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Monday, June 7, 2021

Sons Of Kemet - Black To The Future (Impulse!, 2021) ****

By Sammy Stein

Sons Of Kemet are Edward Wakil-Hick and Tom Skinner on percussion, Theon Cross on tuba and Shabaka Hutchings on woodwinds. Black To The Future is the Mercury nominated band's fourth LP and their second on Impulse! Records.

The album features vocalists including Angel Bat Dawid, poets Moor Mother and Joshua Idehen, and grime artist D Double E.

The last time Shabaka Hutchings released a record was in March 2020 – on the eve of the pandemic – with Shabaka & The Ancestors' We Are Sent Here By History. That album (on NPR) centered around themes of confronting the destruction of humanity as we know it.

Hutchings, it is said, unearths forgotten mythologies, unlocks sounds of the past, and presents a thesis for the future. 'Black To The Future' presents itself as a politically poignant and musically rich album. However, what is all the political and social conscience in the world but it is nothing if the music is not good enough for people to listen? Hutchings and SOK deliver both the message and the music in clear and exceptional quality.

Hutchings says of the release, 'Black to the future is a sonic poem for the invocation of power, remembrance and healing. It envisions our progression towards a future in which indigenous knowledge and wisdom is centered in the realisation of a harmonious balance between the human, natural and spiritual world... Power is seen as the life-force energy needed to build upon the conceptual frameworks of our ancestors so their wisdom might guide our intentions and focus. Music can be likened to a time travelling vessel whereby cultural value systems of the past are encoded within sound and projected/protected throughout ages. The track titles all combine to reflect a single poetic statement to which a depth of symbolic meaning can be intuited in combination with the music/sonic information. This meaning is not universal and the cultural context of the listener will shape their understanding, yet in the end, the overarching message remains the same - For humanity to progress we must consider what it means for Black to the Future.

'Field Negus' begins with pensive sax over a poem about being a worker in fields, the pain and suffering and false hope of fairness. It is about the denying of beliefs, the audacity of one race believing they are above another and eventual realisation of too little too late. The poem concludes with the crushed rising up, wanting not equality but revenge - and it is the oppressor's fault. Shouted, 'Hash tag burn y'all, spurn y'all' , finishes the number with a modern twist on an old, still relevant message. 'Pick Up Your Burning Cross' is rhythmic, heavy and mesmeric in its repeated melodic theme. Energy infused and driven by a rhythmic propulsions which is picked up in the poem which comes in across the top, adding to the rhythmic textures. The instrumentation is redolent of Kirk or Rollins, which makes this a modern track with roots in the past.

'Think Of Hope' is not as uplifting as the title would lead you to think, as its rhythms have a funereal element, especially at the start, before they are taken up, worked and enriched with beautiful woodwind and tuba lines. There is warmth in the clarinet solo and presence throughout the track which makes it which makes a comforting listen.

'Hustle' is an eloquent combination of vocals, brass and an arrangement which swings from modern hip hop to disco to jazz-infused depths with each turn or change in lead. It is a track which contains a little bit for everyone and a message for many. The poet Idehen's lyrical poetry lies across this track and his words, clear as a bell, are deep and meaningful .

'For The Culture' is a crazily beautiful poem set to rhythmic and succinct percussive phrases, which the tuba echoes and adds voice to. The heavy brass serves as a counter to the straightforward single vocal line spoken with staccato precision. The sax, when it enters, picks up this and interacts with the poet in a true conversation and the tuba leads us neatly and definitively to the final phrases.

'To Never Forget The Source' carries a strong sax line over gentle woodwind harmonics and indicates the certainly of an original well-spring behind everything spoke and played. Heavily laced with blues rhythms yet with a regular held back final half beat on every fourth line, which imbues a modern hop-hop feel. Once again, SOK meld modern and old rhythmic patterns with aplomb. Hutchings describes The Source as, 'The Source refers to the principles which govern traditional African cosmologies/ontological outlooks and symbolises the inner journey. It is the unifying factor that gives meaning both to looking backwards (in nuancing and continually adding depth of contextualisation and meaning to the past) and visioning forward (in speculating and striving to realise a better future for humanity). Black to the future depicts a movement to redefine and reaffirm what it means to strive for black power'.

The piece is the centerpiece of the album with everything revolving to and then away from this track.

'In Remembrance Of Those Fallen' is wonderfully different with flute and pipe harmonics at the start, under which the tuba blasts its slow, yearning melody whilst the sax, when it enters, adds a melodic, tune which contrasts with both. As the track builds, the sax takes on a vocal quality, taking chromatic liberties and adding links which segue into the other parts. A hugely well arranged and beautiful track.

'Let The Circle Be Unbroken' is a moving and well constructed piece, the sax sighing its message until it rises and sails across the top - until everything breaks apart, the spluttering anger no longer contained and it all erupts into chaos as the sax simply shouts and slap tongues with vocals shouting too, for a while before hope is finally restored in the single final bar. Musically, this delivers a powerful message in a way no words could and we are reminded that this album was written partly in response to the murder of George Floyd in the US and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Under everything is the steady voice of the tuba - as if to say that whatever happens above, nothing changes in the foundations. We still need to be listening and if this music does not reach your heart, it is of stone.

'Envision Yourself Levitating' is atmospheric, rhythmic and gentle, with a touch of the disconnected which engages yet at the same time jars, making an ideal situation - that of levitating above the troubles of life, not as beautiful as we might hope. The sax on this is sublime.

'Throughout The Madness' is a track which builds with parts being added like scaffolding, including parts added in the mix. Layer upon layer, in time or slightly akilter, deeper, deeper, softer, no sharper, this is one heck of a track with no end of permutations which can be heard at each listen.

'Black' Has the poet's words again. 'Black is tired, Black would like to make a statement , Black's eyes are vacant, Black's arms are laden...Black would like to state that Black is not a beast of myth...Black has demands...'

This number is a poem, under which the music, angry as the words, offers support as the poem delivers it message. A just end to the album and the message is clear ' Leave Us Alone' rings out as the final salvo from the poet.

Throughout the album, there is a strange sense - a sense of an outfit delivering a message, needing to express anger, hurt, righteousness, yet never being able to completely express the turmoil because of their roots in music. In one track this happens and it is incredibly effective. Their off-kilter rhythms at times throw you just enough to make you listen intently but they never fall very far from the overlying theme of a track.

Throughout the album there is strength, anger, despair at times but always overlaid with a musical eloquence and finesse which is so Kemet. At times, it verges on chaotic inklings but then Hutching's steadying hand is laid across the entire content.