The Sons of Kemet break down the borders

For Shabaka Hutchings and the mighty Sons of Kemet, there are no rules when it comes to American jazz

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      It’s telling, perhaps, that the first time I heard about Shabaka Hutchings it wasn’t through the jazz underground, but from Hieroglyphic Being. The Chicago house producer—who was in the middle of a run of gigs with the English saxophonist—waxed effusive about his gifts as a musician and, more importantly, as a collaborator. Flash forward a few months, and Hutchings was on the cover of cutting-edge music journal Wire, his cloth-capped visage staring confidently out from newsstands the world over. And now he’s bringing his primary band, Sons of Kemet, to the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, for a show that many insiders think is going to be a festival highlight.

      The cover caption for Hutchings’s Wire story read simply “Outward bound”. Music obsessives will recognize this as an allusion to one of the canonical albums of modern jazz, Eric Dolphy’s 1960 debut as a bandleader, but it’s also an apt metaphor for Hutchings’s thirst for exploration and growth—triggered by his recognition that while he’s British by birth and trained in an American art form, he is above all else a product of the African diaspora.

      That’s easy to hear in Sons of Kemet’s music, and we’ll get to that. But first the band’s name needs explanation.

      “Kemet is the name of the landmass that now, in terms of borders, is called Egypt,” Hutchings tells the Straight in a phone conversation from his London home. “It means, literally, ‘the black lands’. And my name, Shabaka, I’m named after the last Nubian ruler of Egypt, in the time when it was being referred to as Kemet. King Shabaka was the person who transcribed a lot of philosophical and spiritual teachings at the time; he wrote them onto a massive stone that they call the Shabaka Stone, in hieroglyphics. It’s one of the artifacts that scholars since then have gone back and studied, that formed the basis of what they call Hermeticism.”

      Knowing that helps make sense of Sons of Kemet’s sound. The interracial quartet, which also includes drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick and tuba player Theon Cross, is recognizably jazz, in that it’s harmonically sophisticated and leans toward extended improvisational forms. Its massive rhythmic presence, however, can call to mind processional music from Nigeria, the languid reggae pulse of Jamaica, hot samba music from Brazil, and the latest club mix from Detroit. For Hutchings, it represents an embracing of the whole of his African heritage—and a conscious move away from an American template of what jazz can be.

      “There was a definite effort on my part at a certain stage in my musical development where I tried to look at the way that America had formed the basis of my thinking up until that point,” the 34-year-old musician explains. “It was about trying to imagine, I guess, the imperfection that happened in the melting pot of New Orleans…and seeing that as a part of the trajectory of African music from the African continent towards the spaces of the diaspora. If you look at it from that perspective, you get to see how jazz was formed in America, but also how the same aesthetics maybe caused different music to be formed in Brazil that comes from the same roots. It made me look at the music of jazz coming from America in a different light—from a different emphasis, I guess. A different emphasis on what’s important in the music.”

      For Hutchings, that meant stepping back from the glossy perfection that has come to dominate mainstream forms of jazz, and moving back to its roots in communal celebration. As a younger musician, he says, he strove to “practise as much as [John] Coltrane practised, or be as technically rigorous as, say, Charlie Parker”. Now, he sees himself as an educator as well as a performer—the nine tracks on Sons of Kemet’s fierce and funky Your Queen Is a Reptile are each dedicated to a different black female activist or revolutionary role model, from 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman to apartheid fighter Albertina Sisulu. Hutchings hopes that his listeners will take the time to research the lives of these alternative queens, but he knows that there are other ways to raise consciousness—including playing music that creates a sense of release.

      “That’s exactly it,” he explains. “One of the purest ways that music can actually influence society or have a role in society is for it to open up that space.…When you have a concert that’s so engaging that it takes you out of the world and clears your mind—almost, like, blows it apart—it creates the actual mental space to focus on what the future could look like. For me, that’s when music has to be fulfilling a deep role.”

      Sons of Kemet play the Imperial on Tuesday (June 26), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.