Interview with Sons Of Kemet

Sons of Kemet: Theon Cross, Seb Rochford, Shabaka Hutchings and Tom Skinner (from left to right)

MOBO winner Sons of Kemet has become one of the prominent bands emerging out of London. Led by clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Shabaka Hutchings with Theon Cross on tuba and both Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford on drums, it is a super band blending jazz and Afro-Caribbean music with hypnotic rhythms and mesmerising horns.

The name of the band is as exciting as their music. In one of the interviews, Shabaka Hutchings has told where the name “Sons of Kemet” emerged from, starting with his own name’s history:

So basically ‘Shabaka’ originates from Mali, from the Dogon tribe. It means ‘God of creation’. But it was popularised by King Shabaka, who was an Egyptian ruler, the last Nubian Egyptian to rule both Upper and Lower Egypt, as opposed to the Arabs who sort of came in and dominated after that point. Shabaka, at his point of rule, he wrote all the teachings of the time on a massive big stone, which these scholars in the 70s found and started to interpret, and that became the foundation of what they would call Kemeticism. ‘Kemet’ was the name of Ancient Egypt at the time when Shabaka was ruling it, but Kemeticism wasn’t a thing, it was just the way that they chose to live their lives – or the rulers did, rather – and the general philosophy of that time. So when academics began studying the Shabaka stone, they formed Kemeticism as a sort of general philosophy.

In the time of King Shabaka, there was lots of intellectual trade between Egypt and Greece, which is kind of documented in a book called Black Athena, and obviously Greece was the foundation of Western thought. At the time I was reading lots of these things and thought that intellectually, we’re all ‘Sons Of Kemet’. And then I’m a son of Kemet, ’cause I’m Shabaka.

(The full interview can be read here.)

As they are going to perform soon at Salon in Istanbul, we had the chance to mail him some questions that mainIy me and my fellow bloggers had in my mind. So, here is what we have learnt from Shabaka Hutchings about his musical perpective and the band’s sound. Enjoy!

Shabaka, what parts of Kemetism do you embrace or admire? Do all band members share your views on Kemetism?

My main introduction to kemeticism was through the book the Metu Neter so the characteristics of kemeticism that I embrace the most are the ones outlined in this book. In regards to our music making the belief in the unity of all things is a very resonant theme for me in this ideology. The inter connectivity of the natural, human and spiritual world is a fact that we try to keep in mind. Universal consciousness is an aspect of kemeticism that I probably admire the most. The aspect of their creation myth whereby pure consciousness was disseminated before the formation of the world is important for me. According to this story, the aim of humankind in the macro sense is to reform the unity of consciousness as a pure entity ‘as it was in the beginning’. The way I interpret this is by gaining as much nuance as much as possible into history and people, as well as developing the trait of empathy as a lifelong goal. The act of attempting to consolidate a ‘universal consciousness’ is important since it implies a moving forward in one’s inner world: An attitude towards life that favours the progression of one’s inner state.

You have been playing together in the same bands as well as different ones for quite a long time, so you know each other very well. However, We still wonder how you came up with the idea of Sons of Kemet. How did you decide to embark on such an off-the-beaten-track journey?

I had a period of what can be seen as, in retrospect, depression in the year before I decided to form the band. During this time I wrote most of the music that we would later play for our first album though at the time I thought it was rubbish. When I started to address the aspects of my life that I wanted to change to get myself out of the rut that I was in, one of my main goals was to place myself into playing scenarios that I enjoy. There was no other consideration than that. So forming a group with such an unusual combination of players wasn’t a major decision for me since I just woke up one day and felt that I’d like to play with these guys to see how it went. It went pretty well and we’ve been going ever since.

The line-up for Sons Of Kemet – tuba, sax, and two drummers – is not a regular form that we see around. And, Shabaka, we know from your previous interviews that you don’t like chordal instruments. Have you always thought that you are better off without chords or is there a point where you realized that you don’t want to be a ‘chord player’? And how was the band’s reaction to this style at the beginning?

There are a couple aspects to my decisions not to play extensively with chordal players. One is the fact that I don’t play a chordal instrument myself. Even when I compose for large ensembles, I hear the lines horizontally before I place them vertically. Then I try to hear simultaneous melodies interacting from a position of them being already formed as single (however minute) melodic phrases. So it’s natural for me to write for non-chordal instruments. I have written a few piano etudes as a way of pushing myself out of this comfort zone but these haven’t been performed yet. My new group “The Comet is Coming” uses synth that I have no problem with. I love the tradition of this instrument when it’s not being used to shred all over some helpless fusion tune.

I tend to lean towards personalities more over instrumentation in the formation of groups so I’d never rule out using a chordal instrument in the jazz context if the right player came along, as it did with “The Comet is Coming”. For jazz, I love Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill and the way they focus all of what they play to the compositions as opposed to outlining chordal harmony for the sake of it.

In another sense I like players who play with less overt idiosyncrasies that are usually deployed by many players of chordal instruments. I guess what comes with having a breadth of harmonic knowledge at ones fingertips is that the temptation to show everything you know. I like players who know a lot but don’t feel obliged to play anything that’s not in immediate service of the music at hand in that moment.

Shabaka, at what point in your musical life you decided to turn to your roots and play this kind of music in which you synthesize the traditional and the modern? Was there a specific reason or was it just the time had come?
Around the time that I formed Sons of Kemet I was playing a lot of freely improvised music. This was my main medium of expression. It came to a point where I felt that though I could articulate myself well within this ‘genre’, there was something missing. I found that thing to be the synthesis of music I associate with my ‘roots’ – whether those roots are imagined or have solid connections to my actual heritage. The act of researching and forging associative links was something that has helped me artistically.

In regards to the ‘traditional merging with the modern’ consideration, I don’t really consider anything to be modern. And the word traditional comes with a lot of problematic concerns. Every music is simply a way for individuals to express the times they live in, whether it’s perceived as being modern or otherwise is a matter of interpretation. Often when we think of ‘traditional’ music the image we have is sounds that exist outside of time to a certain degree, music that is naive in its trajectory along the lines of human advancement. This line of thinking often disallows agency within the practitioners of non-Western music in dictating the parameters we use to define advancements. It’s these alternate parameters I’m interested in when studying this sort of music.

You and Tom play with other bands like Melt Yourself Down, and Mulatu Astatke And The Heliocentrics, and Seb with Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland. How has performing with these bands contributed to the sound of Sons of Kemet? What have you added to your own musical inventory?

These bands all have quite strong personalities which show a healthy respect to characteristics of particular genres but always manage to navigate the space inside of easy cataloguing. Maybe that’s the thing I’ve gained most from performing in all these outfits; the fact of music being a living entity that gathers all the things the performers love sonically and aesthetically and presents them as a cohesive new vision.

More specifically – Mulatu taught me how to write modally, how to structure a composition with limited note choices yet create drama and a sense of progression. Melt Yourself Down taught me about using the stage and communicating to an audience who wants to rock out. I actually learnt a lot about this element of stagecraft from Pete Wareham’s now defunct group Acoustic Ladyland and how to improvise in a way that brings non-specialist listeners in. MYD has also taught me how to surrender myself to the physical elements of playing, blowing really hard for the whole show with no let up. Polar Bear has taught me about creating and maintaining mystery in music and how to dwell in the shadowy areas of sound.

When Seb Rochford is the producer, it is usual to expect some effects and electronic sounds woven smoothly into a tune. Although there was kind of a dub feel in your debut album, the second one has a more earthy feel with less electronic intervention. Could you explain the reason behind your decision of not bringing those electronic elements to your live performance? Is it because you want to have “raw” music there on stage?

I definitely do prefer a raw sound on stage and I see studio albums as just that….produced works of art which employ all the techniques we can imagine which fit our goal. On stage I don’t want any distraction from us creating a space for energy.

In spite of your influential heritage, as a band, you don’t fall into doing pastiches, Your interpretations are different than, for example, a traditional Afro-Caribbean jazz. What is your recipe? How do you start composing a tune? And do you think the place where you live is influential on your music or it is possible to get inspired from various music styles through the Internet?

I’m loving these questions!!!!! Thanks

I don’t really have any recipe for avoiding pastiche. I don’t think anything is wrong with expressing oneself in this way, it’s just not the way I do things. Maybe my awareness of the historically poignant European perception ‘the happy native’ makes me reluctant to conform to roles which narrow broad perceptions of Caribbean entertainers.

I read an article on Varese some time ago which stated that he used to write lots of small ideas on bits of paper and pin them up around a board in his work space. From this he was able to reconfigure and re-imagine the microelements of his work. I tend to see the compositional process as architecture. The musical building blocks must be strong but they are of less importance than their placement within the scheme of a whole piece.

I don’t usually start a piece from beginning and work my way to the end. If I know I’ve got to write some new material, I’ll try to write as much as possible in the preceding months, just to get the juices flowing. I don’t really worry if it’s any good, I just keep writing. Then, when deadlines for producing tunes are imminent, I’ll take time out to craft specific songs out of the stuff I’ve been jotting. Sometimes I’ll just hear a complete tune in my head while I’m showering though and I’ll just write the complete thing on the spot at the soonest available point. This was the case with the song inner Babylon.

In regards to your question about whether the place one lives is influential in forming a distinct style or whether the Internet can play a role – both of these things can be true simultaneously. I find London is incredibly influential on my music but not in an easily articulated way. It’s mainly an energy thing. There’s a manic energy here that makes me either express this in the underlying feeling of a lot of my work, or consciously work against it in an effect to supplant serenity into the madness.

How is playing the sax different from the clarinet for you? I sometimes feel Albert Ayler’s free style while you are playing. What kind of an effect you want to create when you prefer a sax over clarinet, or vice versa?

The main difference in my approach to both instruments is my training. I did the full classical training on the clarinet, went to a conservatoire and did the full on degree for 4 years so there’s an aspect of my playing that will always be influenced by this period of my life. I’ve always been quite particular about the types of clarinet sounds I like whereas with the sax I have a broader palate. So for jazz I have always enjoyed Don Byron, Chris Speed, and Jimmy Hamilton. Classically, David Shifrin has the sound I admire the most. There are others whose particular sounds resonate with me also – Perry Robinson, Theo Jorgesmann, and Jimmy Guiffre, but the former group are the ones I think have had the biggest effect.

When it comes to the sax, I’ve gone through many phases of being excited by various different types of sounds, from Sam Rivers, to Coltrane, to Getatchew, to Wayne Marsh and of course Ayler. I’m not a fan of trying to force any particular trait from the players I love but I think they come out organically after a while.

I like to let the music guide my approach to either instrument so in a sense I’m not trying to create any effect. I let my musicality and instinct dictate the aspects of various sound aesthetics which I’ve accumulated over the years. The sax does present an element of strength however that I enjoy. I like the sheer weight of sound possible of this horn. The clarinet allows sensitivity and weightlessness that I think also portrays a side of my demeanour. Of course, it’s fun to invert these roles and subvert the inclination to drift towards the most likely sonic approach for these instruments.

We guess you all are keen on listening to a wide range of music from all over the world and exchanging stuff with each other. Have you ever come across Anatolian folk music? If yes, what is the most impressive thing about it?

I’ve not checked it out with enough detail to comment fully on it. Tom skinner knows a lot more about Turkish music than I do. Hopefully that will be remedied soon after my Istanbul trip since I’ve got some free time to go record shopping.

It is a cliché that there is always a risk in making an amazing second album after a powerful debut, and fortunately, you have broken the mold with your second album titled “Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do”. What was the driving force behind it?

We slowly incorporated a few of the tunes that would be included on the second album into our live set in the year preceding it’s recording. This meant that by the time we were ready to record it was the natural thing to do. I see the recording process as a document of where we’re at musically so factors such as living up to our previous endeavours don’t particularly concern me.

The replacement of Oren Marshall with Theon Cross (once mentored by Marshall) has not changed the basic sound of the band; moreover, Theon’s tuba playing style is more experimental and groovy, which in my opinion is in line with the band’s perspective. How did you persuade him to play with Sons of Kemet?

Due to personal issues Oren couldn’t gig with us outside London for about a year after the first album was released. It was in this time that Theon joined and we started to work on new material. Having him become a permanent fixture was a pretty natural progression since the music has grown with his particular approach. His attention to nuance in his role is incredible. He really has an understanding of the encoded rhythmic language within Afro-Caribbean music.

Along with your second album “Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do”, we feel that there is a much more socio-cultural and political stance signaled in the song titles as well. For example, “In Memory Of Samir Awad” was written to commemorate a Palestinian teen killed by Israeli forces as he fled their gunfire in 2013. “In The Castle Of My Skin” is a kind of tribute to George Lamming’s book about the dramatic changes in a young boy’s life taking place against the post-colonial period during the 1930s in Barbados. You are responsive to the events taking place in our modern world. Where do you think humanity is heading? What do you think about the political situation in the world today? Will music be able to overcome the obstacles?

I don’t know where humanity is heading. It seems like many of the structures which have oppressed people are beginning to be challenged and acknowledged in ways which could prove to be meaningful. This is the story of the world though…..dark days and groups of individuals’ resilience and resistance in the face of seemingly unchanging patterns of submission. It seems like many people are becoming aware of the inter connectivity of events and histories within the world and are adjusting their lives in ways that could make change which is good. At the same time though, old power structures seem to be stepping up attempts to maintain the illusion of a status quo that is unchanging. I guess this is the big fight of our time: The battle for vibrant political and social imagination. Music has a role to play in facilitating this, as does any art which challenges people’s perception and forces them to consider the past and envision alternate futures. I think music also has a role to play in expressing feelings and attitudes of the times we live in which can’t be easily articulated using orthodox language.

All this being said though…. Environmentally we seem to be fucked so all the political and social change in the world is fine but ultimately useless if we can’t consolidate a way to at least meaningfully slow down climate change within his generation. My song ‘all will surely burn’ is a nod to this from our first album. From environmental catastrophe a myriad of political struggles will occur in the last ditch attempt from powerful nations to secure resources for ‘the chosen few’. So…it’s not looking good for humanity from that perspective. What are we to do though? Love and try to spread love and work on being more empathetic to people outside our immediate vicinity. This is, I think, going to be the overriding result of all the political turmoil occurring now. People will be forced to adopt greater capacities to love and feel. Since there won’t be much more to do than focus on that or languish in the destruction which is imminent.

Shabaka, thank you so much for these detailed, precise and sincere answers. See you at the gig! 

Questions by (mainly) me, Ezgi Aktas and Ahmet Nursoy

For the Turkish version, check out Alternatif İstanbul.

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