Trickster rhythms

[Sons of Kemet @ The Cube, 18 Nov 2015]

The way a lot of modern jazz music is talked about and consumed, it sometimes feels as though it has been stripped of its origins as an African-American art form, birthed in the music halls of New Orleans and the streets of Harlem, to be made palatable for respectable European audiences. When I first turn up at The Cube late on Wednesday and stick my head through the door to see an entirely seated crowd, I fear that it’s going to be a night of sedate chin-scratching. But luckily, the energy of the band is far too powerful to be constrained for long, and by the end of the night, the vibe has shifted radically.

Formed by sax player Shabaka Hutchings, who plays alongside two drummers and a tuba player, Sons of Kemet concoct rhythms and melodies that feel deeply hypnotic, almost as though as they are designed to induce religious intoxication. Their new album Lest we forget what we came here to do draws overt influence from Afrofuturist themes and ideas, such as referencing African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler, who authored the post-apocalyptic Parable of the Sower series.

These are clues to the way the album functions as what the band’s website refers to as ‘a meditation on the Caribbean diaspora in Britain’. This political subtext is reflected sonically in restless polyrhythms which clatter in multiple directions from the two drum kits, drawing on traditional rhythms from Barbados (Hutchings was raised in between Birmingham and the Caribbean), as well as West African and marching band rhythms. These beats create a sense of constant, almost desperate movement: in their video for Play Mass, Hutchings runs ceaselessly through countryside and city, wielding his sax like some kind of trickster-alien, guided by golden animal-headed deities.

Their performance at the cube is guided by this same unceasing momentum. Tuba player Theon Cross alternates between dubby basslines, subtle, polyphonic drones and spluttering, almost beatboxed rhythms. I can’t remember ever feeling so impressed by the tuba, a beast of an instrument. This, combined with the ferocious drumming of Tom Skinner and Sebastian Rochford, leads to a faction of the audience (including me) forming an unruly rabble next to the stage, unable to keep still, as the intensity of the band’s ritual reaches its peak.

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