A politically and racially-engaged body of work, historical inspiration for the record can be traced to the episodes of civil unrest that erupted across the western world one year on from the Armistice Declaration in 1918. What should have been a moment of triumph and social cohesion, disintegrated into violent disorder and racial conflict. From Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff and South Shields, Jamaica and the ‘Red Summer’ across the US, city streets were set ablaze by race riots.
Featuring a stellar line-up of 14 musicians from across the UK jazz scene – including the likes of Jay Phelps, Giacomo Smith, Xhosa Cole and Nathanial Cross - plus US jazz stars Eric Lewis and Gregory Hutchinson, The Black Peril explores the sounds of ragtime, proto-jazz, West Indian folk music and the classical works of black composers of the period, revisiting a time of momentous social change, while also exploring connecting strands to modern forms of dance music including hip-hop and trap. The music examines both the ebullience and defiant optimism of early black music, as well as the brooding sense of revolutionary danger it symbolised.
As his previous release ‘Nonagram’ showed, Kinch is not averse to using music to explore concepts and beliefs. On this set, he takes an even more ambitious approach to composing what amounts to a suite (in Classical terms) or a concept album (if you prefer to frame this in more prosaic terms). Personally, I feel that to call this a concept album belittles both the ambitious sweep of the ideas and the musicianship here, so I prefer to think of it as a jazz-rap suite (and even this misses many of the musical styles that Kinch draws on).
The opening track, ‘Degeneration I’, begins with the spoken phrase ‘Red terror, black peril, fever time…’. Further on, Degeneration II’ and ‘Degeneration III’ provide spoken commentary on the events that the music describes. The structure of the suite, its use of spoken word (both found recordings and rap), and its mixture of musical styles, reminded me of John Dos Passos’ novel, USA, in its sweep and critical commentary. For Kinch’s piece, the events described relate to the ‘red summer’ of 1919 (but there are clearly drawn echoes and parallels with contemporary events and some of the less appealing political oratory we are hearing across the world today).
Following the end of World War I, demobbed soldiers returned home, expecting to resume their pre-war jobs. In many shipyards, foreign labour had been brought in to cover those who had gone to war. The resentment that this created in the returning servicemen who were not able to go straight back to their jobs boiled over into rioting in maritime towns like Cardiff, Bristol or Glasgow. The focus on the riots were most often on foreigners and more often on black families living and working in these cities. Later on, a consequence of this was the forced repatriation of foreign labour, from British soil, in 1921. More significantly, returning black soldiers, particularly in the US, were seen as a threat to society. These were trained fighting men, often with their weapons and often returning to cities that were experiencing race riots. There are extracts from historical recordings mixed into these pieces, which convey the anger and outrage of black people in the face of virulent racial violence. As a prominent Civil Rights leader, W.E.B. duBois put it, “This is the country to which we soldiers of democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought.” The race riots not only escalated to lynching of black people but also a resurrection of the Klu Klux Klan (an organisation to which the US President Woodrow Wilson was sympathetic to say the least). Added to the sense of fury felt by all returning soldiers was the fear in the West of the Russian Revolution (hence, the ‘red’ summer) and the desire to prevent events sparked by the riots leading to something similar. You could almost imagine the powers that be felt that channelling resentment towards ‘foreign’, that is non-white, targets could allow the anger to be shifted from the political institutions to convenient scapegoats. Given the subject matter and the obvious sympathies that these events create, you could be foregiven for expecting the suite to be hectoring or preaching. But it is far from this.
Musically, the pieces take a variety of styles from the period and ingeniously blend these with contemporary jazz, rap and trap forms. In this way, the overall feel of the music is modern but with quotes and phrasings that cover the history of the events. The use of these musical quotes cleverly takes us right back to the time but also, by phrasing these as quotes within contemporary jazz settings and using rap to provide commentary on the events, Kinch creates a distance that allows us to reflect on these as both historical and contemporary themes and issues. So, pieces like ‘Homecoming’ blend a variety of Caribbean musical forms with traces of gospel and quotes from significant black composers of the early Twentieth Century. In this, and other pieces, that are clearly stated quotations from composers like Samuel Colerdige-Taylor (I thought I spotted quotes from his ‘African Suite’) and Will Marion Cook, whose ‘In Dahomey’ was a Broadway hit of the time and whose music influenced Scott Joplin and, later, Duke Ellington. Quotes from Ellington’s music also feature, as the ‘Revival Time’.
The sweep of the music, its composition and range of styles could easily lend itself to a theatre production, perhaps with a very large ensemble, perhaps with the events being played out in dance. This is very much the highlight of Kinch’s career to date and very much hope it gets all the recognition and praise that it deserves.
Soweto Kinch - Rap Poetry, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, additional percussion, strings, drum programming; Jay Phelps - Trumpet; Axel Kamer-Lidstrom - Trumpet; Elias Atkinson - Trumpet; Giacomo Smith - Clarinet; Xhosa Cole - Tenor Sax, Flute; Nathanial Cross - Trombone; Rosie Turton - Trombone; Hanna Mbura - Tuba; Sonia Konate - Acoustic Guitar, Banjo ; Eric Lewis - Piano; Nick Jurd - Bass; Greg Hutchinson - Drums; Yaheal Onono - Percussion
Recorded at Livingston Studios, London, 17/18th July 2019
|Brand||Soweto Kinch Recordings|
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