Sons of Kemet: Burn
Jazz music can no longer be exclusively claimed by one group or another. While its roots as African American music cannot and should not be obscured, the genre has for many decades been undergoing a process of globalization. Ever since jazz left the United States and transplanted itself in Europe, the music has grown a global audience. Many of the stylistic permutations of jazz have come from places beyond the United States. See, for instance, the advent of Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin jazz, bossa nova, the Afrocentric revivalism of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Coltrane’s borrowing from Indian musical forms, the recent avalanche of jazz releases from Scandinavia and Israel, and on and on. Jazz’s rapid development and complexification in the 1950s and 60s mirrored both a politically nervous and globally assertive America and a world increasingly connected and leveled by international capitalism and emerging “Third World” nationalist movements. This globalization has transformed jazz from merely a blues-derived voice for Black America to a genre of music with much more variety but less particularity than it once had. Indeed, a consequence of this globalization is that it has been difficult, I would say foolhardy, to draw clear boundaries around jazz as a genre.
Sons of Kemet is a London-based collective of musicians led by clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Shabaka Hutchings. Hutchings, born in England and raised and educated in classical clarinet in Barbados, expresses through his music a deep connection to the popular music traditions of the Caribbean. Unusually for a jazz group, he is joined by both a tubist, Oren Marshall, and not one but two drummers, Tom Skinnard and Seb Rochford. This unconventional arrangement creates tracks thriving with percussive energy, with Hutchings’ compositions ranging from rhythmically complex but relatively straight-ahead jazz pieces to songs deeply rooted in reggae, dub, and calypso. The band’s pieces on Burn tend to be defined by two conversation partnerships. First, Skinnard and Rochford lay down the beats and rhythms in a remarkably coherent fashion, exchanging ideas and playing off of each other with agility. Second, Hutchings’ various woodwinds engage in a sort of dance with Marshall’s tuba. In the opening track, “All Will Surely Burn,” Marshall largely plays a part similar to that of a bassist, anchoring the composer’s more free-form saxophone improvisations. Most of the album is boisterous and rowdy, with the exception of “Adonia’s Lullaby,” “Song for Galeano,” and “Rivers of Babylon,” the latter of which greatly resembles New Orleans brass band music and features Marshall in a much more dynamic role. Much of the album is produced in a reverb-heavy style reminiscent of dub music, and the long echoes provide a sense of space often missing from the busier tracks. With two drummers, though, even the more contemplative pieces feature distinct and complex rhythms.
Burn is, above all else, an exciting glimpse into how various streams of music can be synthesized and juxtaposed to beautiful effect in the hands of skilled musicians. Drawing on classical training, jazz’s improvisational tradition, and the fiery legacy of Caribbean musical traditions, Sons of Kemet (the name comes from one of the earliest names for Egypt) puts the British Empire’s residue to excellent use. Contextualized with apocalyptic themes and presentation, the album’s fierceness cannot be read as a merely personal expression of anger but as an infectious, carnivalesque protest against history. “Babylon,” as some might know, is in the reggae tradition a pejorative name for the United States. Jazz’s global reach is not neutral, but a sign of American cultural hegemony, which has both enriched music across the world and brought its own share of hardships. Colonial history, which brought so much suffering and conflict, and which still lingers today, paved the way for art like this to happen. While music alone doesn’t point the way toward any lasting reconciliation, it at least shows the flexibility and contested nature of culture, the means by which artists can critique and reconceive their situation. At such a critical time in human history, when the phrase “All Will Surely Burn” has more than a metaphorical urgency, we need music like this.