About 20 minutes into a relaxed Zoom chat, Shabaka Hutchings springs to life with a bolt of enthusiasm. When I ask the saxophonist and clarinetist if he’s been learning any new instruments over lockdown in the past year, he says, “funny you should ask!” His newest area of study? The shakuhachi.
“I basically started this journey with the shakuhachi from Japan,” he says, holding up the Japanese flute to his screen. “I bought this when i was in Tokyo in 2019, and then I found this guy in Brighton that’s been making shakuhachis his whole life, and he’s probably 70. This one is made of a rare Indonesian pod—it has a beautiful sound. It’s a very different way of approaching the breath. It feels like, with the saxophone and western reed-based instruments, you’ve got to make the reed vibrate. So the way to power the air through the instrument is very forceful outward blowing technique. With the shakuhachi, it’s about a specific way of directing a small stream of air in a very pointed way. And it’s a very different headspace. You have to be bodily relaxed, but have a source of pressure and intensity that comes from deep inside your diaphragm.”
Whether it’s learning a new instrument or two (he’s also been spending time with the MPC sampler) or keeping to a well-oiled schedule of one new album each year with his three bands—Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming and Shabaka and the Ancestors—Hutchings is always looking forward. Sons of Kemet is the most rhythmic and immediate of his three bands, a four-piece group featuring tubist Theon Cross and percussionists Tom Skinner and Edward Wakili-Hick who play a physical and animated style of jazz built on Afro-Caribbean rhythms. On their latest Impulse! release, Black to the Future, the four-piece ensemble expands to include a rotating cast of collaborators such as Angel Bat Dawid, Moor Mother, Lianne La Havas, Kojey Radical and D Double E. The core of the album remains the chemistry between the four core musicians, but their universe feels more vast and exploratory, each contributing artist adding to a narrative of struggle, healing, Afrofuturist vision and the pursuit of Black empowerment.
It’s not the first time that Sons of Kemet have delved into more conceptual explorations of race, politics and protest on an album. Their acclaimed 2018 album Your Queen Is a Reptile provided a fiery counterpoint to the image of conservative post-Brexit Britain through songs that radiated joy and power, bookended by bombastic verses from poet Joshua Idehen. With Black to the Future, the message isn’t clearly spelled out for the listener, though its track titles—including “Envision Yourself Levitating” and “Throughout the Madness, Stay Strong”—form a short poem that creates a kind of concise guide to its threads of hurt, joy and transcendence.
“The intuitive reaction to the album is legitimate,” Hutchings says, pointing out that there’s no one, specific message to be taken away from Black to the Future. “That’s why I’ve really taken pains to express the album in as poetic and symbolic terms as possible, so it’s not us saying this is our point of view and this is what we want you to think. It’s just that we want you to think—with your mind orientated to certain parameters that we decide.”
Speaking from his home in London, Shabaka Hutchings discusses working with a cast of new collaborators, finding new creative inspirations while he’s not performing, and the need to learn something new.
Treble: How has the past year been for you?
Shabaka Hutchings: It’s been good. It’s been a lot about learning what gives me energy and the fact that the things that give me energy change. They don’t stay the same. And sometimes it’s about looking in different places for energy sources. Sometimes it’s about not doing a lot and sometimes it’s about doing things I’m not used to doing. So yeah, there’s been a lot of that. The point that we’re getting to is moving back to a space I recognize from when things were busy, even though there’s no touring. But just in terms of requirements of me. But in those moments where there were no requirements, where there was nothing pressing to do, it forced me to actually think artistically about what is nourishing, what do I have to do or what can I do that makes me spark up creatively. And that comes from a place where I realize if I don’t have that spark, it’s not good. If I don’t find something to do, it’s not that I get replenishment and get a break, I just feel weaker, actually—mentally as well as physically.
Treble: For a band like Sons of Kemet, which has a particular live chemistry and rhythm, was it a challenge for you to be removed from that for so long?
SH: Not really. I mean, with that aspect of it it was cool because however long I have moments not playing with any given band, it just increases the tension so it’s that much more of a joyous event when we do play together. Remember that normally, when I’m on the road, I’ll be at some point in a hiatus from another band. There’s a point where I’m on tour with The Comet is Coming and I’m not playing with Sons of Kemet. And I won’t see the guys in South Africa in Shabaka and the Ancestors for a very long time. So it just means that when we do see each other, there’s a release and a joy in being able to communicate after such a long hiatus.
Treble: When you begin working on a project, are you specifically writing for Sons of Kemet or The Comet is Coming, or is it looser—more of a blank slate?
SH: It’s like that to a certain degree, but there are periods of time when I know I’ll have something on the horizon. I knew I needed to write a Sons of Kemet album in the year I was touring with Comet is Coming. So I was just bringing ideas together, melodies and basslines, in the back of a van and in hotels. Not with an idea that this is going to be a specific Sons of Kemet album, but just in the idea that I need to compose a lot of stuff. Basic ideas that need to give the band inspiration. The way I compose for the band is I’m trying to get the inspiration out of them. I’m not trying to compose these so-called masterpieces that everyone has to screw up their foreheads and really put their heads down to get together. That process is like, if I can get everyone actually moving in the studio and thinking about all the stuff they can add to the composition to make it even better, then I’ve done my job in creating a foundation or parameters to think creatively within. I’ll have a period of time to get a load of those ideas together so that in the month or couple of weeks before the recording happens I’ll have some material to go into and mold into the most potent ideas that I then present to the band.
Treble: What led to the decision to bring more guest vocalists on for Black to the Future?
SH: I’ve always been a fan of communal records, records with guests. I guess from my teenage hip-hop years. There’s always an album featuring this person or that person. It makes sense when it’s done with taste and subtlety, to have a journey of what the world of the artist is as opposed to being the artist has a singular vision of what they are. For me, the guests reveal elements of an artist, of what their whole worldview is, what they’re into and what they find inspirational. So, someone like Kendrick Lamar having U2 on a track on DAMN., that reveals something of his musical taste and his vision that you wouldn’t have got if it was just him on a track and he just used a sample.
On another level, in terms of someone like D Double E, he’s obviously kind of a godfather of the grime scene, and it’s a scene that comes out of the community that we come out of, which is the Afro-Carribean diaspora in a London setting. We’re trying to make music that reflects our surroundings but also our past. But it has a relevance to the present. And it comes from the same place, it’s just about those points of intersection, where our visions collide. When I first heard grime, when I started really getting into grime as a music form, for me it sounded like soca music, but using different technology, slightly different rhythmic placements, but the same—the function of the emcee is essentially the same as soca emcees. Which is crazy because I’ve never really heard a lot of people connect those musics together, but it’s clearly coming from that kind of place in terms of the music of the Caribbean. A lot of my music is coming from the same place, so I thought, if I know they’re coming from that place in terms of taking Caribbean music from that era, the late ‘80s, ‘90s and updating to make it relevant in a London context, I know I’m doing the same thing, what would it take to actually find some commonalities in the two approaches. So that’s what we were trying to do in the studio.
Treble: Having more of a vocal presence on the record allows more of the narrative and themes of the album to come through, but there’s always been an element of topical ideas or protest themes on Sons of Kemet records. That seems challenging to convey with instrumental music; is it mainly a matter of imagination?
SH: It’s a matter of imagination and context. However you choose to contextualize the music, that is the result. Calling the album Your Queen is a Reptile and naming the tracks in the way that we named them, it contextualizes it to a certain degree. But obviously you won’t get it unless you have the vocal tracks to guide the listener in terms of thinking. But it’s enough. Adding the extra voices with words, it just takes the contextualization to another level. An instrument can never be a voice. You can get symbolic messages with instruments, but there’s something about squarely positioning the listener within a context that you’re depicting as an artist that only the voice can do. I gave all the guests the rundown of what the album was about and our thoughts and what our process is, but then it’s allowing them to be creative with the message, because just the matter of who they are adds to the narrative. When you get Moor Mother to contribute or Angel Bat Dawid, their existence is the message. The totality of who they are. They could say anything and it comes from all their experiences and learning from their artistic life, so that’s enough.
Treble: Is playing music cathartic for you, personally?
SH: Yeah, but not an obviously, personally cathartic thing. It comes in waves. Sometimes it’s more cathartic than others, and sometimes you’re trying to work very hard to get an element of catharsis that you remember from the past. Something that keeps me striving in music is that it doesn’t stay the same. It’s not one thing. It’s not like music always heals me. Sometimes there’ll just be frustration and it’s doing the opposite. But then it’s always remembering what it was and what it can be in the times when it is cathartic. That’s why I always appreciate when audiences give feedback. When people tell you the experiences they have with the music, they remind you it’s not just about you as an artist, it’s about what you do in a communal sense with the audience.
Treble: Are you always learning as a musician?
SH: I try to. You learn new stuff and then you play with it and you make it your own, and then you incorporate it into your own personal view or vocabulary. Then you find yourself applauding yourself for having a vocabulary or personal approach, and then you find that you become bored with it, and then you search for something new to not be bored anymore. It’s not that I’m always searching for new stuff. You have to live with it and make it your own, and be satisfied with it until the point it becomes second nature and then you get bored. The trend is that I get bored easily of my own playing or my own approaches, so that boredom forces me to find something else to do.
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