Sons of Kemet – Interview 2018

With a breathful intensity that coarses through his tenor saxophone, Shabaka Hutchings’ sax-playing is instantly recognisable on his many projects, that include the analogue cosmic synth fusion of The Comet Is Coming, the punk-jazz of Melt Yourself Down, the tuba-infused jazz-grooves of Sons of Kemet, and the gentler free jazz of Shabaka and The Ancestors. Initially a clarinet player, and disliker of jazz, he was eventually turned on to it with mentorships under Soweto Kinch and Courtney Pine. Sons of Kemet recently released their third album, Your Queen Is A Reptile, which proposes alternative Queens to our present day monarch. Recorded with Theon Cross (tuba), and the double drum team of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner, Hutchings merges his classical clarinet and jazz orchestra training with the music he’s heard growing up in the Caribbean, travelling in South Africa, and living in London. As well as performing at this year’s The Great Escape, Sons of Kemet are one of the main attractions at this year’s Brainchild Festival, and will be touring later in the year, including a date in Brighton. With some very rare down time, Shabaka Hutchings talked to Brightonsfinest.

How do you fit that all in, how do you manage your diary?
It was difficult up to about a year ago. But it became more streamlined. This is the year of the Kemet. There’s a couple of Comet is Coming gigs, but that’s it. Last year, it was mainly Shabaka Hutchings and The Ancestors, and next year it will be mainly The Comet Is Coming gigs. I’m just trying to compartmentalise all the bands I play in.

Your Queen Is A Reptile is your third album with Sons of Kemet, and first one for the legendary jazz label, Impulse! How did that come about?
They just got in touch with me, saying they really liked the music I was making, and wanted to work with me. It was as simple as that. They knew what was happening in the UK jazz scene, and decided when the time was right to reach out.

Most famously, they released A Love Supreme, John Coltrane’s album. It must have been an honour to be part of that incredible legacy?
Yeah, it is an honour. At the end of the day I am a jazz musician. The stuff I play is coming from all the stuff I listen to, including the Impulse! discography. Obviously I want to play the music that reflects who I am, and not just a pastiche of the music I happen to like. So, the music that I like is not going to be necessarily reflected in what I decide to play in front of an audience, but the music that’s me, created the style that I play in. And the style of most of the musicians I play with is the music stemming from the Impulse! classic period of the mid-to-late-60s.

Tell me about your musical background
I did a classical clarinet degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. At the time I was playing with Tomorrow’s Warriors, playing standards. I also had a long association with the London Improvisers Orchestra, and did a lot of gigs with people like Evan Parker and Steve Berrisford. I’m 34 in about a week, and I left music college when I was 23, so it’s been about 11 years of being a professional musician, playing in different situations, different types of ensembles. I think that is the nature of what you’ve got to do to survive as a musician in a place like London.

Was London your place of birth?
Yeah, but I moved to Barbados when I was six and came back when I was 16.

How did that inform your music education?
I started playing music there. It was not typical of the kind of musical education that you get in England, in that there weren’t that many parameters attached to what you could or should do. You could study classically and still play jazz or calypso or reggae music. You weren’t typecast as one type of musician.

One of the ‘Queens’ on the album is Ada Eastman, who is your great grandmother. Did you ever know her personally?
Yeah, she lived to 103. It’s a homage to her. It’s the same for writing about all these women. I was trying to look at the qualities that these women espoused, that we should be trying to revere, that we should be trying to think about. What the concept of leadership is. What we are supposed to see in our leaders, to look up to and receive guidance from. For me on the greatest forms of inspiration that came from my great grandmother is the fact you can persevere through life, that you can make your situation better than the generation before.

The album title and sleeve notes refer to the British monarchy and how it does not represent black immigrants, There is a quote, “Your queen is not our queen. She does not see us as human”.
The title refers to influential black women throughout history. But there are lots of different elements. Your Queen is not our queen is part of the overall concept.

Can you tell us about Harriet Tubman, one of the Queens?
Harriet Tubman was a slave that was freed and decided to form what was called the Underground Railroad, which was a means of transporting slaves from the south of America to the north. I decided to write the tune about her to think about what it means to serve one’s community, after having attained one’s freedom. What do you do after that? Do you bask in that freedom or do you try and change the lives of the people that are still receiving the blunt end of oppression.

And Albertina Sisulu?
She was a member of the ANC, the political part of the fight against Apartheid, and was one of the lesser known figures, who helped to hold the nation together when many of the men freedom fighters were imprisoned.

And Mamie Phipps Clark?
She was one of the founding people who did research into the harmful effects of segregation when it was a part of US law, when it was seen as something necessary for the fabric of society. She actually researched this and decided it was not a natural occurrence, and that it is detrimental to the lives of black people in America. And partly because of her research the US Supreme Court deemed segregation illegal.

How does a Sons of Kemet song come about?
Normally I write music within a period of thinking about a certain conceptual idea. I don’t think it’s appropriate to write music directly based on that concept. I’ll write music within the same time period of thinking about certain ideas, and once the music is written I’ll attach them to whatever ideas I think is applicable.

Jeff Hemmings