The brainchild of 33-year-old saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, Sons of Kemet are one of the leading forces within South London’s flourishing jazz scene, with their live shows already the stuff of legend.
This year’s Your Queen Is a Reptile, the group’s Mercury Prize-nominated third album and first on legendary US jazz label Impulse!, is an atmospheric tribute to influential black women throughout history. It’s a thrilling listen, effortlessly flipping between different genres as it explores the musical DNA of the likes of Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and Doreen Lawrence (mother of murdered black British teenager Stephen Lawrence). But however great the album is, it’s the stage where Sons of Kemet truly come to life, with the group’s mesmerising live shows capable of placing the audience in a trance-like state.
Tonight is no exception. From the off, it’s clear Sons of Kemet are in total command of the crowd, as a soothing intro featuring reflective brushstrokes from Hutchings’ sax transitions into something a lot more mischievous and bouncy via the energetic tuba playing of Theon Cross. Sure, to look at, Sons of Kemet’s stage show may appear pretty simplistic, with space for just two drummers (Tom Skinner, Eddie Hick), a saxophonist and clarinet player (Hutchings), and tuba (via Cross). There’s no bold stage props or imagery that hints at the Afrofuturism that fuels their sound either, only light transitions that are fairly unremarkable to look at. The group leaves all of the talking to guest vocalist and poet Joshua Idehen, whose energetic introduction (where he tells the crowd that “everyone in Britain is absolute magic, well, except Theresa May!”) sets the tone for the evening. However, this no thrills approach feels completely necessary, with it placing the onus entirely on the music itself – you sense too much of anything else would just get in the way.
These inspired musicians shift between jazz, hip-hop, reggae, ska, dub, Afrobeat and Caribbean soca at a breathtaking speed. The blistering My Queen Is Harriet Tubman has a real urgency, with Skinner and Hick’s chaotic, uptempo drumming perfectly capturing the energy of Tubman’s desperate escape from slavery. Hutchings’ sax floats around intricately on My Queen Is Ada Eastman, a tribute to his grandmother, which has a darker sound and brings the audience crashing right back into the modern world. During its closing bars, Idehen poignantly repeats the phrase “I’m here”, paying homage to the resilience of Britain’s immigrants.
Sons of Kemet’s greatest strength as a live act is just when you think you’ve sussed out one of their songs, the music takes a completely unexpected turn. This creates a consistent buzz of anticipation among the crowd, who are like putty in their hands. This is largely down to Cross, a man that somehow plays the tuba like it’s three or four different instruments. At one point, he creates a flowing rhythm reminiscent of vintage beatboxing from Doug E. Fresh, the next he creates a deep, alien-like bass, which sounds uniquely original. His breath control is fascinating to observe and his tuba solos are filled with showmanship. It really is impossible to take your eyes off him.
The youthful crowd at the Koko tonight is a great reflection of a diverse, modern London, with people of all races and ages dancing like their lives depended on it. Looking around at so many people getting lost in this music, it’s clear jazz has returned to the forefront of culture in a way we’ve not seen since Davis, Coltrane and Hancock were at the peak of their powers. The only difference? Well, this time around it appears that Britain is leading the charge.