The Exploratory Instincts of Shabaka and the Ancestors’ We Are Sent Here By History

on Impulse! Records
Reviewed by Henry Cherry

Shabaka Hutchings, the London based musician behind The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet, had just released a second recording with his South African based project, Shabaka & the Ancestors when Covid-19 canceled the promotional tour along with everything else in the world. Hutchings spoke with NPR about the illness, its impact on touring musicians and the financial hit the quarantine has put on those musicians. “Literally, all my gigs in the next two months have been canceled. And everyone I know is in the same boat.” Questions surround the entire world as markets crash, people lose jobs across every sector, and the illness continues to mount. Hutchings isn’t a doomsayer. “We have to make the best of the situation, or the situation will just be tragic. And all situations have the potential to be tragic, or the potential to be tragic and transformative.”

The Ancestors are a band of South African musicians Hutchings met while exploring the country on several visits throughout the 2010s. From those investigatory trips, Hutchings learned part of the musical heritage of Africa. That inspired him to form this band, whose members are, outside of Hutchings, all based in South Africa.

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While the novel coronavirus quickly outstripped We Are Sent Here By History in outreach and media coverage, and the album might always be contextually linked to the time of viral pandemic, the music is not particular to this one period. That’s certainly one of its strongest attributes.

Born in London, Hutchings moved with his parents back to their home country of Barbados early in his youth. It was there he began studying music. Upon returning to London as a teenager, he joined the Tomorrow’s Warriors music program. Since working in that program, Hutchings has regularly folded other Tomorrow’s Warriors graduates into his musical collaborations. It’s this familial allegiance that enlightens all of Hutchings’s outlets. His saxophone or clarinet might stand out front in key segments, but he’s dedicated to the squad formation.

Essentially a modern-day Ellington, Hutchings has refined his output by applying musical parameters across the handful of bands he’s a part of. The spaced-out explorations of The Comet is Coming won’t alienate fans of the bouncing Caribbean tinged jazz of Sons of Kemet. Listeners of both will find relatable music among the South African musical digest of Shabaka & the Ancestors. Because the musical core differs in each band, as it did similarly with Ellington when he switched from big band to quartet or trio or duo, phrases and passages that might sound similar come alive at different points. In all three of the Hutchings-led bands, he probes boundary lines of changing musical galaxies without ditching the compass of melody. That’s a key to his sound.

[Listen to all tracks discussed in this review at Riot Material:]

Joining him are the Ancestors, a group of South African musicians dedicated to surveying the deep history of political and emotional identity that is rent into the idiom of jazz. This is the band’s second outing and its major label debut. Largely because of the inclusion of vocals, which shift from plaintive, to chant, to screed, it arrives not as a Hutchings controlled affair, but as a more conceptualized whole. As vocals scat across the music, they’re punctuated by horn lines and keyboard blips as the percussion shapes the sounds into rising and descending waves.

The first recording by the Ancestors came from a recording session over one day and in places you can tell. That’s not a criticism per se — Coltrane, Davis, Mingus and Monk all released critically lauded albums culled from single day sessions. But with this release, Hutchings and the Ancestors bring a more defined concept. The songs on We Are Sent Here By History ring within the hybrid of their influences without becoming weighed down by them. It’s the difference between allusion and outright stealing. The Ancestors never steal an idea but are quick to reference modes and concepts they learned along their way to this record. Here comes a section that lingers in Sun Ra’s orbit, most intuitively aligning with the bass driven 50s post-bop of “Sun Song.” Another section brings the emotive soul of Mulatu Astatke, best known for his Ethiopiques recordings. Shabaka & the Ancestors are more fervent and less frenzied than Sun Ra and more zealous and less tranquil than Astatke.

Shabaka and the Ancestors

Hutchings calls this music Afrofuturism, a name that acknowledges Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, another important connection for the Ancestors. But Kuti’s sound is a pole from which Hutchings and company shout out, not a blanket over the top of them. Kuti preferred compositional parameters and clung remorselessly to 4/4 so his drummers could explode into polyrhythmic abstraction but always have a home beat to return to. Kuti had little need for the structureless freedom of jazz. The Ancestors brim with time changes, vocalized modular angularities and dense bass notions borne entirely of jazz, but inspired by the Kuti’s ferocious beat. In a way, the jazz born of America has been returned to Africa without any direct American intervention, and that’s reason alone to listen to this. So when a snatch of Coltrane appears, it’s been shaped to sound more like the Ancestors than Coltrane’s Classic Quartet. That’s just one of many musical coups found on this record, but likely its most death-defying feat.

The problem with locating influence in this complex array of music is that procedural listening cannot match appreciative listening. You’re always going to be looking for a clue, rather than coming onto them in the midst of a mid-song jam. Over-inspection can blunt the larger intent, and the larger intent is for this music to move you. Call it abstract punctuality, this is an album percolating in beat and beat and more beat. Both the album title and band name allude to that. Even when the music shifts down to its slowest moment, it throbs. That’s a hard sound to locate, that slowest but still undulating gear.

Hutchings is an adroit compositional arranger, and he eagerly snaps the notes of his sound into the defined structure of the band he’s playing with at the time. This familial sensibility unifies him with his other outlets and allows him to bridge sounds and themes across bands. What it doesn’t do is force him into a solitary musical identity. Hutchings picks bandmates who challenge him emotionally and conceptually. If a phrase on an Ancestors recording connects directly to something he’s done with Comet or Sons, it’s only that phrase. What music surrounds and envelopes it comes from a fresh ideological realm peopled by different musicians. That’s the conquest of varied groupings. Focusing on the Ancestors, Hutchings has created a cathedral of space for each performer (there are eight musicians listed in liner notes, though the band is sometimes a sextet.) Because of the vocal quotient, there is also an eerie balance between instrumentation and voice that popular music rarely achieves. That is a nuanced favor.

Ariel Zamonsky’s agile and propulsive bass playing is so entirely dedicated to the song at hand, it’s easy to forget what an engine his bass is. On both Ancestors records, the bass not only lays out the framework for the rest of band to build on, Zamonsky’s playing also shades the tonality as they slip from more aggressive passages into delicately fluid sections. But prick up your ears, and the subtle definition of his playing rises to meet you. Without Zamonsky’s bass, the songs might float into ambivalence and decay. With him, they sustain authority even in their rustling, windy moments.

In a 2018 interview with M Magazine, Hutchings spoke about Marshall Allen’s influence after joining the Allen-led Arkestra live: “Marshall said I think too much,” Hutchings told the interviwer. “If you keep thinking about what is appropriate to play, you hesitate, and you create a blockage to the higher intuition that’s trying to guide you. That’s probably been my biggest learning curve so far.” On Shabaka & The Ancestors second outing, Allen’s musical nudge toward instinct is revelatory. The album is formatted like a sacred concert or a symphony rather than a jazz recording or a pop record. As such, WASHBH opens with “They Who Must Die,” a whopping ten-minute-long funk-ed out statement of intent. About midway through, Hutching’s frenetic saxophone slaps up against a chanted vocal repeatedly until the song falls into a Kuti-esque meditation, bracing the vocals with the insistent horn much as Kuti often did with Oghene Kologbo’s metrical guitar.

At the core of the album (and probably the band) is the sixth track, “The Coming Of the Strange Ones.” If you had to reduce Ancestors down to one song, “Strange Ones” might be the one. It’s an amalgamated sound. Horn solos piece together with bass figures while drums erupt along a line that leans into Marshall Allen’s advice. Divorced of analytics, “Strange Ones” finds the band’s unified intuition in its shifting time signatures. It’s a musical workout refined by innate poetics and flexed on skill. It ends dramatically, spun into momentum and then stopped on a dime, a highlight to the federation among the players. This is the album’s gospel, the joint rumbling of each musician’s chest cavity. All preceding and subsequent songs filter themselves through this number.

The swinging wavelike push of “Til The Freedom Comes Home” may be the collection’s most danceable number until it switches direction at the halfway mark, shedding the balance of meter for the full-bore blast of Hutchings’s freer jazz. As it shakes itself off, the song shifts once more into a quiet plaintive cry accompanied by Zamonsky’s ambulatory bass.

The album’s closer, “Teach Me How To Be Vulnerable,” is a duet between saxophone and the barest piano and a whistle of other faint instrumentation. The breathiness of the saxophone evokes the work of Ben Webster, and is a warm and esoteric way to close the recording. The Arkestra’s Allen would approve. It’s slow and tender without disengaging the urgency of what’s come before it, mostly because it’s so unexpected, and still aligned with the music that precedes it.

That We Are Sent Here By History can connect so directly to Webster, Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, and Coltrane’s exploratory inclination isn’t the codex of this music. Hutchings is the key here, but it is his band’s ability to own and refine the music of others within their own that brings you back for repeated listening.

RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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