The saxophone began life as a tool of European militarism. It was invented by a Belgian instrument-maker, Adolphe Sax, who won a contract to supply French army bands in the 1840s. The first saxophonists were members of an expansionary imperial force involved in wars in Algeria and Tahiti. Further overseas conquests were to follow in the decades ahead.
Since then, the sax has undergone a form of postcolonial liberation at the hands of US jazz musicians. Although still used by military bands, its formidable sonic capacities have made it a weapon of musical resistance, a protesting blast of noise at established power structures. In that respect, Sons of Kemet — led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings — resemble an insurrectionary marching band, cutting against the grain of traditional European notions of harmony and rhythm.
The British quartet’s fourth album Black to the Future opens on an insubordinate note. “We are rolling your monuments down the street like tobacco, tossing your effigies into the river,” poet Joshua Idehen cries. The reference is to the toppling of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol during Black Lives Matter protests last year. The last words of the song, “Field Negus”, are inflammatory: “Just burn, y’all.”
Having taken aim at the monarchy on their last outing, 2018’s Your Queen Is a Reptile, this first salvo from their new album ups the ante in terms of protest. But Idehen’s contributions — he also has an electrifying turn on the closing title track, which ends with his black-separatist demand, “Leave us alone!” — occupy extreme positions in the album. They bookend a tonally varied set of songs themed around different experiences of black identity, culture and history. Anger is vital, but it’s joined by other moods.
Hutchings, playing clarinet as well as saxophone, is accompanied by bandmates Theon Cross on tuba, Tom Skinner on percussion and Edward Wakili-Hick, also on percussion. The two drummers create a subtle clamour together, intricately busy, astutely mixed into the music rather than clattering away in the foreground. Cross’s tuba makes for a satisfyingly solid rhythmic platform. On sax, Hutchings plays muscular riffs and stuttering siren-like phrases. Calls to action are joined by contemplative moments, such as “Envision Yourself Levitating”.
US poet Moor Mother appears on “Pick Up Your Burning Cross”, a punk-like rush of musical action with blaring sax and ragged wind instrumentation (US clarinettist Angel Bat Dawid also features in the song). UK rapper Kojey Radical delivers an alert tribute to street entrepreneurialism on “Hustle” with Lianne La Havas on backing vocals. Grime veteran D Double E appears on “For the Culture”, during which Sons of Kemet make the gleefully anarchic racket of a Balkan brass band at a Jamaican dancehall. Adolphe Sax’s instrument is put to uses he could never have foreseen — better uses, too.
‘Black to the Future’ is released by Impulse! Records