Last Quarter: An Interview with Shabaka Hutchings

Jun 26, 2017

Shabaka Hutchings

Josh Jackson spoke to saxophonist and composer Shabaka Hutchings in New York during the annual Winter Jazz Festival.  Hear and read that conversation.   

Is your birth name Shabaka?  Shabaka being one of the pharaohs.

Yeah.  I think my parents weren't keen to impress a lot of historical knowledge on me when I was young. My dad is a Rastafari, and he's very involved in the Rastafari community.  So he knows a lot about Egyptology and Kemet - and what the meaning of the name.  The thing that they did try to instill in me is that the name was powerful.  So they let me know who King Shabaka was.  He was the last Nubian ruler to rule Upper and Lower Egypt before the Arab conquest. I guess it gave me a sense of pride in what you name is and the weight which it carries.

People always make the obvious analogy to the Star Wars character and that's the thing I've had all my life. You know if someone says, “What's your name?”  You say, “Shabaka.”  And they say, “Oh like Chewbacca.” If you know the weight of the name and where it comes from and what it means,  then it means God of creation. You kind of feel like there are people out there making light of something that is important. And I think it's a good lesson especially in these times that you will get people that joke and kind of see the simplicity in issues that actually are quite big but maybe they don't have the full context.

When did you feel that you had a real joy of learning the clarinet - which I understand as your first instrument?

I think from the time I started it. No one told me to play. The teacher came around lunchtime and she said, “Who wants to be in the recorded group?” I put my up my hand cause I was bored.  And then the recorded group automatically got picked instruments and the music teacher said, “Here's a clarinet. You’re playing it.”  I wanted to play the saxophone but they had more clarinets and saxophones so they gave me one of them. I'm an only child and I think I like that feeling of sitting in a room working on something by yourself and then you can chisel at it and come up with a creation.

So as an only child you sort of have an understanding between the difference of loneliness and being alone.

Yeah there's a definite difference and I think those differences interweaved. They're not binary.  I guess as an only child, you learn to be comfortable with both. And maybe the periods of transition are the things that cause you the most turbulence.

I'm fine if I'm alone and fine operating by myself.  I’m fine being lonely because I understand what loneliness is. It's not that either one of those is preferable.   I do like being around people. But I think as an only child you get plunged into actually being alone. There’s no choice some of the time. So you learn what those different atmospheres are. I guess it's good in life because you can not be anxious about it when it hits you at some point.

When did you pick up the saxophone? 

When I was about sixteen.  When I came to England, I got an alto sax.  Just cause I always wanted a saxophone. There was a purchase program.  I took the saxophone out and would just jam on it and try to play jazz. One of the first people I met was Soweto Kinch.  I met him backstage at a Courtney Pine concert. He was just like a rough looking dude in a leather jacket. And he said, “I do a jam session every week at this little wine bar.” I had my new saxophone and I had just started listening to jazz.  Maybe eight people in the room and he would play there every single Sunday.  For two years. I just went to this jam session.  It's actually quite inspiring how much he took in a young player who was really crap. Someone who’s just coming with a saxophone and going,”I'm interested in this jazz thing.” But my sound is terrible. I've got no jazz knowledge.  

I've just got pure enthusiasm.

He'd invite me to come every week and then he would play set and invite me up. He'd take me to his house and we listened to records together. He lent me some records and I copied them. I remember at one point we were practicing together and we'd just go for 2-5-1 phrases just like jazz language slowly and playing in unison. I kind of said, “Oh here's something I learned this week.”  And he played it.  It felt good for someone I looked up to at that stage to say, “You have information that is valuable.”  It's not just that I'm telling you stuff and you go away and you receive everything I have to give you.

Do you find as your career progresses, Shabaka, that you are attempting to find that feeling that you just described - when it was very exciting to learn early in the process?

I feel like the journey of being a musician is starting with pure enthusiasm and excitement, then learning how it all works and getting really daunted - when maybe surpassing that feeling of being daunted and understanding what it is and understanding how you do it.  Then maybe achieving the thing that you set out to achieve.  But not being excited at the music. Just being able to achieve mastery of the saxophone and knowledge of the jazz language. And then I think there's another stage that we're all trying to go toward which is then just being excited again. 

It's not about how much stuff you have learned or about how good you are on your particularly instrument.  It's just about sharing an experience with the other musicians on stage, because you are all about the experience and that experience transmits joy to yourself and to the audience. Whenever I see artists that I respect, that's the first thing that hits me.  Like seeing Wayne Shorter. I've seen him maybe five times. Every time I see him it's like he's on stage having a good time and that good time isn't just, “I'm having a good time.  I wave my hands in the air with a beer.”   That good time is that we’re feeling the intensity of what it is to be human.

Shabaka Hutchings joins us here on Last Quarter.  I’m Josh Jackson.  This is WVTF. Can you tell me the first recording of a saxophone that you heard where you said, “I want to do it like that or at least try to get there?”

I think the first one that I really thought “I want that” was a recording by Myron Walden, Like a Flower Seeking the Sun. I had heard lots of jazz. Soweto was really into that album as well, and he passed it on to me.  There’s something about Myron Walden’s playing especially in that period of time.  He gets that cry. He'll build and develop solos, but then it's like he's building developing to break through into a certain emotional zone.  That's what I'm really interested in.  When he's in that zone and it's like peak intensity, he doesn't let it go in this really intense space. And that's the first time I kind of thought I want to be in that space.

There's a tune on Like a Flower Seeking the Sun called “Pulse.” It's a really slow, brooding tune.  There's a point maybe like three quarters of the way through the tune when it completely explodes. I remember walking to the bus stop and just playing like the minute of this tune that it's like in the full intensity.  Just repeating that. And it was really about how he got there.  It's just like this is a space that I want to have and retain for as long as possible when I can do it.

You have a panoply of different musical projects. Let's talk about The Sons of Kemet.

What an interesting combination.  This must be a saxophonist’s dream because you get two drummers. I mean come on man...

I didn't really think of it when we started. It was literally that there was a small bar – Charlie Wrights.  And they do gigs every Thursday. They said, “You want to do a gig?” So I said Okay. I just wanted to see these four musicians play together.  I'll organize the music so we've got some kind of common ground to start from. The music was meant to be non complex enough for us to actually have our engagement as four human beings be the focal point as opposed to just achieve enough mastery of the music itself.

Was there some type of antecedent in the sound before you created this group?  Were you thinking you needed some kind of element serve as like a marching band there? What was going on?

Before Sons of Kemet, I had maybe two or three years of mainly doing free improvised music. I was invited to play the London Improvisers Orchestra three years before Sons of Kemet. At the same time, I was getting into free improv records. Starting in the United States, people like Albert Ayler to Art Ensemble of Chicago and the AACM. Roscoe Mitchell. Then I started to explore some of the European free improvisers - Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, and people like Mats Gustafsson. I was playing in a lot those settings and that was my main artistic endeavours lied.

My headspace, coming back to Sons of Kemet, was from a place where I was doing a lot of free improvised gigs and really enjoying it - but having to negotiate a position of this music not containing an element of myself.  Which is a boy that grew up in the Caribbean who really enjoys Caribbean music.  It's not that I wanted to force Caribbean music onto my musical personality, but I thought that it could be portrayed in a more overt way.  How I’m seen as an artist or how I see myself as an artist.

So I thought I want a band that is Caribbean at base.  You don't hear Sons of Kemet and think, “That's a Caribbean band.”  I wanted to start from that point of seeing as a free improviser. I want a band that I can write music with integrity, but it still contains elements of Caribbean diasporic music and the music that it comes from and the music that's also projected off onto.  Where all of that is encapsulated in the music.

Do you really consider the lineage?  I hear you describe people like Albert Ayler and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. When you consider them even as they are doing free improvisation, there is a lot of what they're doing in terms of counterpoint that's very closely related to the earliest forms of jazz. If you take another step you consider early New Orleans Jazz its Caribbean influence. So in some ways you’ve drawn a circle.

Yeah. You kind of get back to the fact that what it is is people of African descent being creative. You know and they might be creative in a circumstance where that creativity merges with other cultures. Such as what happened in New Orleans. The act of osmosis in the weaving culture is fluid. So in New Orleans they're in a situation where you have creative people of African descent in a situation where there are other influences. They are in America.  In the Caribbean, they don’t have that initial exposure to the other.  I find it interesting seeing what the similarities are in terms of rhythmic information and also patterns of speech.

If you consider music to be some type of language - not in a academic way but a looser and broad way.  Like when I hear Charlie Parker go (musical phrase) and then you hear a calypsonian singer sing a line that goes (example).

If you take away the fact that Charlie Parker is trying to operate within a harmonic prism and the calypsonian is trying to operate within a dance floor context, then you see them as musicians trying to give a rhythmic language to an audience. By any means necessary. What the audience needs to be able to take on that rhythmic language. For me then the two people, the calypsonian and the  musician, come together. It's more about the accents and their rhythmic ideas. What that triggers in our heads and our bodies when we receive that information makes the accent the integral part.

An audience member who may or may not have musical theory or knowledge may not necessarily know that, but it's implied by the way they feel when they hear something.

Exactly. You know it's like someone plays the line that goes (example).  

You know it's nothing there. You can you can process it and you can go, “Okay. I heard what you just played.”  If you go (syncopated example), then all of a sudden my body just changed when I was singing that.  There is something in there that makes you go.

What I'm interested in is the power of music and the power of rhythmic information to make people sit up.  Especially in the context of today where it feels like people are considering themselves as being woken out of asleep.  Whether that be in relation to how they see the economy or their propensity for taking on injustice without saying anything.  Or just what they can envision as an alternative future. I feel like having an instrument that can get people to wake up on a molecular level and just kind of snap out of pattern sounds and move.  Their brain is activated and that can be a help.

As if they have just been fully immersed in a dunk tank - which I guess would make you awake. Shabaka Hutchings joins us here on Last Quarter. I’m Josh Jackson. We go from the Sons of Kemet which the word itself has an origination in the delta soil of the Nile as opposed to the Sahara and the desret. You think of things organic. Is there something like that about The Comet is Coming when you're working with electronic music?

It's organic in the truest way in that we were not supposed to be a band.

The two other members of The Comet is Coming are members of a band called Soccer96.  I was a massive fan of this band.  Whenever they played and I was free I would see them.  After a couple of times, I thought, “Why do I not have my saxophone here?  I need to play these guys.”

I started taking my saxophone to their gigs and saying, “Hey can I play on one tune?”  I want to be an equal.” So I played and it would always be really good vibes.  We'd been saying for about a year that we need to get into the studio and have a jam. Record it. Nothing ever happened.

Eventually we got into that studio and just left the tape rolling for four days. As soon as we started to play, what you hear on the album is what came out. So what's on the album is us cutting together the best bits out of really long jams.  But we were jamming fully formed tunes. So a song like “Neon Baby” on our first EP, Prophecy … What you hear on the album is the first take was recorded on the first day and we were just improvising the tune. 

That's how it started and that's why we recorded. We cut up the material and then we started to do gigs. So then we started learning the stuff that we'd improvised on the spot and using it as material to develop a set for next couple of years playing warehouse parties and this small community of people that we liked in East London.   

Do you want your audience to have the same experiences as with other of your ensembles when you're playing that music? Do you want them to have this kind of thing that you'd talk about in terms of awareness or being awake?

Yeah, but I have a different experience from playing different types of music.

Tell me how.

I find within The Comet is Coming, my full body gets immersed. For one, it's louder. It's just more vibration on the stage.  In The Comet is Coming, I kind of go into full trance mode.  I mean me as a conscious human being not being aware of what I’m doing. 

A flow state.

Yeah just watching myself act and going, “Hey that's really nice.” That happens more in The Comet is Coming.  I find in Sons of Kemet … I guess because I write all the tunes, there’s something that stays aware of the whole band dynamic. And I guess in Sons of Kemet I am personally thinking about what I'm going to compose for the band.  I'm always keeping an ear out for what sounds good while on the stage and what we could do differently

So you sort of become in your own trance state. Do you become unaware of the audience?

Yeah. Generally I'm not that aware of the audience. I started in the last few months to force myself to walk up to the front of the audience and open my eyes.  Look at them.  I find the whole situation deeply awkward enough anyway.

So it's like a little joke to myself.  What happens when not not a reference for the audience.  Just walking up with dead eyes and looking there. I see the audience but it's nothing.  It's just a mass of stuff. And I can look in there and I get a kick out of being it.

How do you navigate that feeling of awkwardness? You get in front of people and they're just waiting for something. And you need to deliver it.

I'm just numb to anything but the music. When I walk onstage, I just pretend they're not there. I stubbornly pretend that no one actually is in the audience. I glaze over and just do my thing. I take my shoes off and just do my job.until the spirit hits me.  It’s very mechanical and not emotionally engaged.  But all the while I'm just insanely listening to the music and trying to get out and trying to get to a situation where I can be unconcerned of the faults in my head.   

It’s Last Quarter on WVTF.  I’m Josh Jackson. You have a group called Shabaka and the Ancestors.  This is a result of your frequent trips to both Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa.  How did you find yourself in that situation, coming from another place? Some other places.

About four years ago I started a relationship with a South African girl.  I started to go out with my then partner and spending a month here and there. And every time I'd go out you know I tried to meet musicians and just hang out and play at jam sessions. And then I found it. The scene came to me. You meet musicians that you really like.

It got to a point where I thought having all these experiences and playing with certain combinations of musicians things really happened.  It was this feeling like when the stage completely lifts. You feel like this is something special. 

I was supposed to be on holiday in Cape Town.

What kind of holiday is that? 

A rubbish one.   

But I found that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make an album. One that's easy for the musicians to learn.   I just wrote and organized for 20 minutes a day for a month. By the end of that month I had an album. So then we did one rehearsal, one gig and six or seven hours in the studio.

What does the concept of ancestors and ancestry have to you as a practicing and performing musician?

If you think of ancestors I guess you are thinking of what people did who might have been in your situation or whose situation has resulted in you being who you are. What have they gone through.  How did they see the world?  What was their temperament? And music is I guess one of the ways in which we can we can quantify that.

Music is a direct source. When we're talking about ancestors and lineage it's not necessarily down straight bloodlines. You could be talking about human and what humans in my social interpreted what they were seeing socially within the sonic. Music is one way I think that people can easily express themselves.  It's unfiltered and straight from how they experience the world to you.  I guess that Wisdom of the Elders is a tribute to that way of thinking about information spreading from generation to generation.

What does it mean to live with music?

To live with music is for it not to be important. For me.  Because it's your life. The music isn’t important in and of itself. Like the music is you. If you value yourself, you value music.

The importance cannot be seeing the music as a separate entity that you hold and keep and protect. You've got to protect yourself. You have to protect the way that you your mind works. You've got to protect the openness of your mind and the living quality of your mind and your whole being. And if you do that, then music will be healthy.  That's what we want. We want healthy music that's wholesome and for a good purpose.

Thank you for joining us.

Thank you.