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Soweto Kinch’s ‘The Black Peril’

Soweto Black Peril 2

Soweto Kinch doesn’t really do unambitious. That’s certainly true of The Black Peril, his 70-minute work for 18-piece band, string quartet, narration/rap, back-projected film and four dancers, which received its world premiere at the EartH arts centre in Dalston last night. The piece is a commission from the University of Hull, the EFG London Jazz Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra, all of whom could feel satisfied as their judgement was endorsed by the prolonged applause from a near-capacity crowd.

It was an absorbing, multi-faceted and often exhilarating experience as Kinch created a portrayal of the condition of people of African origin arriving on alien shores and attempting to make new lives in the early years of the 20th century. So many narrative strands were going on at once — visual, musical, verbal — that it was hard to disentangle and make sense of them on first exposure, particularly when so little of Kinch’s extended raps and the occasional audio clip of a voice from history was as audible as he would surely have intended. This morning I’ve been listening to the CD, which is just out and makes it possible to appreciate more clearly the historical connections he is making.

I suppose I went along for the music, first of all, and was amply rewarded by richly detailed writing that spanned the jazz spectrum from ragtime to no-time with a fluency and empathy that prevented the occasional bursts of wah-wah brass, chinking banjo, fruity tuba and New Orleans-style clarinet from feeling like mere pastiche. Kinch’s own alto saxophone playing burst through to brilliant effect from time to time, switching at will between his normal modernist voice and an early-jazz timbre. The distinguished orchestra also included Byron Wallen (trumpet), Rosie Turton (trombone), Giacomo Smith (clarinet) and Xhosa Cole (tenor), supported by the superlative rhythm section of Robert Mitchell (piano), Sonia Konate (guitar, banjo), Junius Paul (bass), Makaya McCraven (drums) and Yaheal Onono (congas and other percussion). The writing for the string quartet — whose members were drawn from the ranks of the LSO — was beautifully integrated.

And then there were the dancers: four of them, one woman and three men, dressed in period clothes acting out narratives in which the most minimal props — some chairs, a few sacks, a Union Jack — were used to echo and amplify the scenes from old newsreel film projected onto big screen at the rear of the stage: scenes of disembarkation, of street life, of troops marching off to war, of children dancing for coins in the street, and of dancers demonstrating the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Jade Hackett’s choreography, superbly executed, was a highlight of the evening.

At the end I had an unexpected feeling: I’d like to have sat through it alongside Charles Mingus. Within the teeming universe of this work, Kinch mirrors so many of the emotions and strategies that Mingus explored in his work, from miniatures like “My Jelly Roll Soul” through “Fables of Faubus” to the larger scale of “Epitaph”, while moving them forward into a new century through a subtle infusion of contemporary rhythms and attitudes. Mingus, too, had huge ambitions, often frustrated more by circumstances — a black jazz musician of his generation wasn’t encouraged to venture outside a circumscribed world — than by his volcanic temperament. Would he have admired The Black Peril? I’m sure of it.

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