Soweto Kinch and the London Symphony Orchestra: White Juju

The saxophonist took to task the perceived elitism of orchestral music, blending the latter with hip-hop, rap and soundbite

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Soweto Kinch performs his White Juju with the London Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Mark Allan

As the 2021 London Jazz Festival drew to a close, saxophonist, rapper and established mainstay of the British jazz scene Soweto Kinch presented the world première of White Juju, an ambitious project co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and Serious. It was the spiritual successor to Kinch’s 2019 album The Black Peril as well as the ensuing 2020 tour that travelled across the UK to many key sites of the 1919-21 UK race riots such as Liverpool, Salford and Cardiff. 

Performed in the Barbican concert hall, White Juju brought members of the LSO together with a quartet made up of Kinch, pianist Rick Simpson, drummer Gregory Hutchinson and bassist Nick Jurd. The 10-movement work reflected elements of British black history as well as Kinch’s experiences of 2020 (most notably those surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement), and brilliantly blended elements of classical orchestral music with jazz and hip hop, the latter bringing Kinch’s immense talents as a rapper and poet to the fore.

It wasn’t the only item in this year’s festival programme that saw jazz musicians collaborating with an orchestra. Another prime example was London Third Stream (17 November), in which artists including Cassie Kinoshi and Shabaka Hutchings presented new works alongside the London Sinfonietta. However, White Juju feels, in a sense, more self aware. Borrowing Kinch’s own words, it intentionally subverts “the perceived elitism of orchestral music”. Even the title is a juxtaposition: “juju” is a word inseparably linked with black culture and African spiritualism.

Indeed, much of the orchestral music was markedly more danceable than what Barbican concert hall audiences are perhaps used to hearing on a regular basis, and this was aided by a strong rhythmic backbone from Hutchinson. Elsewhere in the work, though, the orchestra could be heard embracing more traditional motifs, referencing a distinctly British-sounding, romantic style.

During moments in which the orchestra were silent, jazzy interludes performed by Kinch and his quartet became the musical backdrop to soundbites of news clips and interviews with political figures such as Boris Johnson and Priti Patel from the previous year. Along with these soundbites, visual elements also played a key role in the performance, a short film being projected onto two screens hanging either side of the stage. News footage and archival films ranging from clips of the University of Oxford and Saint George to the Ku Klux Klan, the UK race riots and BLM protests further reinforced the themes of White Juju in a way that was effective rather than forced.

White Juju is a powerful and brilliantly constructed work, both musically and thematically. As a saxophonist, rapper and a composer, Soweto Kinch delivers with equal merit, and the premiere of his latest work was more-than-worthy of the standing ovation that it received.

Soweto Kinch and the London Symphony Orchestra: White Juju. Barbican Hall, London, 19 November 2021 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival