Robert Christgau on Sons of Kemet's Unique 'Your Queen Is a Reptile'

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews the British jazz group's Mercury Prize-nominated LP and Doctor Nativo's recent 'Guatemaya.'

|
Nov 30 2018, 5:32pm

Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City. A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, is now available from Duke University Press. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

1543574582975-https_2F2Fimagesgeniuscom2F5b2094ac54651e994593a1a7176ad644640x640x1

Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!) Where Elizabeth slithers, British-Barbadian tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings's queens stand tall: Ada Eastman, Mamie Phipps Clark, Harriet Tubman, Anna Julia Cooper, Angela Davis, Nanny of the Maroons, Yaa Asantewaa, Albertine Sisulu, and Doreen Lawrence—one track apiece, look 'em up. This show of matrifocal bravado sharpens and embellishes Sons of Kemet's unique and arresting sonics: West Indian Coltrane/Rollins over two drummers, tuba for bass, and occasional intoned vocals. Purposefully yet also playfully, the implicit politics channel the sweep of the band's third and most finished album. My favorite sequence calms Angela Davis's speedy clatter with a playground melody that implies Nanny of the Maroons had more time for child care than her military record suggests, after which Yaa Asantewaa's track begins calm and builds like her Ashanti revolution. Or so we are left free to imagine. A MINUS

1543574697161-a0602314261_10

Doctor Nativo: Guatemaya (Stonetree) His Cuban-born father killed circa 1990 in Guatemala's long and in crucial respects ongoing civil war, Guatemalan vocalist-guitarist Nativo defines his robust cumbia-reggae fusion as Mayan music, Africanized with the Garifuna styles of nearby Belize and bent on "social justice for his nation's indigenous majority." Moodwise it recalls upful French-Basque internationalist Manu Chao. But it's less yielding, with a groove that stomps. Although my tiny store of Spanish didn't suss out any language more specific than "Babylon," the translations on his website pit doctors against dictators, equate bureaucrats with politicians with cops, and call Bolivian comrades "B-boys." Yes his music is upful. But it's also ready to fight. A MINUS

Celestial Blues (Ace) Both "soulful" and "free," early-'70s jazz youngbloods equate liberation with transcendence—or anyway, that was the idea (Azar Lawrence, "Warriors of Peace"; Roy Brooks, "The Free Slave") ***

Sons of Kemet: Burn (Naim) A debut that flaunts their sound, suggests their parameters, and establishes their bona fides ("The Godfather," "Rivers of Babylon") **

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.