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Soweto Kinch on creating 'White Juju'

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    Posted: 24 Jan 2023 at 10:22pm

Soweto Kinch on creating 'White Juju' with the London Symphony Orchestra

by Joshua Lee

Soweto Kinch live at the Barbican Hall, with the London Symphony Orchestra
Pictured: Soweto Kinch (Photo by Mark Allan)

For British saxophonist and emcee Soweto Kinch, it’s all about telling a story. Within works like his double-album epic The Legend of Mike Smith about a young hip-hop artist influenced by the seven deadly sins, The Black Peril which documents the events of the 1919 race riots, or the mathematical musings of Nonagram, Kinch’s approach is heavily conceptual. For his latest project, he offers a more autobiographical perspective on the events of 2020 as he experienced them; COVID-19 lockdowns, police brutality, Black Lives Matter protests and the toxicity of social networks. For this new album, entitled White Juju, Kinch enlisted the help of the London Symphony Orchestra, with the album itself a recording of the piece’s premiere at the Barbican Hall in November 2021. Taking some time out of his day off to call me from his home in Birmingham, I sat down with Soweto to chat about the creation process for this work.

First of all, tell us a bit about how you got started playing music – did you have music around you from a young age?

I grew up in a very creative household – my father’s a playwright and my mother’s an actress. There were always poets, dancers, and such around for me to be inspired by from a young age, but I firmly got the jazz bug at around 13 years old when my father took a play to Edinburgh and had two jazz musicians in the cast; the tap dancer Will Gaines, and percussionist Frank Holder who played with Joe Harriott.

I saw how immersed they were in the culture and thought “I wanna be like them when I grow up”; I’d already pestered my father to get me a saxophone but it wasn’t until that age that I really got into practice. Soon after a sort of Damascene moment happened for me when I met Wynton Marsalis backstage at one of his concerts, who encouraged me to keep going for it. He remembered that meeting when I spoke to him again decades later, and I think jazz is quite special in that regard in that these relationships often traverse continents and generations. I’m all about keeping the torch burning, especially now that I’m getting to ‘that age’ – when you recognise someone’s got that light in them, you just want to sponsor it.

When did you realise that music was becoming a more ‘professional’ part of your life? I read that you actually went to university to study modern history rather than music.

That’s right, it’s bizarre isn’t it. As much as I’d grown up in that creative household I didn’t consider it as a potential career until after I graduated, but I was always a keen academic at school. I think that really getting into history afforded me the ability to debate quite important and grand concepts without using too much jargon. It definitely lined up with my natural proclivities to debating and telling stories, which is what so much of history is about, and is quite relevant to this new project of mine.

It’s not especially common to see someone who’s both a rapper and saxophonist – did that love of storytelling lead you to emceeing?

Looking back into the annals of jazz history I’m obviously not the first musician to use spoken word; I often cite artists like Louis Armstrong and Don Redman, and try to place what I do in that broader lineage. I find that narratives, rather than genres, are what get people into music; stories, rather than ‘this or that label’, is a far more authentic and personal way of getting people to connect with it.

Soweto Kinch playing saxophone with Nick Jurd playing bass, live at the Barbican Hall
Nick Jurd (left) and Soweto Kinch (Photo by Mark Allan)

Moving on to your latest album, tell me a bit about when you started writing what became White Juju – where did these ideas come from?

There were many epiphanic moments that led to the title of this work. The first is obviously lockdown itself, that moment that reminded us that we all breathe the same oxygen and are subjected to the same challenges. Watching the world reacting in its different ways, it was almost like we’d been braced for this through Hollywood movies; “the alien invader comes and we all unite under the banner of… Bruce Willis!”. But we didn’t have Bruce Willis this time around, just corporations doing crazy things and being encouraged to work, people being dubbed ‘essential workers’ despite them never getting paid any more than before.

I did a ‘lockdown tour’ during that summer of 2020 when we were allowed a certain degree of socially-distanced contact, and part of that tour saw me visiting the sites of the 1919 race riots which were the inspiration for my last album The Black Peril. I was really struck by the bare architecture of our towns and cities in the UK, suddenly recognising and beginning to question why in port cities – where there were these race riots – did there seem to be a greater abundance of George’s Crosses and statues of Queen Victoria. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Terence Blanchard in New Orleans back in 2018; we were there to record a documentary and were discussing off-camera the Black Lives Matter movement and the removal of Confederate statues. He said that when they were removed he felt like this colossal invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders, like the walk he’d made to school every day was transformed somehow.

I realised that music and statues – public art – are probably the only two examples of art you don’t choose to engage with. You’re used to hearing muzak at the supermarket, and the same thing happens subconsciously as you walk past a statue. I thought, how striking when we’re used to this concept of ‘Black Magic’ that the actual practitioners of sorcery are all around us, and they look like General Lee riding a horseback forcing you to strain your neck as you look upwards. It was just as I was having this self-congratulatory moment that I realised that Britain is pretty much the genesis for all this, and the reason that the ‘White Juju’ title resonated was that I felt like anyone who’s grown up in this country has some kind of response to that, whether you’re upper or lower class. We all know without having to say what the architectural, musical, cultural shorthands are for the establishment, and that’s what I wanted to explore in this piece.

The work certainly confronts some unspoken ‘awkward truths’, particularly about how issues of racism can be handled in the media here in the UK.

Exactly, the reason it sounds the way it does was influenced by not just George Floyd’s murder but the summer of police harassment on the streets of London. I realised that there was this space for honesty when various jazz academics and journalists were calling me up saying “What can we do? What can be done about racism? We feel terrible that we’ve never addressed this until now!” Even if it was some kind of performative allyship, I realised that the window would slam firmly shut once this moment had passed – and it’s been proved correct – but it felt like a moment for brutal honesty.

So if you were composing this during lockdown, at what point did you get the London Symphony Orchestra involved? Was White Juju always going to be an orchestral piece?

It was the convergence of quite remarkable circumstances; I was originally going to develop an augmented version of The Black Peril with the LSO, but as I said I felt like this opportunity wouldn’t arise again, and I thought what better palette to work with and deal with some of those referential sounds that we know the establishment to sound like.

It was actually one of my classical editorial colleagues that tipped me off about this as a kind of ‘crossover project’ – how was it received at the premiere?

This was definitely the best show I’ve ever done; we had a standing ovation, we sold out, and I think people ‘got it’. Whereas I might have imagined a wall of outrage and controversy, none of that happened, there was a lot of synergy in the room between people regardless of rank or race. The fact that we’re talking about cross-pollinating across audiences and genres, bringing together people who wouldn’t necessarily share the same pew space – that’s always been a magical part of playing shows.

I’m glad there’s an archive of it out there in the world now, but I wish I’d had a chance to speak to the crowd afterwards about the work. We recorded it and then everyone just had to leave the building immediately as we were still under lockdown rules at the time. It’s only now that after marinating on it for a whole year that I’m getting to speak with people and really see if they got what I was going on about!

Soweto Kinch and conductor Lee Reynolds standing with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Soweto Kinch & Lee Reynolds (right) (Photo by Mark Allan)

I definitely had a reaction to hearing that Boris Johnson clip at the start announcing the lockdown rules, I think everyone has quite a vivid memory of that time.

”Where were you when you saw that clip?” It was supposed to be reminiscent of where we were and the contradictory emotions we were experiencing – you’re trying to listen to the words but there’s this intermittent music deliberately distracting from the clips. That’s what it felt like to me, trying to process very serious information while we had the best spring weather on record, baking banana bread while watching this unfolding systemic racism amidst a global pandemic.

And even capping the piece off with ‘Idiots’, commenting on our social media dependency…

Absolutely, that’s another key facet of ‘White Juju’, this idea that people can get up on these very public platforms and say they’re being ‘cancelled’ every two seconds seems like a contradiction. Then there’s the fact that we’re constantly having opinions weaponised – things are deliberately distorted because it’s all about engagement, it’s all about getting us to feel something, and I’m suckered in on a daily basis. I think if our empire builders were the white juju masters of yesteryore, building our churches, gargoyles, flags and emblems we see today, then the new vanguard of it is definitely Big Tech.

Many of your studio projects feature some kind of overarching theme or narrative, is that often a big part of your creative process?

It’s actually a mixture of starting with an overarching concept and being led towards a principle. As well as this, record from The New Emancipation onwards has been increasingly autobiographical; I think that personal perspective in my music can sometimes be more universally recognisable than trying to hit a target demographic or satisfy a certain algorithm.

How have things been going now that touring and live music are getting back to normal?

For a lot of us musicians, getting back together has been both magical but also disappointing as I think we all had very grandiose aims during lockdown – I certainly did! While it’s great to be able to hang out and do afterparties and jam sessions again, everything just went back to normal – we just got back to the rat race. The one thing I do miss about lockdown is that time for reflection, the ability to not only see the connections between things that seem unmoored from each other, but also deciding what you want to do, not just what you feel you’re obliged to. That’s another thing that I hope is powerful about this album, that it reminds us of that time for reflection we had back then.

Other than the album launch, do you have anything else on the horizon?

I’m going to be at a creative clinic in Montreux in a few weeks time, as well as recording some radio documentaries and interesting stuff like that, and we’ve got another performance of White Juju in the calendar. There’s also the vinyl release next spring, and I’ll be going to San Francisco very soon to continue that piece at SF Jazz, so I’m excited to extend this project and continue talking about this concept.

from www.prestomusic.com

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