Soweto Kinch: The Black Peril
(EartH Hackney, EFG London Jazz Festival. 22 November 2019. Review by AJ Dehany)
“Peaky Blinders meets W.E.B. Du Bois” is how Richard Coles on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live memorably describes the new large-scale work The Black Peril by Caribbean-heritage, Birmingham-based, award-winning alto-saxophonist, poet, producer and presenter Soweto Kinch. It’s an exhaustive project that tries to pack in a century of black British social history, especially the history that is not taught in schools, and it’s not just that sometimes the sense of history overwhelms Kinch’s talents, it’s as much that in performance Kinch’s talents tend to overwhelm the sense of history.
The Black Peril begins in the period of race riots in 1919 when black and ethnic minority British combatants returned from the First World War and reacted against their shoddy treatment by their white countrymen. Centring the project on these riots that took place across the country a century ago gives a focus for Kinch’s concern with drawing attention to an ongoing violence in British political and social life that defines the present. Four years in the making, The Black Peril has the scale and ambition of a magnum opus, comprising not just a full-length album, but its live performance by a 14-piece big band with strings from the LSO. A programme of web resources is rolling out, and there will be a performance in Hull in February with seminars and discussions. In the distinctive amphitheatre of EartH Hackney, the debut concert experience included film footage as well as choreographed and costumed dance and movement.
Jade Hackett’s choreography leaps (literally) between epochs, from buckdancing to breakdancing, cakewalk to hiphop, moment by moment. The action tended to be symbolic rather than narrational. Tableaux included men squaring up to each other, and the four dancers standing on competitors blocks, reflecting however crudely the way in which we are divided by the cataclysm of capitalism: a crucial theme in Kinch’s conception is ‘divide and rule’ whereby one of the most effective ways of oppressing minorities is to set them against each other, Indians against Pakistanis, Asians against West Africans
The Black Peril has a unifying purpose in its breathless synthesis of styles, dashing headlong through pre-jazz, swing, mento, big band, free jazz, reggae, atonality, hip hop. A shortcoming of this is that it can become a surface succession of brilliantly realised but interchangeable moments. Tellingly, when the album was performed live it was completely resequenced. It’s a glorious ragbag. After half a dozen listens you get a better grasp of the totality, but it is more like a medley rather than a suite. Onstage, the overwhelming impression was of spectacle with so much going on you wish you had six eyes, four ears and two brains.
Kinch’s rap poetry more than anything ties the whole project together, outlining themes and issues with a broad brush, with an eye to contemporary political relevance rather than intimate historical detail. His artful internal rhymes whirl round each other as the horns build layer by layer. In concert it was sometimes hard to make out words, so the rapping becomes as much musical as meaningful. The joyous exuberance of the musical conception and its multimedia realisation establishes it as a celebration of cultural diversity through the nuclear fission of cultures and styles to release new energies which bring us all together.