Interview: Shabaka Hutchings of Sons of Kemet
Ahead of Glasgow Jazz Festival, Shabaka Hutchings talks Caribbean music, double drummers and Boney M
This article is from 2014.
Glasgow audiences can experience the Sons of Kemet sound in all its polyrhythmic, tuba-blasting glory when the band makes its Scottish debut as part of the city's Jazz Festival. The List's jazz critic Stewart Smith spoke to Shabaka Hutchings about how his background in a diverse range of musics has fed into Sons of Kemet.
You were born in England, but raised in Barbados. How much of an influence was Caribbean music on you?
Whilst living in Barbados, I played calypso music in many bands, especially around carnival time. Caribbean music is such an integral part of the sonic landscape of the island its impossible not to be consumed by it if one is an open musician. However, because of the age I was while there and the forces of cultural globalisation that were steadily encroaching, my real passion was hip hop (a sentiment which I'm sure resonates with many teenagers of my generation). Retrospectively, I've set about studying in-depth the sounds and rhythms associated with the Caribbean in an attempt to break the American sonic hegemony of my youth. A couple of years after leaving college, I realised I was ingesting only American forms of music and sculpting my playing in such a way as to encourage cultural anonymity. I decided then to take a stand and to consciously make Caribbean music an influence in my playing.'
Although best known as a jazz player, you studied classical clarinet. Why did you take this path, and how it has influenced your approach to playing and composition?
I'd say I became a jazz player a couple years after I finished college - up until that point I was a classical clarinettist who liked jazz and went to a bunch of jam sessions. The clarinet has always been my principle instrument and I learnt through the Associated Board classical grades system, completing Grade 8 by the time I was 14. Many players do those exams in Barbados regardless of the direction their music eventually takes so it felt pretty natural to take this course. I then took my classical studies to their logical conclusion in studying the instrument at the Guildhall School of Music with one of the foremost clarinet tutors Joy Farrall. I chose to study classical music because it has the longest and most in-depth engagement with clarinet repertoire, and I wanted to make my learning experience as broad as possible.
I didn't study composition whilst at college and there wasn't much built into the framework of the course that gave classical players any real knowledge of harmony or the mechanics of the tradition they are involved with. Hence, I was forced to learn compositional concepts on my own through necessity (I've been fortunate enough to have opportunities to write for various instrument combinations). I think performing with for various classical instrumental forces has broadened my appreciation for the dynamic possibilities of chamber music outside an obvious jazz context. Performing with orchestras especially taught me how to listen laterally in the midst of an ensemble - a skill that I always find myself coming back to.
Not studying jazz in an institution has meant that I had the technique to play my instrument but not the musical 'givens' which provide players with improvisational pre-packaged concepts and methodologies. This has meant that for my whole career, I have struggled to make sense of the nature of jazz music and to understand how it relates to my personal temperament. Questions have had to be asked and the answers usually present themselves in the music, not as finished products but as landmarks demarcating my journey.
Turning to Sons of Kemet, how did the band came together and in what ways has it changed since its inception in 2011?
The group came together pretty simply. I booked a gig at Charlie Wright's club in London and phoned the guys asking if they wanted to do a gig. Then we did another… and another. And the rest is, as they say, history. Musically, my main concern was and always will be vibe. I wanted to get the atmosphere of the nyabinghi chanting of [Count Ossie and the] Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, the raise-the-roof bombasticness of a dancehall MC like Sizzla or Capleton, and the conversational drumming styles of West African drumming ensembles. I sent the guys lots of reference music for them to check out so we were all on the same page and wrote the music quite specifically to induce these elements.
'The music has transformed itself over time into something that isn't the 'Caribbean' sound as stated on many press releases. To me, the input of the members of the band creates a sound which is distinctly London with its melting pot of cultures, its hectic energy, and moments of hazy reflection. I give everyone total freedom to reinterpret the music if they hear it. The other members are all composers and bandleaders in their own right so I totally trust in their ability to always make the right musical decisions.
'Having two drummers gives a very different energy to the music. They're constantly having a dialogue within the rhythm and this changes the function of the drums from one of accompaniment to one of dual soloists. Similarly, the tuba functions as a bass player in a horn player's shell, which means that Oren is never tied down to the prescribed role of simply playing bass lines. He can change function at will and be soloistic in an instant.'
The tension between the intense, funky grooves and the freer playing of the sax is really exciting. Would it be fair to say this reflects the range of contexts you've played in, from free improvisation with Evan Parker and the late Tony Marsh to groove-based bands like The Heliocentrics?
Definitely - one of the things I love about playing with the band is the fact that the musicality of all the members can be stretched to accommodate almost any musical reference my subconscious throws at them. This constant reassessment of what the band is keeps the music fresh and also links to ambiguities in myself: am I a free improviser? Or a groove player? Or a 'modal' player?….or simply a musician able to channel whatever spirit is needed to complete the scene set by the group?'
One of my favourites on the album is 'The Godfather' – am I right thinking this is a tribute to Mulatu Astatke? The modal clarinet melody has an Ethiopian quality, but it's got a klezmer feel too. Were you trying to make connections between different kinds of Jewish music or was it less conscious that this?
'The whole piece is based on a rhythm called the chip chikka and a mode called Anchi-hoye Minor. I've heard from a few people that it reminds them of klezmer music. This is maybe something for musicologists to explore - the link between Ethiopian and Jewish music but I hadn't this link in mind when I wrote the song.
I've never actually heard the Boney M version of this song. I know it as a traditional tune from my childhood and one that I associate with Rastafari ceremonies. This was why I included it. I wanted to explore this element of the Caribbean cannon: the western song of praise which has been assimilated into native culture and now explored from the vantage point of the 'native' in a foreign land.
You gave Seb Rochford free reign in production, so there are a lot of inventive dub-style effects and electronic sounds like the dirty bass at the end of 'The Godfather'. Do you try bring an element of this to the live show or is it all acoustic?
The show is all acoustic. For me, what we do in the studio is a document in itself and I don't feel the need to bring the electronic elements into the live show. Electronics bring a different energy to live performance and though in different contexts I enjoy plugging in, this isn't that sort of group. I want the raw energy of acoustic instruments giving their all.
More generally, what can we expect from your live show?
Live, we give as much intensity as we can. All concepts and intellectual musings take the back seat once we're on stage and we surrender to the spirit of the music (which demands our blood and sweat).
You were in Glasgow last year for the MOBO awards where you won best jazz act. Are you looking forward to coming back here?
It was amazing to be acknowledged for a project that I'm so passionate about and that I feel accurately expresses a huge part of my musical sensibility. This will be my first performance in Glasgow so I can't wait to hit the stage.
Sons of Kemet play The Rio Club, Glasgow, Thu 26 Jun, 8pm.