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Sons of Kemet at Black Box, Belfast

Ian Patterson By

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Sons of Kemet
Black Box
Belfast, N. Ireland
April 7, 2016

The finer points of ancient Egyptian religion might not have been the chief topic of discussion among the Black Box crowd as it waited for Mobo Jazz Award winners Sons of Kemet to take the stage in. Yet music is not hermetic; even if the listener is unaware of the multiple forces that can shape music, the effects of those forces are duly felt. So it was in Black Box, where Sons of Kemet's heady Afro-centric grooves cooked up a fiesta.

Shabaka Hutchings may be inspired in no small measure by ancient Egyptian teachings—King Shabaka was the last Nubian ruler of Kemet, the native name for ancient Egypt—but equally important in the quartet's music is the history of the African diaspora. This cosmic collision of ancient wisdom, history, and musical roots that stretch from Africa and the Caribbean to modern Britain resulted in a potent, intoxicating Belfast gig.

Sons of Kemet's debut recording, Burn (Naim Jazz Records, 2011) garnered awards and accolades left, right and centre, but this gig showcased mostly compositions from the quartet's latest CD, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do (Naim Jazz Records, 2015). Between the two releases Theon Cross has replaced Oren Marshall on tuba and his bass profundo riffing provided an immense pulse beneath Sebastian Rochford and Tom Skinner's intricately latticed drum patterns. Skinner worked his bass drum relentlessly, having to physically pull it back whenever it slipped its berth. Riding the crest of these pulsating rhythmic waves, Hutchings worked up a sweat with lung-busting solos, moulding rhythmic mantras and melodious lines into ecstatic planes of free-jazz intensity.

The stirring musical concoction evoked the spirits of Sun Ra and Archie Shepp, of Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti and of the new wave of New Orleans brass bands; a little of all these musical tributaries fused on the stonking runaway train that was the opening number. Yet fundamentally, this was dance music and a proportion of the crowd were soon seduced by the siren call of irresistible, booty-shaking grooves. For both musicians and dancers alike, it was a test of stamina too, as tracks such as "Inner Babylon"—the only offering from the band's first CD—were stretched to double their recorded time, with Hutchings and Cross, Skinner and Rochford bouncing off each other with the exuberance of wired kids.

Barely pausing to acknowledge the applause that greeted the end of each explosive track—as though anxious not to slip out of the zone—Sons of Kemet kept the pedal to the floor for most of the two-hour set. The notable exception was "The Long Night of Octavia E Butler"—inspired by the lauded science fiction/Afrofuturist writer—where Skinner's sticks, Rochford's mallets, Cross's metronomic tuba pulse and Hutchings quietly snaking, mellifluous lines carved out an atmospheric pocket of—relative—repose.

Appropriately, that track wove seamlessly into "Afrofuturism," a spirited riff and groove fest punctuated by honking tuba and tearing saxophone lines. In her novel Pattermaster (1977), Butler wrote of the Patternists' telepathy, an attribute that Sons of Kemit seemed to exude in the most highly charged passages of play where compositional patterns and improvisational flare were dizzyingly blurred.

With the stage and green room separated by the crowd it would have made little sense for the band to weave its way through the dancers and tables only to have to make the return journey for the encore, so obeying logic, Sons of Kemit stayed put and launched into "Play Mass," a feel-good number that whipped the dancers to its unrelenting rhythms.

This was Sons of Kemet's first tour of Ireland and hopefully it won't be the last. The summer festival crowds and dance clubs acolytes would surely go nuts for an injection of the non-conventional yet highly infectious music that Sons of Kemet so joyously purvey. Not for the seated.

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