The british jazz quartet Sons of Kemet’s new album, «Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do», is more of the sound we have learnt to love. – The important thing for me is emotional directness, band-leader Shabaka Hutchings tells in this lengthy and open-hearted interview.
With two drummers (Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner), growling tuba from (new member) Theon Cross (replacing Oren Marshall) and inventive and sky-reaching playing from band leader Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone, clarinet) they comes forward as a vital force in modern jazz, but also well anchored in the tradition following John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.
Their mixture of jazz, rock, Caribbean folk and African music won a well deserved price for ‘Best Jazz Act’ at the 2013 MOBO Awards, and their debut album Burn (2013) was nominated for Gilles Peterson’s Album of the Year.
– I see Sons Of Kemet as a group that’s free to explore even more areas, says Hutchings, whom I recently hooked up with for a lengthy Messenger-interview.
Hutchings describes the new album as «a meditation on the Caribbean diaspora in Britain».
– The realisation dawned after I’d started writing these tunes, he explains.
– I was thinking of my grandmother’s generation from the Caribbean, who came here to work incredibly hard, and also what it means to be a black person in Britain now, especially a generation of youth experiencing high unemployment, and those elements of society who are not always easy to see.
Euphoric audience in Bergen
Shabaka Hutchings was raised in Birmingham, but spent his years between the ages of 6 and 16 in Barbados, where he first picked up an instrument – in his school’s recorder group, aged 9.
– I think the blues is the acceptance of lived experience. The ability to allow one’s self to manifest emotion in a non verbal or written medium. So I guess integrity for me is the important aspect of the blues as opposed to notions of sadness or joy.
– I thought I was going to be in an orchestra; it was all about classical and calypso-bands for me. When I was in the Caribbean, kids my age saw jazz as music for old people or rich people, he tells.
Back in Birmingham, Hutchings befriended alto-sax and MC talent Soweto Kinch, at the latter’s weekly live jam sessions. Hutchings then began to delve into the jazz music catalogue at Birmingham library, and studied clarinet and then saxophone at London’s prestigious Guildhall School Of Music And Drama.
In March this year, his quartet visited Bergen, and I begin my interview by reminiscing about the euphoria his music created in the audience.
– I love your new album, «Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do». It’s good to finally hear studio versions of the material you played in Bergen at the Borealis Festival in March this year. It was incredible, really forceful music with a smile. You opened with «In Memory of Samid Awid», the same track that opens the new album. I know about his tragedy; a Palestinian teen killed by Israeli forces as he fled their gunfire in 2013.
– Thanks. Yeah, the situation is so tragic and the victims not usually remembered as individuals outside the region. We’re trying to immortalise an everyday youth, and an occurrence that is everyday in that region of the world, and to say that it is significant. I wanted an intensity that continued throughout the piece. It’s a taut existence, and the low notes symbolise the bombings or eruptions in «normal» life under occupation.
– You also played «The Long Night of Octavia Butler», a track I guess is in praise of the sci-fi author. She was unbeknowst to me, even as I’m an avid reader of sci-fi, but I will check out her works now.
– When I read books I love, they kind of put a trance over me, and Octavia Butler particularly has that effect. One of my favourites is her novel Parable Of The Talents (1998); it presents a futuristic vision that is just close enough to normality to make you unsettled. Lilith’s Brood is good too. I just finished that one and enjoyed it.
– Thank you, I will definitely check them out. Do you like Jimmy Lyons? I first heard him on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s movie «Ghost Dog». It’s really wild playing, anchored by Andrew Cyrille’s imaginative drum playing.
– Hey, I love Jimmy Lyons. I’ve mainly heard him on Cecil Taylor’s albums. I’m really into Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come (recorded live in Copenhagen in 1962, with Sunny Murray on drums, journ. comm.).
– Yes, I know Cecil Taylor, but I often find his music forbidding or brainy. Of course I’m wrong – it’s always about finding the right time and really listen.
– I know what you mean. Nefertiti and It is in the Brewing Luminous (recorded live in New York in 1980, together with Jimmy Lyons, Alan Silva, Sunny Murray and Jerome Cooper, journ. comm.) are the only two of his albums that I find myself coming back to.
– Sun Ra, on the other side, I never tire of. It’s so playful and inventive music that he really has to be from another planet, like he claimed to be.
– Actually, I did a bit of playing with the Arkestra. I love his music and vibe.
– Incredible. Marshall Allen; respect. He stayed with the Arkestra for a lifetime, as also did John Gilmore. Great musicians, and both could have had careers of their own, but were loyal to the Arkestra. Your playing is very warm and soft-toned here, beautifully so, and kind of different from the more sky high soloing you did in Bergen. I guess your band name, Sons of Kemet, is partly inspired by Sun Ra? Like «sons of Sun Ra», maybe?
– Kind of… I’m named after King Shabaka, who was the last Nubian (as opposed to Arabic) king to unite upper and lower Egypt. He wrote the teachings of the time on a massive stone (the Shabaka Stone), which was later studied and called Kemeticism. Hence Sons of Kemet. I was reading a lot of that stuff when I started the band.
Two kinds of blues
– Your line up with two drummers, tuba and saxophone is quite inspired, and I think it makes your music astral and earthy and groovy at the same time. Your music also feels programmatic, with titles referring to politics and authors. Do you have a philosophy behind your music, beyond making everybody have a good time when you play?
– I’ll have to think about this in the morning, I’m afraid. I’m a bit too tired to articulate my philosophy of music at the moment.
– That’s the good thing about Messenger. No hurry! While you ponder my previous question, I can formulate a new. Today, I was listening to an old (1952) recording of Ahmad Jahmal playing his own tune, «Ahmad’s Blues». It opens with what sounds like him almost attacking the piano with some very heavy-handed chords, then it opens up and just flows beautifully. Beautifully and sad, in a way, full of longing for something that has been. Billie Holiday said that there’s two kinds of blues; happy blues and sad blues. I don’t know, but I always think of the blues like a longing in the soul, like reaching for something that’s unreachable. Like the moon, or like the love of a special person. My point is, when I listen to your rendition of «Rivers of Babylon», I get the same feeling. It makes me sing the words along with your saxophone, and reminds me of what a great song this really is, like it incapsulates all the longing of each and everyone, stranded in a strange land or stranded inside ourselves. Sorry, too many words. My question is: How important is the blues in your music?
– Hey Magne, sorry I’ve not written a response to your previous question. I’m finding it quite difficult, which has really surprised me, because shifting philosophies as to why I play and the meaning behind performance in the context of Sons of Kemet is something I think about alot. It’s made me realise that a lot of what I’d consider my philosophies in music are intuited and rationalized within myself, and (surprisingly) as no interviewer has ever asked what you’d think to be quite an elemental question, it’s not so easy to articulate. I’ll sit down this evening and try come up with a codified answer though.
– As for the next question… I think the blues is the acceptance of lived experience. The ability to allow one’s self to manifest emotion in a non verbal or written medium. So I guess integrity for me is the important aspect of the blues as opposed to notions of sadness or joy.
– It would seem that in situations of emotional extremities most artists lessen their barrier between their actual self and what they want to be projected. Some people are able to reach that place of giving also without going through (relative) trauma. The important thing for me is emotional directness. If an artist can encapsulate an aspect of what it means to be human from their true feelings, then that’s the blues. Obviously this isn’t quantifiable, we know when someone affects us with a performance we might term the blues when we hear it, but for me it’s got nothing to do with genre per se.
– So in answer to your question, the blues is of upmost importance to my music, since for me music is about the heightening of feeling. There are so many aspects of living that act to numb people, to the present, from feeling empathy, from considering history. I believe music to be a force for generating more feeling for artists and audiences. What excites me is when this ‘feeling’ isn’t the norm. Or when it’s not something which can be articulated into language or past experience.
– The first time I heard Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories for instance, or Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity I remember being filled with new emotion. An area that I’d not engaged with before and that fascinates me. Like an area of my body was numb up until that point and slowly, as I received the music, life energized it for the first time.
– In terms of the titles of my songs, I usually ‘free write’. So I’ll just make a space in my day and write whatever comes to me. This is affected of course by what I choose to listen to and how I engage with music outside of the writing zone. So for instance, if I need to write for orchestra I’ll listen to loads of orchestral music for a few months, then sit one day and let my subconscious do its work. Because of this I seldom have titles or expectations of specific tunes before I write them. Once they’re done, though, it’s normally clear to me what event or aspect of life has been a contributing factor to the vibe of the song, so I’ll then give it a name.
– Thank you, wow, that’s what I call an answer! You’ve got a very special music video to «In the Castle of my Skin», with South African Pantsula dancers. How did that come about?
– In terms of the meaning behind the song, In the Castle of My Skin is a novel by Barbadian author George Lamming. It parallels the coming of age of the author as a young boy from the rural areas maturing and adjusting to the dynamics of the city with the political developments of the island (having recently gained independence).
– I wanted Pantsula dancers firstly because they’re dope, but also because of the way they use the various parts of their bodies as individual units which oscillate between separate activity and total cohesion.
– The element I tried to take from this story in relation to the music is a feeling of internal tension, a tautness in attempting to realise life uninhibited by external forces. That struggle to unify the constituent parts of a whole organism, whether that organism be the inner life of a child forming to see the world in its realness as an adult, or a country unifying after freeing itself from the grip of colonisation (the force which reduces countries and peoples into a childlike dependence).
– The first half of the song is mixed in such a way that individual parts of the drums ring out separate to the whole groove and progressively try to merge into a total unified groove which is achieved by the end of the tune.
– I wanted Pantsula dancers firstly because they’re dope, but also because of the way they use the various parts of their bodies as individual units which oscillate between separate activity and total cohesion (mirroring the struggle highlighted by the novel).
– The cover image of your new album, «Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do», is beautiful and quite striking. What do you know about the artwork, and why did you choose it?
– The artwork is by Daniela Yohannes. I wrote an essay about her work. I like the power of Daniela’s images in making you create a narrative yourself around a given theme or atmosphere that she creates. This is what I tried to achieve with the title. A combination of words that makes the reader go into themselves in ruminating the meaning. The starkness of this image has this effect for me. It suggests a sternness and nobility that needs to be acknowledged and maintained throughout the diasporic community.
– Yes, I immediately liked the album title. I feel that myself. And it also sends a stark message out into the world. I was interviewing a politician yesterday, of the Norwegian ‘green’ party: He’s very philosophical, so it became very interesting. In the end, we talked about music. And about the world today. And about John Grant’s lyrics (if you’ve heard him – he sing beautiful songs about lost love). I said that there’s no topic more important to sing about than love, and quoted The Beatles’ «All You Need is Love». It really is the solution to everything. More love equals less wars, less greed, less negativity.
– That’s true, but hate seems to be more comprehendible these days.
– Yes, apologetically. You mention the diaspora. In Norway this autumn, there have been a heartwarming welcome to all the Syrian refugees. But now, as the pressure on the border becomes greater, people become harsher. I think music, love, art, all beautiful things, to experience that, makes us better humans. To see that people are the same. That all of us have the same fears, worries, all over the world. And that there really should be no borders. But I guess that’s far into the future. Just thinking aloud here, referring to your album title.
– Yeah, and there are some emotional sentiments that I think we just don’t have words for that only art can articulate to people about the power of empathy and love.
– Yes! Like the – I would say total – communication you got with the audience in Bergen. Music really IS the language of the soul. I love (John Coltrane’s album) «A Love Supreme», by the way. It’s a work that transcends every genre – it’s just the greatest music. And the message is IN the music, to feel. There’s so much joy in that recording. I see – at Youtube – that you are great at giving respect to your forebears; Fela Kuti, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler. I saw Sanders in Bergen ten years ago. It was really great, free-flowing and imaginative.
– I’ve got a theory about the way hip hop is misinterpreted in its focus on lyricism as a way of separating MC’s from musicians.
– Yeah, it’s been an amazing learning experience preparing for those gigs, especially Sanders.
– Do you feel Sanders is closer to your style? He has this kind of buddhistic/karmic/cosmic purity in his sound?
– Yeah, I’m only now realising it, though. There’s an energy with him that I really get with.
– Have you heard «With a Heartbeat», the album Pharoah Sanders made with Bill Laswell? It’s quite dubby. There’s some interesting music made where two worlds meet. Another example (also with Bill Laswell) is Material’s album «Memory Serves» (1981). It’s a musical melting pot, with a lot of great musicians: Sonny Sharrock, Fred Frith, Olu Dara, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, Billy Bang, Charles K. Noyes, Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher.
– Haha, I’ve not checked those albums. I’m just eating though, so I have to run. (A little later:) Hey Magne, I’m just listening to that Pharoah Sanders album. It sounds so good.
– The album begins with a heartbeat, hence the title.
– I love that thing that Pharoah has of almost being outside of genre, just a spiritual force that manifests in music.
– Oh, yes. I talked briefly to him backstage afterwards his concert in Bergen. His eyes where all red, after the concert. He was just smiling, thanking me for the compliments, I guess exhausted after the show – which was – fantastic. You’re yourself inspired by hip hop. What do you think of that kind of experiments, where two worlds meet?
– For me it’s the accents that are most important. The inflections. Like those languages where a word has multiple meanings according to how the sonic nuances fall.
– I think most hip hop meets jazz experiments deal with just the base elements of both music, so I’m not normally impressed. An exception is Steven Williamson’s album Journey to Truth, which features Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and Black Thought of The Roots. I’ve got a theory about the way hip hop is misinterpreted in its focus on lyricism as a way of separating MC’s from musicians.
– I’ve always compared hip hop to jazz – in the way that the word flow equals a solo instrument.
– Yeah, for me it’s the accents that are most important. The inflections. Like those languages where a word has multiple meanings according to how the sonic nuances fall. That’s a way of thinking that Jean Toussaint was trying to get me onto in relation to bebop when I was studying with him. Hearing the inner melodies in the accents as telling a story of their own, separate to harmonic consideration.
– Jazz and freeflowing poetry are related, I think. The nuances you talk about, though, are they very clear in English? In Norwegian we have that in some kind of singing dialects, where the melody of the sentence has to be interpreted along with the words. It’s not only what you say, but also the way you say it.
– Yeah, the accents being literally the points which a rapper or bebopper chooses to emphasise, with volume or articulation of some sort, during the course of a phrase. That’s what I think Steve Williamson captures really well in the Black Thought collaboration.