This article originally appeared in WhyNow.
In an interview plagued by poor signal and a global pandemic, I called jazz troubadour, Shabaka Hutchings, to chat about his latest release with The Ancestors: We Are Sent Here by History. This new work was conceptualised as an album-long sonic poem examining the present and future with lyrics from the South African poet Siyabonga Mthembu.
Shabaka is the figurehead of the UK’s scene, as consistent as he is prominent. Catapulted into the jazz stratosphere with the success of Sons of Kemet’s 2018 album Your Queen is a Reptile, he is as close to mainstream as a jazz act can be. When he’s not releasing an album with SoK, it’s with The Comet Is Coming or The Ancestors. Regardless of the project, Shabaka’s music oozes an unimpeachable energy and drive, with a passion that rarely goes out of style.
It seems that telling jazz stars that they are prominent individuals at the height of a wave is something to be avoided. Each time I pose the question of what it means to be in this muchdocumented and exciting musical movement, I am told that it doesn’t feel like anything, either wanting to distance themselves from the wave or explain how it is simply the progression of an already-existing scene.
The latter was the case with Shabaka, “I’m in it, you know,” he says, “I’m not viewing it from the outside.” He insists that fusing your unique heritage to jazz is nothing new: “The scene is just a logical extension from what was happening 15, 20 years ago,” he says, citing organisations and individuals such as the Jazz Warriors and Django Bates, “utilising experimental and free approaches to connecting your particular musical heritage to that of American Jazz… for me it’s about appreciating the value of our perspective, and our perspective is informed by our unique heritages.”
This time, Shabaka is using his perspective to explore ideas of change after the end, and right now seems an apt time to obsess over the end. ‘The event’ provides us all the opportunity to examine what we want to change about our lives. The role of We Are Sent Here by History, he says, “is to give people a space to consider certain ideas in the context of the music.”
What ideas? “Well, it’s about what transformative measures we take after the burning, after the end,” he muses, “you can take the end to mean many things. The end is just a closing of a chapter – the burning signifies the rise of something else – in our case what we look at in the album, when we experience the burning, the next stage is to appraise what facts of history we choose to reimagine – and what elements of our lives we try to address, and that is patriarchy and masculinity.”
Shabaka isn’t didactic, he wants everyone to be introspective about their lives and how patriarchy has shaped their existence. “We have been involved in a patriarchal system,” he says, “Everything that has structured the way that we live has come from the fact of our situation being patriarchal. Imagining what the end of that looks like is up to everyone to see how patriarchy has affected their lives. We must all make an effort to address that – that’s where Your Queen is a Reptile came from – in trying to articulate ‘who were women that I thought were powerful throughout history?’, little gestures like that can multiply into more tangible results.”
With all gigs currently cancelled, you won’t be able to see Shabaka and the Ancestors perform for the foreseeable future, so the record will have to stand on its own terms for now. Become familiar with its swirling saxophones, pulsating drums, and unstoppable rhythm. Use this time indoors for some introspection, let the album be the soundtrack for examining your life, becoming a better person, and ultimately, Shabaka says, being “less of a d**k to women”.