It is fitting that at a time when the rights of British citizens from the Windrush generation have wrongly been called into question and in the clumsiest and most heartless of manners, thereby rendering problematic their legal status and indeed very existence on these isles, that Shabaka Hutchings and his Sons of Kemet should come up with an album that seeks to focus on cultural memory. In so doing, the band aims to showcase the commonality of the African diaspora, whether that be in the musical inspirations that the leader heard while living in in the Caribbean, or the newer sounds of South Africa heard while on tour there, or even the cosmopolitan influences that any culturally aware resident of London would be exposed to. It is doubly fitting that this recording should arrive when the fiftieth anniversary of the highly controversial ‘Rivers of blood’ speech is being vigorously debated. Can and should jazz intervene in such matters? During the Civil Rights era in the United States, musicians such as Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp raised those same such issues, the former two paying a heavy price in terms of major labels avoiding them altogether, and yet all the aforementioned recorded some of their most engaging and committed music on the famous Impulse! imprint. Thus, it is triply and aptly fitting that the Sons of Kemet should be present on the re-activated label. It should be added that John Coltrane with his magnificent evocation of a tragedy in a church in Alabama should be added to that list, while others, most notably Duke Ellington, made symbolic reference throughout their career.
Stylistically, the music contained within is significant in that it reaches out to a disparate audience and one that one would not necessarily call a traditional jazz one with all nine pieces themed around the names of prominent women of African heritage. This is reflected in the Jamaican dub influences of, ‘My queen is Mammie Phipps’, with toaster Congo Natty on hand. A personal favourite of this writer is, ‘My queen is Harriet Tubman’, a figure, who it should be remembered, was paid homage to on Ellington’s masterful, ‘New Orleans Suite’, and someone who escaped slavery and was in the mid-1970’s name checked by Stevie Wonder on the seminal album, ‘Songs in the key of life’, quite possibly the location in which Hutchings first came across her name.
In nature, the pared down sound on this album of tuba, drums and saxophone plus guest voices hints more at Max Roach than say Kamasi Washington whose epic and lush orchestrations run counter to Sons of Kemet’s approach, yet there is no reason why the two cannot exist side by side. Afro-centric visions are evident from viewing the striking album cover art work of Mzwandile Buthelezi. Some will want to make an association with the upcoming marriage of a biracial woman of African-American heritage on her mother’s side with a royal prince and this may indeed be viewed as a positive development and one that drags the Royal family into the twenty-first century where fusion of all kinds is the new norm. Certainly, the multi-racial composition of the band speaks for itself, yet is by no means the first time that musicians from diverse origins have come together. One could equally cite Santana to Sly Stone, late 1960’s’ Miles Davis to any number of larger big band formations.
The fact is this world is in rapid demographic and technological evolution and that includes the composition of that global population. Duke Ellington had the foresight in 1971 to see how demographic shifts were progressing with the prophetic title, the ‘Afro-Eurasian eclipse’, when travelling through Asia and seeing how human faces were inextricably tied to one another. In this respect, Western Europe, is very much playing catch up with developments elsewhere and the continent of Europe is a small minority in a much bigger and ethnically diverse and richer world. That is also one aspect of the ‘global village’ that should not be forgotten. Shabaka Hutchings and the Sons of Kemet are merely reflecting that inexorable trend and should be fully supported in their endeavour.