On The Turntable: Sons Of Kemet's Your Queen Is A Reptile February 20 2018
London reed player Shabaka Hutchings is a relentlessly inventive and tireless musician. In no less than three groups (Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming and Shabaka & the Ancestors) as well as guesting on albums by Yussef Kamaal, The Heliocentrics and more, Hutchings has firmly positioned himself as one of the most sought after and progressive players on the contemporary jazz scene. While his renown spread around the globe with 2016's The Wisdom of Elders on Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Recordings, Sons of Kemet is where his forward-thinking ideas have been fully realized. Your Queen Is A Reptile, the group's first for the legendary Impulse! label, is indeed his finest release to date.
Sons of Kemet feature Hutchings on reeds, tuba player Theon Cross and two drummers (a rotating core including Tom Skinner, Seb Rochford and Eddie Hick). That may not sound like your standard jazz quartet, but Sons of Kemet are far from standard jazz fare. 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.
For decades Impulse! has been a beacon of pioneering jazz, releasing some of the heaviest recordings from heavy artists such as Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler – truly revolutionary fire music. For adventurous listeners, the signing of Sons of Kemet is a sincerely warm welcome. On the closing track Idehen sings, "I don't want to take my country back, I want to take my country forward." While this sentiment is surely about present day England, it could just as easily refer to the group's feelings about the contemporary jazz landscape. As Hutchings himself described his playing, "I'm trying to just spit out fire." And indeed he does and Sons of Kemet do.