Before Sons of Kemet graced the stage Thursday night, you could tell the Sett was in store for one of their most unique and powerful shows of the year. Dueling drum kits anchored the back of the stage, providing a foundation for the horn section led by saxophonist and bandleader Shabaka Hutchings and tuba player Theon Cross. The audience marveled at the unorthodox setup in anticipation of what was to come.
Traveling from London, England, Sons of Kemet are at the forefront of the city’s re-emerging jazz scene. The group embraces London’s youthful culture; taking the grime, house and dub styles of their contemporaries and blending them together with their own jazz foundation to form a cross-cultural sound reflective of London’s diverse makeup.
Hutchings’ unique upbringing plays a central role in the group’s sound and aesthetic. Growing up in the rich cultural traditions of Barbados, West Indian rhythms permeate Hutchings’ vision. His move to London at the start of high school brought him in touch with London’s jazz roots and the eclectic nature of the urban cityscape whereupon Sons of Kemet was formed.
As the group took the stage, the once sparse dance floor transformed into a packed crowd with applause radiating the room. No introduction was needed as the group dove immediately into cuts from their third and most critically acclaimed full-length album, Your Queen is a Reptile.
“My Queen is Ada Eastman” brought the crowd into a synchronized head bob to Cross’s hypnotic bass line, as Hutching’s velvety sound provided a beam of light to the otherwise dark aura of the track. The group continued to build intensity on tracks like “My Queen is Harriet Tubman”, where drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick’s high-speed frenzy pushed heartbeats through the roof.
The group would occasionally slow down their fast pace, giving the spotlight over for a solo by an individual member. Seeing the personal style of all four members outside the group context gave the audience a chance to see how they fit together as a whole. While Hutchings chose to serenade the crowd with a gentle, serene ballad, Cross embarked on a five-minute spectacle that raised the question of whether he even had to breathe at all.
The most powerful moment of the concert, however, may have come when no music was being played at all. About halfway through the show, Hutchings came to the mic and delivered his first words to the crowd. He spoke of the group’s journey from London to the States- for some members it was their first time traveling across the Atlantic. Hutchings went on to discuss the origins of their new album. While its title at first seems comical or absurd, it is actually much deeper. For Hutchings, it represents breaking free from the hold of colonial hierarchies that rank lives based on nationality and hereditary. Departing from the deeply ingrained narrative of royalty, Hutching named the tracks after powerful black women, both in history and in his own life, like his great-grandmother (My Queen is Ada Eastman) and inspirations such as black scholar Anna Julia Cooper. Applause erupted, making it clear that the impact of Hutching’s words was felt long after the music ended.