"I believe there is a spirit of music and if your intention or voice behind the instrument is right, it comes alive."
Nia Saw, the dynamic vocalist renowned for her work with World music giants, Zap Mama and Youssou N Dour, talks to Seymour Nurse at The Bottom End
about life, and her musical experiences with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan.
Seymour Nurse: What first inspired you to start singing, and who were your main inspirations?
Nia Saw: My grand mother used to sing when she washed the dishes
so perhaps that’s where it started? For as long as can remember I have
been singing. I felt I could express myself completely when I sang. I was a
shy child but when I sang I felt the words and emotions, the story. I used to
sing on the playground, to my friends, hidden away from the rest of the kids.
Listening and immersing myself in music was an escape for me. I never really
identified with the music other kids my age were listening to so I created my
own soundtrack. I listened to Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, James Brown,
Jimi Hendrix, Public Enemy, Grand Master Flash, Michael Jackson, Otis Redding,
The Temptations, Miriam Makeba, and Bob Marley. I was lucky my mum
and dad liked funk and soul,
so I would check my mum’s reel-to-reel’s,
and would raid the local library in the little town I grew up in. I would have
mini funk parties, dance and everything. My friends grew so tired of me asking
them to watch me lip sing and ‘perform’ the same songs over and
over again. In the end, my poor dog was the only audience.
S.N: Your mother is from Belgium, and your father is Senegalese, you have
embraced your African roots in a very special way. How did you first discover
that kind of music?
N.S: I always had a great interest in my African heritage
and bumped into a Miriam Makeba record in the local library.
It fuelled my later interest in the South African political history. I discovered
West African music through my Senegalese family.
It was always playing at home, but I really got into it after travelling to
Africa on a family trip and experiencing the numerous sound systems in the streets
of Pikine, Dakar.
I saw African drummers going for it, every one getting up to dance and celebrate. I especially loved the ‘Dance
des Ventilateurs’, or the original version of Beyonce’s
"Booty Shake". These parties would go on all night through. People of all ages danced to the entrancing rhythms. It blew me away.
S.N: How did you manage to develop your love for singing living in such
a remote area of Belgium where there was not a musical or club environment for
N.S: I guess I should have normally been into Flemish music
or the local fishermen songs, but luckily I believe music seeks you and finds
you. I guess that happened to me. I was not supposed to be a singer at all but
against all odds everything led to singing and music. I was passionate about
it from a young age.
S.N: How did you get to be in the amazing vocal based band Zap Mama?
N.S: When I was 19 I recorded a demo tape. It had some of
my own compositions on it and a cover version of a Miriam Makeba
song, which I sang a cappella. One of these tapes ended up in Marie
Daulne’s hands. The funny thing was that many years later I discovered
that she had actually received a copy of a rehearsal of a funk band I was singing
in, not my demo at all. All you could hear was very loud guitar and you could
just about make out my voice.
Somehow my sound struck a chord and she kept me in mind. Years later when
Sabine Kabongo left Zap Mama; Marie
decided to track me down. I was living in London at the time, and it was not
easy to find me, but through friends of mine she did. I quit my job there and
then, came to Belgium, auditioned, rehearsed 3 weeks and the next thing I knew
I found myself at the New Orleans Jazz Festival; we were opening
up for the Neville Brothers. Talk about being thrown into the
lion’s den. It was amazing.
S.N: You are the second longest member of Zap Mama, after the lead singer
and founder Marie Daulne. How has your experience been with the band over the
N.S: It has been and still is today, a real trip. Amazing
things happen and surround the world of Zap Mama as everyone
who hangs out with us finds out. Countless times I pinched myself just to check
if I wasn’t dreaming. It’s not just meeting and at times performing
with legends of mine, but it’s also about the people we meet on the road
and backstage. The crazy, wicked adventures we encounter touring the world.
Sometimes I feel like “Tin Tin”, as I’m growing and learning
as a singer, and receiving so much knowledge from the best. Zap Mama has been
a real high-level music education for me and I feel blessed. That stands next
to the amazing anecdotes; I mean how many people can say they made themselves
a sandwich in John Lee Hooker’s kitchen, while visiting
him many years before he sadly passed away?
S.N: During your first American tour, Zap Mama supported the jazz giants
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, how was it for you meeting such legends?
N.S: Surreal. It was amazing to see the different facets of
such greats. First we saw them on stage, performing the most amazing pieces
and the next thing I knew we were having dinner with them, sharing jokes and
we ended up singing for them. It was such a great night. They both have a great
sense of humour and like to have fun. They are pioneers and innovators and have
opened many doors for other musicians.
S.N: Didn't Wayne Shorter gave you precious words of encouragement?
N.S: Yes he was very encouraging and said he believed in me
as a singer and lyricist. I was very honoured by his positive feedback.
S.N: Vocally, what you do with Zap Mama is quite extraordinary, how challenging
is this for you live on stage?
N.S: It has always been a challenge, and still is. It’s
about finding a balance between performing, dancing and singing without losing
your breath or rhythm. I like a challenge; the adrenaline gives me a boost.
Certain pieces are very complicated, full of polyrhythms, overlapping melodies
and unusual harmonies. Marie likes to change things around during the show as
well, so we are always kept on our toes. It has taught me a lot.
I also know Marie to the point where she doesn’t even have to say anything. I can
tell by looking at her body language or facial expression what she wants, or
where she wants to go. You could say I always have her back. That’s why
she likes me to accompany her onstage when she does guest appearances without
the full band.
S.N: In 2003, you toured with Youssou N Dour at the Tokyo Jazz Festival.
You also shared the stage with Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Jeff Ballard,
Joshua Redman and the queen herself, Chaka Kahn. How was this experience for
N.S: It was amazing. I was part of the Youssou N’Dour
and the Super Etoile de Dakar band and we performed at the festival.
We did our own set and then at the end of the night we did a special line up
with Youssou and part of his band. Joshua Redman, Christian Mc Bride,
Jeff Ballard and Jack DeJohnette also joined in, and Herbie
Hancock orchestrated all of this in collaboration with Youssou. Of
course this was great but that was just an interlude for the next day, unbeknown
We were ready to depart to Narita airport early in the morning when suddenly
I got my bag stolen in the hotel. It contained my flight ticket, passport, money,
phone etc. I was stuck while the rest of the band flew home. This would have
been a disaster in a normal situation, but it fulfilled a long time wish of
mine to meet Chaka Khan who was due to arrive at the festival
later that day. She was performing a Jazz set with Herbie Hancock
and it finished with a jam session on Marvin Gaye’s, “What’s
I was on my own and was invited by these greats to spend time
with them and to join in the jam session feat. Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock,
Speech, Horatio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, Jeff Ballard and
his band members, Christian Mc Bride etc. No need to say I
pinched myself hundreds of times during that day, and was grateful for my misfortune
which turned out with an unbelievable positive twist.
S.N: Youssou N Dour is an exceptional talent. How was it being part of his
N.S: It was a secret dream of mine to work with a Senegalese
band, as I am half Senegalese myself. Youssou is an amazing singer
and performer. He has such strength and emotion in his voice and is very open
musically. He is encouraging towards young musicians and supports a lot of people.
He is a social activist and unofficial ambassador for Senegal. He is a huge
star in Africa and is treated like royalty.
He is addressed as ‘Grand’ over there. I met Youssou on tour with Zap because we frequently shared festivals.
I sought advice from him in the past as he had dealt with similar issues regarding
being a musician in an African family. In West African culture there exists
a caste system where certain families are the keepers of music
and arts, others are herders or blacksmiths etc.
I come through the line of the “Pheul tribe, the Sow”.
They are another caste to the “Griots” (musicians, singers).
It can be seen as disgraceful for a person (worse even if you are female) to
be a singer if you are not from a “Griot” family.
I consulted Youssou as he had had gone through the same troubles but broke free
and became very successful, and his family now accepts what he does. Youssou
spoke with my father and things became better after this. He asked me to join
him on tour a few years later when his backing singer Viviane decided to pursue
a solo career.
It was a unique opportunity for me, and I travelled the world
as part of the band. The African gigs were the most profound
for me, as the music Youssou performs there is different, as they are more directed
towards the African public who are very engaging, fiery and expressive. I learned
a lot from singing with Griots who would guest with the band. I evolved musically
after this experience and brought a new sound to Zap. Unfortunately I couldn’t
keep up with the hectic schedule as this band tours non-stop all year round.
S.N: Youssou N’Dour’s biggest commercial record was “Seven
Seconds” which he sung with Neneh Cherry. You had to perform this track
live, that must have been quite an honour for you.
N.S: It certainly was, it’s a great song, known by people
all around the world and I always tried to keep Neneh’s sound in mind.
Youssou gave me space to improvise in this song and it was great.
S.N: You are now establishing yourself as a solo artist. Your demo has been
circulating around the London music scene, and the track “Sing for me”
has had a fantastic response after being played regularly by Kiss FM’s
Patrick Forge. What does your music represent about you?
N.S: I have melodies and bits and pieces of sounds and songs
floating around in my head, and I want to express myself musically. I thrive
when I am given the chance to improvise of re-interpret songs. I feel I have
a lot to give and it’s exciting to work on my own music. It’s a
mixture of all my experiences in life and influences. The “Sing
for me” track was a jazzy/gospel/African sounding
At times the sound is very ‘big’, but right now I am into
a simpler, acoustic, live sound. Old school soul, real songs. I am looking for
producers who can assemble all the bits and pieces, and can create the sound
I have in mind. I would like to set up a quartet and start gigging as soon as
the songs are finished. I tour less now than before and I want to focus on my
S.N: In what direction do you see Nia Saw’s music going?
N.S: I have surpassed the ‘experimental’ stage
when you are just trying to find out who you are musically, or even trying to
prove yourself. Now I want to tell stories, bring real songs, and focus on the
sound. Not too many instruments, just what’s needed. In the 60’s
and 70’s people didn’t need much and these songs still stand today.
Those are my favourite musical eras.
S.N: You not only sing, you write your own music, play various instruments
as well as teaching, singing, maintaining a heavy tour schedule, and you are
a mother too. How do you manage to juggle all these things?
N.S: Multi tasking is my middle name. It’s good to be
able to do all this but at times it’s better to be able to focus on one
thing at a time.
S.N: I have to say that your voice touches me in such a special way, because
there is a real depth about it, nothing contrived at all. I once described it
as the same feeling you have when the sun rises from behind a dark cloud, and
caresses you with such beautiful warmth. How does it feel when you are singing,
and where does it take you?
N.S: I believe there is a spirit of music and if your intention
and emotion behind your voice or instrument is right, it comes alive. The whole
stage becomes sacred, the same way as what happens in church when people feel
the Holy Spirit, or in certain tribal ceremonies where people go into ‘the
spirit’. It’s a case of feeling what you are singing and putting
meaning into the words.
S.N: On a lighter “note”, is it true that Wesley Snipes asked
for your autograph?
N.S: Yes that was funny. He is a fan of Zap Mama
and came to see the show in LA. Afterwards he joined us backstage, asked for
our autograph and took the whole band out to dinner in a restaurant Denzel
Washington owns. I found him very genuine, and someone who has not
forgotten his roots.
S.N: Stevie Wonder once surprised Zap Mama by turning up to one of your
gigs, were you aware that he was a fan of the group?
N.S: I didn’t know he was a fan but I can understand
because our music is influenced by African music, and I can imagine he appreciates
this. It was mind blowing when he turned up at our release party and he ended
up jamming with us. I admire him so much and I had to restrain myself from not
acting like a total groupie, so even though I look very composed in the pictures
we took, inside me my heart was racing. I thanked him and he in turn thanked us.
S.N: What projects are you working on at the moment?
N.S We are finishing the new Zap Mama album.
I finished recording for the soundtrack of a Belgian movie (that was fun and
would like to do more of this), finishing the recording of 4 songs I wrote for
the new album of Flowriders.
S.N: One of these tracks that you wrote the lyrics for, arranged and co-wrote the music, is called, "Russelogy".
This tune has taken the Broken Beat scene by storm, with many people chanting your lyrics, "Who Doo, Voodoo", as it has become such an anthem.
N.S: I wanted to make a song for the dance floor, particularly the "Broken Beat Scene". I had the lyrics to, "Russelology" in my notepad/songbook, as a song I wrote many years ago (7 years to be exact).
I had never found the music to fit the lyrics. This song is very personal to me because of an experience I had some years back.
I am very happy that it has got such a positive response on the dance floor.
S.N: What else have you been involved in?
N.S: I have also been involved in a project called, “The Legends Of The Underground”, am touring
with Zap Mama, and also with a singer who is very big in Belgium
called Natalia. I am currently writing songs for my solo
S.N: Thank you Nia, its been a real pleasure and I look forward to
your future projects with great anticipation.
N.S: Thank you Seymour, this was the most interesting interview I've done.
I loved the questioning, and you didn't even grab or mention my 'cheekbones' (wink wink).