Sons of Kemet

Released March 30, 2018

JazzTimes Top 10 Albums of 2018

Jazzwise Top 10 Releases of 2018




Sons Of Kemet are born of many vital elements – including a name that nods to ancient Egyptian culture, and a line-up that comprises some of the most progressive 21st-century talents in British jazz and beyond. Band-leader, composer and sax and clarinet don Shabaka Hutchings (himself named after a Nubian pharaoh-philosopher) brings together his fiery vision alongside London based bandmates Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford (forming a dynamo duo on drums here) and latest addition Theon Cross (taking over from Oren Marshall on tuba). Taking inspiration from such diverse sources as the Afro-Caribbean carnival tradition and contemporary UK club culture of grime and dubstep, Your Queen Is A Reptile is party music with a purpose – like Fela Kuti and James Brown. The title itself is an attack on the concept of lineal superiority, the absurdity of the notion that one can possibly be more deserving by birthright. In his song titles, Hutchings offers alternate queens, powerful and influential Afro women from the famous to the familial (Ada Eastman of album opener My Queen Is Ada Eastman is Hutchings’ great-grandmother). With the group’s drum interplay and tuba driven basslines, one can’t help but be reminded of New Orleans’ brass band and second-line traditions, yet the reference points here lie further to the Southeast, deep in Hutchings’ Afro-Caribbean heritage. Poet Joshua Idehen’s vocals on the opener are reminiscent of another brilliant British artist from the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, Linton Kwesi Johnson. Delivered with dramatic pacing and power, Idehen confronts themes of racism in contemporary London.

My Queen Is Nanny Of The Maroons begins with a Nyabinghi-esque drum pattern – a nod to the spiritual music of the Rastas which was itself derived from the musical traditions of African slaves brought to Jamaica in the 17th and 18th century – while My Queen Is Angela Davis, perhaps the most “spiritual jazz” leaning track here, is informed by the Afro-centric sounds of late ’60s America. It is these subtle allusions within Your Queen Is A Reptile that show Hutchings is not simply listing off names he read in a book, but rather he is paying homage to women that deeply inform his political views, compositional personality, his very self-identity.

Track Listing:

1. My Queen Is Ada Eastman [Explicit] 6:41

2. My Queen Is Mamie Phipps Clark 5:31

3. My Queen Is Harriet Tubman 5:40

4. My Queen Is Anna Julia Cooper 5:07

5. My Queen Is Angela Davis 6:35

6. My Queen Is Nanny Of The Maroons 6:44

7. My Queen Is Yaa Asantewaa 7:04

8. My Queen Is Albertina Sisulu 5:20

9. My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence 6:52


Shabaka Hutchings: saxophone

Pete Wareham: saxophone (4)

Nubya Garcia: saxophone (7)

Theon Cross: tuba

Tom Skinner: drums

Seb Rochford: drums (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9)

Moses Boyd: drums (3, 7, 8)

Eddie Hick: drums (3, 7)

Maxwell Hallett: drums (9)

Josh Idehen: vocals (1, 9)

Congo Natty: vocals (2)

Recorded at Total Refreshment Centre, London, UK (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9) and Livingstone Studios, London, UK (3, 7, 8)

Produced by Dilip Harris and Shabaka Hutchings

Recorded and Mixed by Dilip Harris

Mastered by Guy Davie

Creative Director: Shabaka Hutchings

Design: Mzwandile Buthelezi


Shabaka Hutchings’ new album is about what you think it’s about. Its title, Your Queen Is a Reptile, is not a metaphor or an allegory: The record’s goal is to challenge what Hutchings views as the mythology of the monarchy. Instead of a lizard Queen Elizabeth—a queen who “does not see us as human,” as he describes in the liner notes—Hutchings, alongside his band Sons of Kemet, proposes a list of black women he’d be OK with bowing down to: Angela Davis, Mamie Phipps Clark, Harriet Tubman. For the lattermost, his tribute takes the form of an almost six-minute jam that’s half rhythm (drummers Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner) and half contrapuntal harmony (Hutchings and tuba player Theon Cross). It has the danceability of soca, the angularity of grime, the abrasive textures of punk and—somehow—the freedom of jazz.

The 34-year-old saxophone and clarinet player has spent the last decade cultivating this sound via a series of high-concept, party-ready bands around his native London, in addition to playing in groups led by friends like Kamaal Williams, Yazz Ahmed and Nubya Garcia. As the U.K. scene becomes harder and harder to ignore Stateside, so too does Hutchings and his colleagues’ perspective—one rooted in the broader African diaspora instead of American history, and targeting an audience that wants to dance and think at the same time. For Hutchings, marrying his jazz background with music suited to London clubs has required that he eschew another hierarchy: “I don’t want to sound like Mark Turner or Joe Lovano. … They’re too good. I want to take the saxophone and just get ignorant,” he said on the writer Phil Freeman’s Burning Ambulance podcast earlier this year.

It’s fair to be skeptical of artists vocally distancing themselves from their immediate ancestors; after all, rejecting what came before is the oldest coolness cheat code in the book. We’ve heard similar proclamations that this time things will be different, from other artists who have recently Saved Jazz, like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. It’s Hutchings’ global perspective, though, that sets him apart from other artists using pop literacy as a way to reach new audiences. Obviously African and Caribbean sounds have long had a place in jazz, but filtered through London’s current melting pot, that aesthetic feels totally new. Reliably rough around the edges, the music resists the smoother tendencies of Stateside fusion. “London is a tense place,” he told JazzTimes last year. “We’re not going to try to counteract that by being serene, and it feels like the audience just resonates with that.”

Hutchings’ take on fusion also represents a more essential repudiation of jazz’s Western leanings. In practice, his rejection of Turner and Lovano as “too good” is about completely revamping the genre’s critical hierarchy to place rhythmic communion at the center instead of improvised melody. Repeated, percussive licks dominate, with a few soaring runs sprinkled throughout; mostly, though, Hutchings is blending into the complex rhythmic interplay between other bandmembers. He argues that spontaneity and urgency, achieved through small ensembles, loose compositions and abbreviated recording sessions, can and should replace academic complexity. In 2016, Hutchings told Bandcamp that he declined to give pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, of his group the Ancestors, the music prior to a day-long session because he “didn’t want him to play all the shit that he knows.”

To dwell on the fact that Hutchings practices Dizzee Rascal riffs on Instagram and incorporates dub, spoken word and rap in his latest album is to do a disservice to what he’s trying to achieve. This is an artist who views shedding as a tool of capitalism (why do we need to play harder and better and faster?) and gives lectures on “decolonizing the mind from a [modern] jazz musician’s perspective.” The revolution he’s articulating on Your Queen is less about a self-conscious integration of pop elements than it is about stripping away the technical and compositional traps that have helped make jazz a property of the conservatory. As a result, his sound—especially with Sons of Kemet—bears a stronger resemblance to early New Orleans jazz than it does to the music of his peers, even if on the surface it bears the same jam-band, festival-ready inflections as artists like Washington. So how do we gauge his success, if the music self-evidently rejects the things jazz heads normally view as metrics of quality? Is the intentional repetitiveness an example of damning unoriginality or an exciting rebuttal against so much sprawling free improvisation? Is the commitment to danceable grooves acquiescing to pop or subverting the rhythmic ambiguity that defines so much current jazz? Regardless of how you answer these questions, you’ll probably be confronted with much more Shabaka Hutchings in the near future. (His recent signing with Impulse!, who released Your Queen, can’t hurt his profile, and the move seems to attempt to place him in the context of artists he’s modeled himself after, like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.) Already prolific between his three bands and countless sidegigs, he’s tapped into the moment in a way that’s crucial to crossover success. Afrobeats and Caribbean rhythms are driving plenty of today’s pop music, just as they are the music of Hutchings and his cohorts, albeit in an entirely different way. Washington found the crux of a spiritual-jazz revival, not to mention powerful allies in Kendrick Lamar and Alice Coltrane’s nephew, the electronic musician and producer Flying Lotus. Glasper also worked with Lamar, but long before that he’d engineered his signature meld of postbop with J Dilla and neosoul. Like those two crossover successes, Hutchings is making the right sound at the right place at the right time. Unlike them, he wants to turn jazz on its head, and he’s poised to get it at least a little off-balance.

Natalie Weiner (JazzTimes)