Sons of Kemet in Kenya

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Some time ago I was in Kenya. I went for lots of reasons, chiefly after a difficult series of incidents which is to say that I kept making a mess of things I wanted to run away. So I did. Some of my experiences I wrote about here. You can call me sentimental but I want to revisit some of what was at turns both an ordeal and an oasis. One of the better moments was having the rare, and unlikely, chance to meet the now Mercurey Prize listed Sons of Kemet.

Across the dry grass of the Safaricom stadium a tuba, that most peculiar instrument, carried forth. Exotic and yet familiar strains played out into the closing day. In the beating heart of East Africa Sons of Kemet, the MOBO award winning jazz quarter, played out a set in a trance, the audience bewitched both possessed by the music.

At the Safaricom Jazz Festival earlier last month I had the pleasure of meeting the band, thanks to that excellent institution the British Council. I would like to be able to whisper tales of drunkenness and cruelty , gossip of back stage antics, of fits and passions but frankly the boys were far too achingly cool for any of that.

The set included tracks from their album Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, with the particularly memorable and delightful Tiger seducing the audience into a frenzy of movement. The repeated Saxophone chords, played over and over again were mesmerising. Whilst Shabaka Hutchings might say that he rather than anything grand was just trying to keep up with his fingers, which moved in a mad free fury, he cast a spell over the crowd which had otherwise been rather sedate.

Then there came that tuba from Theon Cross. He had a good and long solo, the deep brassy notes so familiar and yet distant. We spoke about why Theon had taken up the tuba, and I had nostalgic visions of colliery bands and lights fading, but the roots, as the band themselves, were straightforward. He came to the tuba by means of concert bands but it was through interaction with New Orleans Jazz that the potential for a much funkier and fun sound was released.

This is to neglect the drummers, the twin force of Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford. They played a consistently moving and powerful beat. It drove action. The crowd was forced from sedated head nodding into wild, whirling, waltzing wickedness.

I said at the start that the music seemed familiar, this was not just because I had been desperately boning up on my jazz so as not to seem an idiot though certainly you can hear the influence of Coltrane’s African inspired Bahia and Dakar. Nor was the daily enforced listening to a weird blend of Calypso, reggae, ragga and rap on the Matatu, the former of which can be clearly cited as key influences on the band. It was rather that the whole collection of influences is so wide that you cannot help but find something familiar. There were moments when the beat of the drums took on a techno trance vibe, you can hear rock, punk, post punk and probably a lot more.

This I think is testament to the vitality of contemporary Britain’s culture, which is consciously aware of the weight of tradition and yet is playing with that. The inheritance could be oppressive, and could instead force music and art staid and glum. Instead Sons of Kemet have produced a free and happy blend from an eclectic range of influences. This is exactly the cultural ambassadors we need now.

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