Interview: Soweto Kinch – ‘I Want My Audience to Feel Thrilled and Frightened’ (October 2019)

We’ve been waiting excitedly for this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. With such a display of originality and inspiration every year, this celebration always goes deep. In the past, we’ve been treated to moody dark twists alongside rushes of bliss.

The fiesta starts on 15th November and runs through to 24th November across a number of live venues in London. Rhythm Passport HQ will soon be releasing our playlist of favourite acts, but in the meantime, we had a brief chat to the official compere for the launch event, Soweto Kinch.  A renowned alto-sax player from London with Barbadian and Jamaican roots, he will be releasing his new album at the festival. He chatted to us about his focus on the transcendent connection and language of a diaspora, and how this inspired his new writing.

London Jazz Festival must be such an exciting time for jazzers who call London their home. What are you particularly looking forward to this year?

I’ll be airing my new magnum opus, Black Peril, which has been in the pipeline for a couple of years now. The label has been holding onto this for a while, so the fact that I’m getting to air it now is personally exciting for me. And it’s also cool to be involved in the wider profile of jazz at a collective level too.

What is your new album about, and what can we expect to look forward to?

It’s based on this under-celebrated history of one hundred years of race riots. In 1919, there was this massive conflagration of racial disturbances right across the British Isles, from Glasgow to Salford to Cardiff to Hull; places we don’t associate with having a large black population, even today, let alone one hundred years ago. Some of the issues, the division, the divide and conquer, the lack of class unity, are all things that are still exceptionally resonant in 2019.

So, for the show you’ll be doing at JazzFest, what would you like people to come away from the show feeling?

I want them to be almost mute with not being able to describe the mixture of joy and terror at the same time. I want them to feel thrilled and frightened. So, imagine how an audience would have felt hearing jazz for the first time a hundred years ago. The sexual tension, the danger, the taboo. It was all of the things that we were told not to appreciate about how other humans are being, but also things that are so deeply human at the same time. So, I’d like people to reflect on some of the contradictions of our time and our society, but also to capture some of that joy and that infectious thing that has led to a century of trying to replicate black culture in a number of different ways.

Given the relevance today, this must be a complex topic. How do you go about exploring this theme when composing?

Well, there are two aspects that I’m really exploring. The idea that division is something that is fostered; it is engendered. It is formed to keep people who would be natural allies apart, to keep what we might call the status quo. Also, that in this revolutionary moment, this was the first time that people connected with the verve, the joy, the unbridled expressiveness of black culture.  We didn’t know what to call it at the time. It was before jazz as a genre took off, and I’m really interested in the proto-jazz sound, West Indian Folk music and classical music written by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Black musicians around the world who were aware of this were called the diaspora for the first time. They were expressing things for a generation that had recently just been emancipated. In terms of what they have bequeathed us, we may listen to this music and think it’s a bit twee, but it’s amazing to remember how revolutionary and shocking, and how offensive it must have been to ears a hundred years ago. And they are saying similar things about urban music today.

There seems to be a strong recognition of the British platform for exploring African and Caribbean influences, as well as other cultures in contemporary UK Jazz. What’s your take on this?

Yeah, I feel like I’ve been hearing the hype and the story about UK jazz for about three years now. But I’m glad there is still a buzz around it! The thing we always need as jazz musicians is some autonomy; the ability to describe what we do on our own terms. I think the new crop of jazz musicians, like Shabaka, Moses, Nubya, are all good at creating their own presentations. I’m very conscious of that myself. I try to be articulate about the reasons that I make music, and I think the latest generation of musicians are too. This can’t just be a fad; we’ve got to still be here nurturing the ground for subsequent generations to come up and play this music and maintain its relevance in maybe ten years’ time. But the thing that’s really been fascinating since this explosion in British jazz is how many commonalities and friendships I’ve established, like musicians who have heard my music in America, Theo Croker and Christian Scott, who are now good friends of mine. But the nature of social media being what it is, there is a lot more discussion about the diaspora, that’s the word.

Why are reflections on the diaspora particularly significant to you?

Well, 1919 is also an important year for the birth of Garveyism. Marcus Garvey was a popular preacher. There were like 10 million members of his organisation, the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), which is such a huge number. Pre-Facebook. People being part of this radical pan-African organisation.

Why this is so important to me is that, both then and now, there might be a descendent African person in Belize or Brazil or Alabama who doesn’t speak exactly the same language or share exactly the same culture, but there is a shared experience. Whether that’s through the trauma of colonialism or slavery, or through the joy in life, the unbridled qualities of our music. I went to New Orleans to Mardis Gras for the first time last year. Big Chief Donald Harrison is an ex Jazz Messengers, a mentor and one of my idols on saxophone growing up, and so indirectly I’ve known him since I was fifteen. To see him in that Mardi Gras Indian context just blew my mind, because it’s like, ok, what language are they speaking here? But it feels so familiar. I know I’ve never been here, but I can identify Caribbean with what they are doing. And me and Christian Scott speak a lot. He had the same epiphany when he went to Brazil; it’s different and yet it’s connected. 

Ultimately, it makes me feel like I’m part of a wider family. When I met Donald Harrison’s mother for the first time, I just instinctively called her Aunty. It was just the readiness of conversation that I had with her that made me think, we’re connected in ways that we can’t even retrace.

So, if you look at the personnel on my album, they are some of the few musicians that are very cognisant of the power of the diaspora. We don’t need words to explain; there is a language that is bigger than us.


Soweto Kinch will be showcasing his ‘Black Peril’ show on Friday 22nd November at EartH in Hackney. The performance will feature Chicago musicians Makaya McCraven, Junius Paul and members of the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as dance choreographed by rising star Jade Hackett.