Sons of Kemet review – blown away by a fiery black history lesson

Koko, London
The Mercury prize-shortlisted London jazz quartet salute women of colour and attack the monarchy on the dazzling first date of their UK tour

Most jazz bands don’t have a hype man. It should be clear by now, though, that London four-piece Sons of Kemet are not a conventional jazz outfit, and that jazz is enjoying a crossover surge that thumbs its nose at genre and shows no sings of abating; the hype is real. Before the quartet take to the stage on the first night of their sold-out UK tour – a tour that really should have celebrated the first ever victory for a jazz album in the Mercury prize – the slam poet Joshua Idehen whips up an already expectant crowd.

Wearing a top plugging The Good Immigrant, the 2016 BAME author essay collection, Idehen urges us to turn to our brothers and sisters and warn them we are about to sweat all over them. He’s not wrong. The Mercury prize may have been awarded to a tremendously lacklustre indie rock band despite the odds having actually swung in Sons of Kemet’s favour, but the excitement surrounding the group’s third album, Your Queen Is a Reptile, is still vivid.

A quiet, sinuous hors d’oeuvre of a phrase from Kemet’s leader, tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, eases us in; a little muffled rattle from one of the band’s two drummers, either Tom Skinner or Eddie Hick, marks the calm before the storm. Then a series of rimshots signal that the niceties are over and the blistering skronk in which Sons of Kemet specialise takes over.

There’s not much respite during their one-and-a-half-hour set; only the languorous Breadfruit, from their second album, Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do (2015), supplies some cool shade to Sons of Kemet’s dazzle. Although their music is acutely historically conscious, making people leap like salmon is an equally meaningful part of this band’s raison d’être: this is jazz as party music, not an excuse to make chin leather. For no obvious reason, Hutchings is wearing a floppy blue sun hat; tuba player Theon Cross is in a fedora – perhaps purposefully redolent of the Windrush era, perhaps just a cool hat.

A virtuoso mover and shaker who divides himself up among a number of bands, Hutchings saves his most muscular, most yang, most strident music for Sons of Kemet. He’s no stranger to Mercury disappointment – another, more cosmic electronic vehicle of which he’s part, The Comet Is Coming, were shortlisted in 2016, but Kemet won a Mobo for best jazz act in 2013, hot on the heels of their debut, Burn.

Shabaka Hutchings, Sons of Kemet’s leader
‘Virtuoso mover and shaker’: Shabaka Hutchings, Sons of Kemet’s leader, at Koko. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The saxophone’s role has long been to sing the inexpressible: Hutchings’s sax voice is a rabble-rousing preacher-rapper-shaman-academic, testifying joy, outrage, wisdom and most points in between. What he purposely forgoes in nuanced mood with Sons of Kemet, he more than makes up for in blazing dominance; the most obvious co-figurehead of the woke fusion, LA’s Kamasi Washington, is a virtual daisy-sniffer compared with Hutchings’s constant energy.

In the mix are obvious nods to snaking Egyptian forms, as befits the band’s name – Kemet is the ancient Egyptian name for ancient Egypt; Shabaka himself is named after a Nubian dynastic king – and eastern detours that recall Éthiopiques, the soulful jazz of the Ethiopian 60s and 70s. There are short, sharp angry phrases that metastatise, either into the air horn fanfares of reggae or into the sorts of melodies that warrant the word “tune” being held up on a placard. Inner Babylon, from Burn, is their poppiest, most Caribbean moment. You can shout along to the sax melody while punching the air.

Counterpoint is supplied by the giant tuba of Cross, who moves frequently from the rhythm section (the tuba’s notional bass-y place) to co-star in the skronk. He echoes the spacious, echoing wubs of dub reggae; he spars with Hutchings, call and response, then carries the melody for a while, exuding Jaws soundtrack menace or busy dexterity. You can only hope there is a cheek masseuse waiting in the wings with ice.

Hutchings and Cross at Koko.
Hutchings and Cross at Koko. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

It’s actually quite hard to see the drummers beavering away behind Hutchings and Cross, to discern who is playing what, but as a well-attuned pair who deserve to be up on risers, they can bring an almost Brazilian carnival panache to the polyrhythms, or an Afro-Cuban flavour, as well as barrelling along like a runaway percussion shop.

On one level the group’s latest offering, Your Queen Is a Reptile, is a dub-punk-Latin-jazz confection that remakes the Sex Pistols’ point 40 years on, even more eloquently, through the sax and tuba: “she ain’t no human being”. It’s Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack with sprung heels; a feminist of colour primer to rival Beyoncé’s latter-day work quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Idehen, who plays in his own band, Benin City, comes back on stage to reprise a couple of his Reptile appearances, extrapolating on the album title.

“Your royalty wears no clothes,” he riffs, “she does not see us as human.” Then it’s on to My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence and the very timely refrain: “I don’t want to take my country back, mate/ I want to take my country forward.”

Tarry a while with this album, though, and a far more subtle picture emerges. It’s not just an anti-monarchist insult. Hutchings and co offer up nine alternative women of power, from the well known (Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis) to the under-studied (Nanny, queen of the Maroons, who presided over a spectacularly successful guerrilla force of escaped slaves, or Yaa Asantewaa, an Ashanti queen who resisted the white colonialists, Boudicca-style). In interviews, Hutchings has made the point that the giant lizard conspiracy once advocated by people such as David Icke is ridiculous, but that the myth of hereditary royalty is no less absurd. The album counters Elizabeth II’s fictitious greatness – and an empire awash with the blood slaves and conquered subjects – with examples of more righteous power.

Tonight, when he at last grabs the mic, Hutchings is a most mild-mannered and grinning republican. Fresh off a successful US tour, he’s seen a steep rise in his group’s album sales – the biggest percentage increase of any of the acts shortlisted for the Mercury.

“The path to the decolonisation of the mind is to take into account what myths surround you,” Hutchings says (echoing, among others, Yuval Noah Harari, who is also preoccupied with the myths that humanity sells itself). There’s a plea to get past racism and misogyny, towards “what can you envision past the reality you see”. Later, he tells us Sons of Kemet will dispense with the fiction of going backstage before coming back on for the encore. Instead, they just play one more song.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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