On Friday 19 November Soweto Kinch and the LSO perform the world premiere of his work White Juju at the Barbican as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
Interviewer James Drury spoke to Soweto recently to find out more about his music, style and inspirations.
After a tumultuous 2020, jazz saxophonist, composer, poet and MC Soweto Kinch’s head was bursting with thoughts. Topics such as Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of racist statues weighed on him. So he sat down to write essays to clear his head. They are the basis of his latest work, White Juju, commissioned in collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra and Serious, and premiering with the LSO this month as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
The genesis of the piece came during his 2020 Black Peril tour – also commissioned and performed by the LSO – which saw him play live at UK historical sites to commemorate the race riots which took place in the UK and USA 100 years ago in 1919–21. ‘While we were attempting to represent this obscured but shared British history, there was a debate raging about statues – the culture war,’ he recalls. ‘I couldn’t help reflecting how much statues, flags, emblems of empire and this historical idea of “British greatness” is used to subtly oppress people or to disorient people.’
He says every time we seem to be making some progress on issues such as racism, there’s a ‘culture war intervention’ which distracts people. He feels that many of society’s dividing lines are confected – divisions are accentuated to set natural allies against one another.
‘There are persistent and seductive national myths that keep racial oppression intact, on both sides of the Atlantic,’ says Kinch. ‘“White Juju” describes the media sorcery, algorithmic chicanery and the art of misdirection employed to maintain this racial hierarchy and stop people from unifying.’
It is made up of six new works for jazz quintet and chamber orchestra. Beginning with the deafening silence of quarantine in 2020, it conjures sounds such as a bird call in Central Park, and the statue of a slaver crashing into Bristol’s River Avon, interwoven with Kinch’s barbed, incisive lyrics.
The piece is deliberately danceable and intentionally seeks to subvert the perceived elitism of orchestral music, says Kinch. ‘Being aware of entering physical spaces, such as public squares with colossal statues of Queen Victoria, I’m just aware of visceral reactions in me. I feel like, “Oh, I should be on my best behaviour”, almost like we’re conditioned to believe that we should behave in particular ways in particular spaces.
‘For example, at the time when many of our popular operas were being written, it wasn’t considered elitist music. So this is both about real elitism but also perceived elitism. I want to explore the idea that the audience is wondering how to behave because it’s the London Symphony Orchestra, but also it’s jazz and hip hop. Can I clap? Can I dance? Am I allowed to engage my hips in my appreciation of this music? Or is decorum required of me?’
What’s the answer? ‘I want to play with that idea,’ grins Kinch. ‘Just as people’s toes are starting to tap and they’re like “this is funky”, in comes a mixture of “conventional classical” and sounds and samples from current affairs programmes, which signal to people to be buttoned up. That’s the moment I’m really interested in.’
This interview first appeared in the Barbican's November 2021 Guide.
Interview courtesy of James Drury.
SOWETO KINCH WHITE JUJU: EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Friday 19 November 7.30pm, Barbican
Soweto Kinch White Juju (world premiere)*
Lee Reynolds conductor
Soweto Kinch saxophone & vocals
London Symphony Orchestra
Tickets: £35 £24 £18
£3 online booking fee, £4 telephone booking fee per transaction - click here for more information on booking fees
*Commissioned by Serious and the London Symphony Orchestra, supported as a part of Help Musicians UK’s Giant Steps scheme and Cockayne Grant for the Arts.