Nia Saw Singing Classes (London, UK Only)

Tanya 'Nia' Saw
Nia Saw gives classes teaching Zap Mama, traditional African, and Gospel songs.

For more information:
Nia Saw Singing Classes

Lucinda Slim's (aka Nia Saw) New Compilation
with Keb Darge:
"This Is DJs Choice (Volume 2)" Nia Saw- DJs Choice
This album, and track samples are available online at:

Zap Mama's New Album
featuring Nia Saw
Zap Mama- Recreation
This album and track samples are available online at:

Zap Mama Website:

Artists - Nia Saw

"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 your passion?

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 years?

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 you?

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 to me.

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 going on”.

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 band?

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 demo.

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 own project.

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 album.

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).

Copyright 2008 © Seymour Nurse

Listen to the beautiful debut release of Nia Saw's 1950's alter ego,

"All This Time" - Lucinda Slim & The Lone Stars

Written by Lucinda Slim and Krewcial
Performed by Lucinda Slim & The Lone Stars
Mixed and Produced by Krewcial

Licensed and distributed by Melting Pot Music

7 inch vinyl single and digital downloads available from February 7th '09

Video shot and edited by Krewcial

For more info:

'Nia Saw interview update' coming soon!!