SONS of Kemet are one of the most exciting live acts in UK jazz. Though jazz, really, is too small a word for this double-drum-plus-brass combo that draws influences from the Caribbean, Africa, London, New Orleans, and a lot of places in between.
The music they play is culturally clued in; at times ritualistic, at times reflective, never less than highly sophisticated, but always accessible. A new album, Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do, shows greater maturity and is a more satisfying listen than the band’s award-winning debut, Burn.
Yet, says founder and sax/clarinet player Shabaka Hutchings, it also is truer to the group’s live presence. “The first album is produced in such a way that it feels fuller,” he says. “There’s a lot of manipulation of the sonic space which the tunes reside in, whereas this is a starker sound generally. We wanted this album to reflect more of the sound world we create live. The energy is a more direct one.”
Hutchings sees the album as meditation on what it means to be “Caribbean” within what he calls the context of integration in a socially diverse country. “What elements of Caribbean ‘tradition’ stay constant generation to generation?” he wonders.
“Also, in reference to the title, the album is considering the asking of these questions as crucial to a generation who are at once integrated and marginalised.”
A track like; takes listeners across a wide variety of styles from a wide geographical range, while it wears its politics literally in a nod to a Palestinian youth shot and killed at a security checkpoint in the West Bank.
“Music is a means of recording history,” Hutchings says. “It shows what issues are in the zeitgeist even if it’s simply a matter of song titles. Artists also are in a position of visibility so we also have a duty to express in some ways the issues which we find pertinent so as to draw attention to them. Maybe even inspire sentiment which can inspire action in certain spheres.”
Yet, says the ever-thoughtful Hutchings, the creative process can’t be too literal. “When I write I just put onto paper what I hear in my head or feel is needed. I think that any other way results in either direct pastiche or a forcing of stylistic elements and what I want from Sons of Kemet more than anything is for the music to feel like it exists organically. Like an unforced manifestation of all our interests.”
Hutchings was a classically trained clarinet player, and for years considered jazz music “for old people or rich people”. The more he was introduced to it, he says, the more he realised “there were [scenes] that were more suited to my temperament and background.”
Now, all music is grist to his mill. “I still listen to a lot of the hip-hop and the basement/reggae I grew up with in Barbados,” he says. “It’s always a source of inspiration even if just for energy. A lot of the core rhythms in the band stem from the Caribbean so there’s an overt influence there. The music I grew up with I guess informs what types of baselines and melodic figures I’m drawn to. Now there’s so much music I’m into it’s hard to pin down exactly what influences me. It could be the way a grime MC phrases or an Indian singer develops rhythmically. Any music which I like I find there’s something there which I can add to my palate.”
It’s a mix that makes for completing music. Irish audiences are about the find out.
- Sons of Kemet play the Sugar Club in Dublin on Wednesday, the Black Box in Belfast on Thursday, and the Triskel in Cork on Friday.