Sons of Kemet – Rhythms of Remembrance

Sons of Kemet

Sons of Kemet – the supercharged double-drums, tuba/sax four-piece led by clarinettist and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings – arrived with a bang in 2013 with their aptly-titled, incendiary debut album, Burn. Winning a MOBO Award and a ton of critical praise the album’s dub-edged mash up of jazz, reggae, African and Caribbean sounds encapsulated a melting pot of music and cultural references in an organic sound-system assault. Selwyn Harris spoke to bandleader Hutchings about how the groups’s new album, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, takes these socio-cultural ideas into rawer, even more unfettered sonic realms

Shabaka Hutchings seemed to be in two places at once on the evening previous to our meeting in a café in the Dalston area of east London. On the same night as he was being presented with an award for ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ at the Jazz FM awards, he was also leading his Spitalfields Re-Sounded project (he’s the current associate artist there) with his Afro-futurist psych jazz rock band The Comet is Coming at east London’s atmospheric alt music venue Village Underground.

“It was like mad,” he tells me, his tone of voice not rising above mellow, as we speak over a coffee on a humid summer afternoon in early June. “Do a soundcheck, across to the awards, get an award, go back to the gig. I got a cab.” While it’s hardly a typical ‘day in the life’ of the London-based saxophonist/clarinettist, it’s not an isolated example of the kind of acknowledgement recently accorded to him either. Other highlights could include his tenure as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist from 2010-12, working on platforms often the preserve of serious classical musicians, through to receiving a MOBO Award for his band Sons of Kemet in 2013 and most recently being named a Downbeat Rising Star on the clarinet. His searing spiritual-jazz sound on the tenor sax and clarinet has also earned him stints with the Sun Ra Arkestra, Polar Bear, Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra and Mulatu Astatké among others. As a band leader-composer his work is an organic synthesis of written and improvised music that draws from a very broad range of reference. He’s equally at home with various kinds of classical music, electronica and rock as he is with the cultural melting pot of music from the black diaspora that’s connected to his Caribbean upbringing.

“I treat music like an individualist thing,” he says. “Me as an individualist developing. Then I put myself in situations to allow that development to manifest in certain ways. I like the idea of getting influences but not having them be a pastiche. So you can tell the influences if you really go into it but on the surface the music I make is always evolving because it’s got different bits of everything I’ve been involved with.”

Formed in 2011, Sons of Kemet’s intensely sensual music hits you straight in the gut, though it’s balanced by an incantatory post-Coltrane intensity and nuanced rhythmic detail drawn from urban contemporary as well as traditional sources. The line up boasts a double drums Brit A-team of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner and the tuba player Theon Cross, who replaced his mentor Oren Marshall at the start of 2014 and has previously impressed in his linchpin role for Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask. In Sons of Kemet Hutchings seeks to reinvent his Caribbean roots from the perspective of a London-based contemporary musician as well as by connecting to its African heartbeat. Drawing from among others New Orleans street grooves, Afrobeat, Nubian music as well as Caribbean dub and calypso, Hutchings has, with the assistance of ethnomusicologist friends, collected field recordings from Tanzania and other African nations as source material for Sons of Kemet, though he says, “it’s not about trying to mimic indigenous cultures or what other people do, but it’s kind of taking the ideas that I like from what they’re doing and trying to see what I make of it”.


“You’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is”


Rare for a debut, Burn in 2013 had an immediate impact on a wide range of critics and audiences, appearing in many end-of-year jazz charts. The follow up, also on NAIM Jazz Records, is Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, a title that puts a refreshingly positive and intelligent spin on aspects of the diaspora relating specifically to cultural immigration and assimilation.

“When I was thinking about the album and the very first tunes I wrote for it, I was thinking about the legacy of black people in England from the point of seeing my grandmother coming over two generations from here to my generation and how the priorities are different,” says Hutchings, who was born in London in 1984 but raised in Barbados from the age of six. “So I had lots of talks with her around the time I was recording the album about what it was to move to England from the Caribbean, what she was here to do. And it was like she was here to work. The conditions in Barbados at that time weren’t really conducive to making a living or furthering yourself. It was quite a non-enhancing environment. So she and her generation of immigrants came here to actually better their lives and also to make the lives of the people back home better.

Then you find the next generation, which is my mum’s generation, they had the teachings of their parents in terms of you’re here to make yourself better. But then two generations down the line looking at unemployment figures, looking at lots of images, the media portrayals of black children of a certain socio-economic background it seems that those lessons haven’t been emphasised enough. Because we have been incorporated into someone else’s cultural situation, we’ve lost that sense of that we’re actually here to do our thing. Now it feels to me like we’re just here because we’re all British and we’re all in here together. But I think it’s important to remember that we’re not here just because we’re here. We’re here to actually, 1/ better ourselves and 2/ expand what culture means considering the fact that we are integrated into a multicultural climate. And that stems into Kemet. It’s not a matter of saying: I’m holding on to this culture. It’s a matter of saying I want to expand on the cultural aspects of where I come from and also incorporate it into the situation I’m in at the moment. I think it’s just important to remember the ambitions and the facts that you’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is.”

In another way, Hutchings applies ‘meaning’ to a few of his new compositions on the album: ‘In Memory of Samir Awad’ and ‘The Long Night of Octavia Butler’, refer to an innocent young victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an African-centric science fiction writer respectively. But he emphasises that, “it’s not necessarily important to have a meaning but I find there just are meanings behind the songs. So if there is one then I let them have it. But there is meaning behind everything. It’s whether you want to address it and the expression of that based on an implication of that does serve the music. The guys in the band, we all are on the same page in terms of thinking about politics and life and stuff. Music is a kind of expression of what is happening, like the kind of zeitgeist, because we operate in the times we operate in unless we’re actively trying not to, as happens a lot in jazz. If we’re trying to be open and give a reflection of what we go through, then we give a reflection of our times. I think even that has value in that it allows people to get a mirror of what they’re seeing and going through. It’s possible to walk through today without actually seeing what’s happening.”

Sons of Kemet

Hutchings is affable company but behind the boyish, diastematic smile is someone who takes very seriously indeed his responsibility as a creative contemporary musician to his forebears and to hopefully contributing towards a more enlightened ‘Kemetic’ consciousness in the present. Growing up in Barbados, from the age of nine Hutchings learned classical music to a high level on the clarinet, at the same time listening to reggae and calypso. Connecting the two came a lot later with the great opportunities offered to him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist, studying orchestration in preparation for his composition titled ‘Babylon’ written for the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sons of Kemet, that was performed at the London Jazz Festival in 2012, and being commissioned to write a piece performed with the Ligeti Quintet in Cape Town in 2013.

“I didn’t really like jazz at first,” he confesses. “I think like lots of people of my age group at that time, I thought jazz was just old, rich people’s music. My mum was trying to make me listen to a Courtney Pine album and I was like ‘I don’t like it’. But when I came to England and heard Courtney Pine live then it blew me away. In terms of intensity, I like the feeling of the 1960s onwards. But I like the rhythmic conciseness of 1930s jazz. When I finally grasped what Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins were about it was a massive breakthrough. It’s only maybe in the last three years that I’ve really understood their music. I saw what these guys were about in terms of really digging into the rhythm and making the harmony functional to the rhythmic connection between the soloist and the rhythm section. The same with Sidney Bechet. It’s only been a year since I’ve got him but I think it was a mask. I’ve listened to Sidney Bechet and heard what I’ve seen written about him or hear what I thought he was about. When I really heard him I realised this was a guy blowing the crap out of the soprano saxophone pushing the rhythm section and creating an unbelievable amount of excitement and the tone and the choices of notes he plays. For me Lester Young on the Jazz at the Philharmonic sessions with Charlie Parker is the man of the match in that. He drives the audience so hard. People are screaming, it’s all playing on harmonic information but he does things to connect the audience to what he’s doing with the other members of the band. Earl Bostic had that perfect match of being someone who’s perfectly in tune to the audience, but technically and artistically he was completely demolishing the sax. Within that continuum there were still all the levels of artistry pushing the harmonic boundaries, creating ‘meaningful’ art that can stand up outside the context of people dancing. Audience response is a big thing.”

Sons of Kemet’s new album drives this point home with a rawer, more pared down ‘live’ sound than previous album Burn. “One of the things Seb [Rochford] who produced it, wanted to do was to make an album with quite a bit of production but in really subtle ways. In some ways in terms of the development from the last album to this one, the last album was quite cavernous; it sounds mysterious and murky. This album was trying to get some of the feeling back that we get ‘live’ just by recording techniques. The drums are mixed so you can hear everything that’s happening, but still has the conciseness of a studio album.”


Review Sons of Kemet – Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do

Feature John Coltrane – Giant Steps

Feature Charlie Parker – Bird Lives!

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos of Sons of Kemet by Tom Barnes

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