Sons of Kemet - digging deep for new sounds

Saxophone, tuba and two sets of drums aren’t what you might call conventional instrumentation but it was the sound that Shabaka Hutchings was hearing in his head when he formed Sons of Kemet three years ago and on the strength of the quartet’s first album, Burn, his choice of both instruments and players has been overwhelmingly vindicated.

“I love the elasticity that the tuba has,” says the saxophonist who brings his musical vision to Glasgow Jazz Festival this week. “For such a big instrument it can move so easily between playing the melody and being part of the rhythm section and I wanted to be able to play with both of its personalities, if you like, to create music that wouldn’t just be a brief statement and then have everyone going off and showing everything they have as improvisers, as happens in a lot of jazz. I want our music to develop organically so that we keep finding new meaning in a melody and we end up with essentially a new composition after we’ve played something night after night on a tour or on gigs over a long period of time.”

There’s a lot of history in Sons of Kemet’s music, in part reflecting the origin of the band name in ancient Egypt. Kemet, says Hutchings, was the name for black Egypt and the London-born, Barbados-raised musician has a link to these times in that he is named after Shabaka, the last Nubian to rule over Upper and Lower Egypt and the man responsible for the ideological principals – the Kemetic code – of the time.

“The idea is that our music reflects the African diaspora and how hereditary African music filtered into the music of the Caribbean and New Orleans that we hear today,” he says. “If you listen to New Orleans marching bands, there’s something ceremonial about them, of course, but there’s also a soulfulness and feeling of joyousness in that music. The heart of it is almost what you hear in a field recording – the essence – and those things are what I had in mind when I formed the band. I didn’t want complexity just for complexity’s sake, I wanted something deep that we could all explore.”

Hutchings’ own story is of a clarinet student who was classically trained on that instrument and came back to the UK in 2000 to study first at Birmingham Conservatoire and then at the Guildhall in London, adding saxophone and developing into a jazz player along the way. He played with fellow Glasgow Jazz Festival guest Courtney Pine, saxophonist-rapper Soweto Kinch, and the late trumpeter Abram Wilson before forming the acclaimed young jazz adventurers Zed-U, where he worked with one of Sons of Kemet’s drummers, Tom Skinner. He also became a regular deputy saxophonist in Polar Bear, with his current band’s other drummer, Sebastian Rochford.

“When I thought about drummers for Sons of Kemet, I was thinking about having two who would complement each other, as well as bring energy and detail to the sound, and Tom and Seb were the only two guys I considered,” he says. “The way they play together, they just understand each other perfectly and Seb’s experience as a record producer brings an extra ingredient to the band. He hears things in a big picture, if I can put it that way, and that allows him to introduce small details that actually add a lot. When he produced our album he added some electronic touches in post-production that gave the music another dimension without detracting from the basic acoustic energy that the band has on gigs.”

Although Thursday’s concert will be the first time Sons of Kemet have played in Glasgow, they already have a connection with the city, having picked up the Best Jazz Act award at the MOBOs in the SSE Hydro last October. For Hutchings, gaining such acknowledgement for the band relatively early into its career was, he says, amazing and confirmation that listeners “get” what the band is about musically.

“It’ll be great to actually play in Glasgow, although obviously the MOBOs was a fantastic occasion,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to playing and presenting a band that draws on the music of the Caribbean and New Orleans – and also benefited quite a lot from studies of Balkan brass bands when I was at the planning stage – but is emphatically the sound of modern London.”


From The Herald, June 24, 2014.

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