, agent or label support. In the scriptures, Jubilee was a celebration of freedom and rest occurring every 50 years. I feel that I have finally approached the sound I have been trying to achieve all along to carry the message in the music. It’s been a lot of learning and hard work but it brings me happiness, freedom and rest.

Your first album, the self titled 'Zema' was released in around 1985, I believe? That is a bit of a gap until you followed it up with 'Stranger in the Gates' in 1998! Why such a long wait?

There were many reasons. After that time, I was living in Los Angeles and dancehall was beginning to get very popular. It seemed there was very little interest in roots music which was frustrating and I took a break. But the music was still inside of me wanting to come out so after a few years, I was able to find a way to manifest it again.

I've had a listen to 'Jubilee' and the riddims are very much old skool styled and organic as they were on 'Zema', do you see yourself as very much a performer in the classic roots tradition?

Definitely. I feel that live instruments and live musicians connect more easily to the heart and soul of people on a deeper level, as you say on a more organic level, and on a more spiritual level. It is possible to dance to great music while at the same time taking in lyrics that raise your consciousness and give you hope.
The message in my music is one of spiritual upliftment and I believe the style of the music contributes in opening the door to the message.

In your press release I see you played in bands performing R&B, rock and pop before settling on reggae and there is a cover of Bill Withers 'Ain't No Sunshine' do you still take inspiration from other musical forms?

Yes, I get inspiration from everything in life. A bird can inspire a melody, a TV news show can inspire a lyric and message – it’s very rare that anyone comes up with something completely new. We take our influences and rearrange them to inspire our own style. Besides reggae, my influences are blues, Motown, rock, R&B and pop so that will come out.

One of the reasons I decided to do 'Ain’t No Sunshine' was one time when I was touring with the Gladiators and we were at Heathrow waiting for our next flight, Clinton Rufus (guitarist for the Gladiators) had purchased a classic R&B CD and I was looking at the tracks and mentioned that I would love to do a version of 'Ain’t No Sunshine' and he agreed we should do it. That was one of the last songs I voiced as an element of fear set in when I realized this is a classic tune, and if it isn’t done on a proper level, it shouldn’t be done at all!

But all of life inspires me musically; you can hear music in a dripping faucet if you choose to.

I notice a lot of artists now seem to try to fit as much on to a CD as they possibly can, sometimes with 15,16 or more songs while your albums appear to stick to the classic 10 or 12 with a couple of dubs for good measure. Do you feel some artists are watering down their output by trying too hard to look like they are giving value for money, rather than taking the view that sometimes less is more?

When I listen to CDs that have 15 or more tracks, I seem to get tired of it and not be interested to listen to it again. Assuming that other listeners experience the same thing, I try to keep the album to 10 tracks with dubs at the end. I find that dub music is very meditative and by putting the dubs at the end, my hope is that gives the listener a chance to reflect on the message of the previous music they just listened to. Even though the lyrics aren’t in the dub music, subconsciously the lyrics are still in your head. My goal is for this music to be a sound track for motivation and encouragement in a person’s life just as reggae music has been in my life.

Your music has been described as "healing music for the 21st century” by Roger Steffens, and your lyrics are full of consciousness, harmony and spiritually uplifting. So religion plays a big part in your life?

I would say spirituality rather than religion is a big part of my life. “Religion” has come to be viewed negatively because of the corruption that has influenced it. My music is the overflow of my spiritual life. The greatest power we have is spiritual. It is greater than money, weapons, power or anything. It is our spirit that sustains us in times of sickness and difficulty. Music is very spiritual and very powerful but on a subtle level. What influences we allow around us are what feed our mind and spirit - positively or negatively. My desire is that by listening to my music, people would be spiritually strengthened.

You have just completed a tour of Europe with The Gladiators, how did it go?

It was amazing! I’m a huge Gladiators fan so for me to be able to tour with them is a great honor and a dream come true. The response I received in Europe and especially from the French people was very gratifying. I feel spiritual undercurrents here that I don’t sense in many other places and that I didn’t sense when I toured with The Gladiators here a few years ago. That is a wave I would love to ride and I feel this is a door I need to enter in.

There were no UK dates on the tour and from a quick look at your web site it would appear that you haven't played in the UK since April 2005. Why is that?

I wasn’t involved with the booking of the tour so I don’t know why the UK wasn’t included, but I would have loved to perform in the UK. I have been wanting to go back to the UK for the last few years but there never seems to be enough time. In my experience in the past, the UK was more difficult as far as live music.

You have worked with some great names in reggae like Alton Ellis, Leroy Sibbles and Sly Dunbar to name but a very few and recorded in some of the best known studios, Channel 1, Harry J's how come you have such great connections?

JAH! The Father opens doors that no man can open. I have been very blessed to work with some amazingly talented musicians and I feel very honored. I am a musician myself. In fact, I feel that I’m a better musician than a singer. As you are probably aware, the reggae music industry is not particularly kind to females, so not everyone is going to get into what I’m doing musically. My being a musician kind of levels the playing field as far as I know what I want and how to communicate that musically. I also have some wonderful angel bredren Jah has sent who have been very supportive.

Is there anyone that you have still not worked with but would like to?

There are many people I would love to work with. I love the combinations and contrasts of voices and sounds. Off the top of my head, Queen Ifrica, Taj Weekes, Gounzman (Trinidad), Flabba Holt and many more.

I read that you met Bob Marley just before he died, while at the cancer clinic in Germany where your mother was also being treated. Did you get to speak with him much and did your mother pull through?

I didn’t get to speak with Bob too much as he was pretty sick at that point. I did go to his last birthday party they had at his apartment. I was at the party a little early and my mother had told him that I was a musician and a fan. So when I arrived Bob told his mother to get guitars and she hurried off and came back with two guitars. I don’t think he was playing much music at that point so they seemed glad about that. He picked up one and I picked up the other but I was only a rock musician at that point and didn’t know how to play reggae. I mentioned that I was more of a keyboard player and he asked for a keyboard to be brought, but again I was a rock musician and didn’t now reggae techniques, so I was playing what I knew. As I said, he was pretty sick at that point so it wasn’t long before he was back in his room laying down where he spent most of the night.

I also had a chance to speak with him briefly in one of the treatment rooms where we were both getting ultraviolet treatments (I was on a prevention program). There was a half divider between the beds where we laid while getting the treatment so we could see one another’s head. I asked him how he was managing as the doctor had said “NO MARIJUANA, NO MARIJUANA!!” He started talking slow and pensive about the white sand beaches and the beauty of Jamaica. Even though there was 3 feet of snow outside, he had me feeling like I was right in Jamaica! A few months later he left this earth but I absolutely feel that it was a divine intervention allowing me to be inspired by him. At the time I had no clue that would propel me into reggae.

On a deeper level, it was at this point I began to understand the vibe and understated power behind reggae music. There was a different vibe with reggae than the rock music I was dealing with at the time. That drove me to seek out even more reggae and set me on the course that has led to where I am now. Even though my mother would later succumb to cancer, it was through her that I was able to make that connection when I didn’t understand the ramifications it would have.

What plans do you have for the future?

Wherever the Father leads which I know will be a great adventure. There is a saying “man plans and God wipes out.” If we are not in the flow of the purpose in life that the Father has uniquely created for use we are in an uphill battle. My goal is to try to stay in that flow and enjoy the wonderful adventure!

Is there anything you'd like to talk about or say?

Love one another. Be kind to one another. Teach one another. Encourage one another. Love one another.

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Read comments (1)

Posted by Run The Track on 06.18.2010
Respect Zema, songs really nice ! Blessings from Run The Track radio show

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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