Review Summary: Who’s your Queen?
Shabaka Hutchings is quite the man these days. A standard-bearer of the London jazz scene, the saxophonist is revalitizing the genre by fronting different projects all falling under the jazz umbrella, each of them having a crucially distinctive knack. Whether it's The Comet Is Coming and their psychedelic take on nu-jazz, South African-based spiritual jazz ensemble Shabaka & the Ancestors, or the vindictive afro-jazz performed by Sons of Kemet, each of these offerings finds its compelling justification in widening Shabaka's musical spectrum.
And, oh dear, isn't his spectrum wide. Influenced by London’s diverse club culture, Shabaka's Barbadian lineage, and his classical and jazz orchestra training, Sons of Kemet's Your Queen Is a Reptile
is a boisterous piece of poetic afro-jazz executed by a peculiar line-up. A formation composed of a sax, a tuba, and two drumsets indeed isn't your typical jazz quartet. Traditionally supported by the good old drum'n'bass couple, the rhythmic duties are here led by a rousing tuba that plays the role usually handled by the four-string guitar. More than a modest nod to NOLA brass bands, this tuba brings a new warmth to the sound and, more importantly, plays the two drums' counterpoint. Drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Heck nimbly discuss with each other, creating a polyrhythmic structure used by tuba player Theon Cross to inject dance grooves. These bassless, yet still groovy rhythms induce a visceral will to let go of whatever mindless task you were doing and dance to the music's fury. What this large rhythm section also allows is room for melody: Shabaka can rock as many sax solos as he wants - taking the lead in "My Queen Is Ada Eastman" or "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" - yet knows when to leave space, such as letting the fist-pumping drums lead "My Queen Is Angela Davis". Although largely instrumental, the record reveals rare moments when the four instruments do not take the center stage, leaving space for the heart of the album: unforgiving poetry.
Declaimed by Joshua Idehen, these lines ooze a strong commitment in favor of the black community while challenging against British colonialism. Each composition symbolizes an Afro-Caribbean "Queen" who has helped, by her activism and action, women's cause and emancipation of people. With such political action, these Queens posed themselves as alternative monarchs in opposition to the Queen of England. From Hutchings' great-grandmother Ada Eastman to activist Angela Davis, to Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of the Ashanti Empire who led her people in a war against British colonialism in 1900 in present-day Ghana, the women portrayed here represent inspirational role models whom everyone can identify with. The band wants to dispel the myth that some people are born to reign: those who govern must be appointed for their sheer will to make their fellows’ lives better than it is, not because their direct ancestors already possessed power. With that in mind, to overrule an established monarch comes through critiquing and fighting against establishment, discrimination, and inequalities. More importantly, it comes with a tenacious reconsidering of values. As said by Shabaka: we claim our right to question your obsolete systems, your racist symbols, your monuments to genocide
. This is hardcore, but the band's philosophy finds its roots in Afrofuturism, a movement preaching a decolonial and social reordering project. To reaffirm blackness, whiteness' symbols - such as the Queen - must be demystified. Genetic happenstance and monarchy are indeed based on a myth built by rulers to perpetuate their own kind. Excluded from white-written history, black heroes want to expand the scope patriarchy has locked us up in by seeing the worth of women throughout history. New myths and Queens are created.
Although the album is cause for praise due to its unforgiving manner of mixing a strong message with bouncy afro-jazz, it is nonetheless fallible. The tuba can be tiresome in the long run, and its omnipresence often overwhelms the saxophone - the essential element of the discourse. The deployed density by the exuberant fanfare can sometimes be fatiguing, some of the later tracks ("My Queen Is Nanny of the Maroons", "My Queen Is Albertina Sisulu") being quickly forgotten for the benefit of the jams sprinkling the album's first half. Novices might thus be frightened by an hour-long dense jazz album, but Your Queen Is a Reptile
might well be the perfect entry for new jazz aficionados less attracted by modes and standards than allowing the rhythm to make them shake that booty. Your Queen Is a Reptile
is a musically and lyrically spiritual record, claiming new myths as well as establishing Sons of Kemet’s growing presence within the modern jazz scene.
So, who would you establish as your Queen?