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In Tension and Release

Shabaka Hutchings & Shabaka and The Ancestors

Words:  Dan Charles

A song is only as good as the tension that it is both able to conjure up and then release itself from and this is particularly true in the world of jazz. You can see the physical manifestation of this tension in pictures of the greats like John Coltrane when their bodies and faces start to curl and contort around their instrument as they commit their being to the song. Often, these moments of tension can be manifested from life outside of the song – like how the path towards recording A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s album dedicated to God, was paved through his struggle with and salvation from drug addiction.

The tension in the moments when the foundational riff, the main idea, of the song slowly starts to struggle against a growing onslaught of discordant notes and chords – that is the moment when the groove digs a bit deeper, and the lead part starts to cut a bit harder through the cacophony of sound. It is then when the feel of the song becomes so palpable that you can almost taste the beads of sweat that stem from struggling towards transcendence.

British-Barbadian jazz prodigy Shabaka Hutchings is a master of wielding intensity in his music. For over a decade, the sound of Hutchings’ saxophone has been an integral part of the UK’s modern jazz renaissance – a renaissance that has seen a new era of young musicians re-articulating the vocabulary of traditional American jazz by infusing it with the grit and energy of London nightlife as well as the sonic histories that hum from the blood running through the veins of diasporic artists forging a new sense of identity in the land of their colonisers. The amalgamation of these elements has resulted in a rhythmically richer and culturally more complex path for more artists in the UK and around the globe to explore, in the same way that Hutchings has with his significantly critically acclaimed projects Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming and his South African supergroup Shabaka and The Ancestors.

Of all of Hutchings’ many artistic endeavours, Shabaka and The Ancestors was a particularly notable project in his creative journey that captured the world’s attention. Formed during the course of his many frequent visits to South Africa, Shabaka and The Ancestors – consisting of Mthunzi Mvubu (alto sax); Mandla Mlangeni (trumpet); Siyabonga Mthembu (vocals); Nduduzo Makhathini (Rhodes, piano); Ariel Zamonsky (bass); Gontse Makhene (percussion), and Tumi Mogorosi (drums) – is the result of the relationships that Hutchings built with some of the country’s most prominent young jazz musicians and the kinship he heard in the prominent tension found in the sound of South African jazz. In an interview with Tidal, Hutchings said: “In general, the musicians I played with in London would have to release the intensity we built up. But in South Africa, they would keep the tension, stay in it. I found that really shocking at first. Normally, I am the person that pushes the intensity further and further. There, I found a whole group of musicians who were with me on that.”

Shabaka and The Ancestors’ latest album, We Are Sent Here by History, is an album that’s tension is rooted not just in its compositions but in the ominous and apocalyptic themes that run through it. The album sees the band acting as a griot (a storyteller who passes along knowledge inherited from the annals of oral history) narrating the fall of our current iteration of humanity in a period 

set after an event that the album calls “The Burning” – a concept that can be taken as literally or as figuratively as the listener would care to interpret. The time after The Burning is the time when all structures built around the mammonistic foundations of capitalism meet their imminent demise and the earth that has long been abused and divided by men who have seized ownership of it, reclaims itself. The album is a warning that the way the world is structured is unsustainable and that the only reasonable way forward in it is to come to terms with what parts of it need to be burned and what parts of it should be conserved, as well as what will we do with the pieces that are left. As a band that has been at times 

described as afro-futurist, the future that Shabaka and The Ancestors foresee does not look like the cities of Wakanda of Parliament Funkadelic’s spaceship – 

it looks like the world starting anew with the people having a chance to try living in it again.

We Are Sent Here by History was released in 2020, which meant that, because of the global lockdown brought upon by the pandemic, the band was unable to go on tour and bring this story to life (although, in a way, the ramifications felt by the more impoverished sections of the world did in fact highlight the relevancy of the album’s prophecy). However, this period of stasis saw Hutchings allowing himself a moment of self-reflection as he took the time to commit to the practice of playing the shakuhachi – a Japanese flute made out of bamboo that was traditionally played by Komuso monks as a means of achieving enlightenment through the practice of Suizen (blowing meditation). He had acquired a shakuhachi while spending time in Japan in 2019 but, because of his rigorous tour schedule, he could never properly form a relationship with the instrument and explore its possibilities until the whole world was halted during the lockdown. During that time, while the world was holding its collective breath amidst a time of tremendous global anxiety, Hutchings was able to ground himself with a new instrument and a new practice. Through this new ritual centered more around releasing tension rather than creating it, Hutchings was able to find a new power in the stillness of breathing.

At the very beginning of 2023, Shabaka Hutchings announced that he would be taking an indefinite hiatus from composing music on the saxophone at the end of the year to pursue the direction that his practice of the flute was taking him. What followed the announcement was a series of performances throughout the year that saw him closing the chapter of all of his projects synonymous with his saxophone which meant his scheduled performances with The Ancestors would be the last for the foreseeable future. The final shows for Shabaka and The Ancestors at the end of October marked the first and possibly only time that the songs from We Are Sent Here by History would be performed live and it was only fitting that the bulk of that final tour would take place back in South Africa so that the album could be fully unleashed in the place where the band began.  

The night before Hutchings played his final show in Cape Town with The Ancestors, he performed an intimate solo show where he shared the  menagerie of assorted flutes that he had collected over the last few years and the compositions that he had begun conjuring from them. When he introduced his shakuhachi, he explained the three conflicts that arise when performing the instrument: the initial conflict of separating the bamboo from the earth in order to forge the instrument; the conflict that comes when a meditative practice becomes a performance as soon the instrument is played for an audience; and the conflict of the sound of the shakuhachi adjusting to the atmosphere of an urban environment when it is meant to be performed unamplified in nature. In a way, those conflicts were also present during the performance of the songs from We Are Sent Here By History for the first time: the initial conflict of cultivating the songs and forging the album; the conflict of turning songs that prophesy an ominous ending to the world into a joyous performance; and the conflict in performing these songs in a room heavy with the feeling of anger and sorrow over the news of genocide across the world that make the themes of The Ancestors’ work all the more relevant today.

The tension that drew Hutchings towards the sound of South African jazz is rooted in struggle and conflict and that’s why it feels more intense than anywhere else in the world. That is also why when that tension is released here, the feeling is even more transcendent and that transcendence was indeed felt once the tension built within the work of Shabaka and The Ancestors was finally able to be released.

SHABAKA & The Ancestors



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