Shabaka Hutchings: UK saxophonist in tune with SA’s top brass

Shabaka Hutchings will be performing with the Kyle Shepherd Trio on January 7 and 8 in Cape Town. (Adelina Lliev)

Shabaka Hutchings will be performing with the Kyle Shepherd Trio on January 7 and 8 in Cape Town. (Adelina Lliev)

The frontman of award-winning UK jazz band Sons of Kemet is in SA to play & record with touted jazz artists. He caught up with the Mail & Guardian.

“Supersonic music is when the Holy Ghost takes over and you’re playing. When you hear it back, you had no idea what the hell you did.” This quote from Carlos Santana is how I imagine Sons of Kemet felt recording their latest album. Listening to Lest We Forget What We Came To Do Here’s heady brew of beats that sound as improvised as they do composed, I picture the studio: a transcendental space made up of memory, tradition and new-found culture in which free sounds from a saxophone flow, twin drums recall ritualistic practice and a tuba’s sound is like that which feels at home in brass bands across diasporic Africa.

Santana was not referring to Lest We Forget What We Came To Do Here. Instead, he was referring to 1960s British band Cream that, similarly to Sons of Kemet, crafted music that splinters conventional jazz sounds and folk melodies. In the case of UK-based Sons of Kemet, they’ve been incorporating Caribbean and African folk and free jazz elements to their music since assembling in 2011, and causing a stir of excitement across the music scene.

Sons of Kemet received Britain’s touted Mobo award for Best Jazz Act in 2013. The band’s frontman and composer Shabaka Hutchings, shares how his Barbados roots, his ties to Africa and the writing process, combined to craft supersonic music.

“My main consideration is that I present my music with integrity. I wanted my music to reflect my Caribbean heritage because I realised that if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up sounding like a half-baked American.”

Born in London, multi-award winning saxophonist Hutchings has played with jazz masters like Jack DeJohnette, Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics and even classical groups such as the Ligeti Quartet. The 31-year-old musician-composer arrived in Cape Town this week where he will take to the stage with legendary drummer Louis Moholo and acclaimed pianist Kyle Shepherd. And later this month in Jo’burg, he will record an album with arguably South Africa’s most exciting jazz players: Nduduzo Makhathini, Tumi Mogorosi and Mandla Mlangeni, plus more.

You studied classical clarinet in Barbados and later taught yourself how to compose music (and play the saxophone). For the latest Sons of Kemet album, which explores sounds rooted in Caribbean folk and West African drum rhythms, what was the approach to composition?
My composition always goes through different phases. It starts with listening to music from the regions I’m interested in. This listening is not geared towards copying stylistic traits; I try to capture the energy of the music. The next step after listening is to “free write” without any goal-orientated focus; I let my subconscious do the leading. After this, the long stage of editing happens. 

The next, arduous process is to craft this material into a form that best represents the intention of the band. For Sons of Kemet, I tend to try out sections of new compositions in gigs within the usual set, which we’re comfortable with. From there it’s just a matter of thinking about the shape of the album, how the listener will journey through the regions and how smooth or bumpy that journey will be.

Along with the nyabinghi chanting elements, there’s a strong carnival or mardi gras flavour that comes through across on Lest We Forget… What brought you to this sound?
I was raised in Barbados between the age of six and 16, and a lot of my family is still there, so I visit when I can. Carnival season is the biggest event on the island. It’s the one period where the entire island is unified in enjoying the atmosphere and spirit that our music gives us. I don’t think you can ever forget that feeling if you were raised within this culture. I tried to capture a representation of this with our new album. I also love the vibe of Ghanaian brass band music too. The energy it summons is so strong. We’re trying to reach for a part of this strength when we play.


Shabaka Hutchings. (Emile Holba)

You have not yet released your own album. Why?
Mainly because I’ve poured my energy into Sons of Kemet. I write all the music and handle the administration. At the time that I started the group [in 2011], I thought having a band called the ‘[Shabaka Hutchings] quartet’, or any such variation of the jazz naming theme, was square. I still think that a lot of jazz musicians use their names to front projects in misguided attempts to draw attention to the supposed leader. 

One of the trends in the scene of musicians I’m involved with in London is to operate in bands that function as one entity, different to the leader-centric focus of orthodox jazz. The zeitgeist, which produces the jazz focus, states that there is such a thing as individual genius and the band serves only to draw attention to the individual. We’re trying to subvert this way of thinking musically, starting with the naming process of our musical endeavours.

This being said though; I’m going to record an album with some Jo’burg-based musicians later this month. I’ll probably release this as the first recording under my own name since it’ll be easier, logistically, to draw attention to the project in Europe. After this, I’ll record a string quartet, which I’ve written for the Ligeti Quartet in London, around the middle of the year. This also will be under my own name since it won’t be a touring ensemble.

In various interviews you speak of drawing from your Caribbean roots. But in a globalised environment like London, how do you make sure elements of your home region come through in your or the band’s sounds?
I’m not trying to make pastiche Barbadian music, so I don’t find there to be any pressure in maintaining a certain amount of ‘Barbadianness’ in my music. My main consideration is that I present my music with integrity. I try to make the very basic building blocks of the music resonate with Barbadian nuances. After this, I want my approach to the creative writing process and the band’s approach to interpreting my music to reflect the myriad network of influences present in London.

I find that if my fundamental Barbadian ideas are strong enough they don’t get lost in the wealth of other cultures that we’re exposed to. They are able to shine a light on the communal areas of globalised culture and show the inter-linking of micro-musical elements from many places and times.

From the band’s name (Sons of Kemet), to its sound, there’s a strong tie to Africa. At a time when the US is a jazz mecca for many, why the breakaway?
I think that as artists we must constantly be aware of what we’re drawn to culturally and ensure that we both go with our intuition and steer our paths towards the greatest depths that our music can reach. I wanted my music to reflect my Caribbean heritage because I realised that if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up sounding like a half-baked American at worst, or a fully-cloned American at best. 

America has a longstanding tradition of coercing foreign societies into imbibing a globalised image of their own cultural currency. This is not to say that one should not study the vast wealth of knowledge and tradition present within American jazz music. However, for me the end result has to be always where one’s roots lie and for me; this is the Caribbean. The natural jump from the Caribbean is Africa since its diasporic roots are laid bare musically.

You’re quite drawn to South Africa. You’ve played with South African musicians, like band The Brother Moves On; a Tembisa-based dance group features in a Sons of Kemet music video shot by local director Lebogang Rasethaba and Sons of Kemet played at the Cape Town Jazz Festival in 2015. What keeps bringing you back to the country?
A number of reasons. My partner is from Cape Town so I visit her a lot. I’ve also been building up musical relationships throughout all of my trips, which have proved to be stimulating for me artistically. This country produces artists with an incredible capacity for creative and emotional engagement, and this has meant that I learn a lot every time I visit.

In an interview with Spitalfields Musicyou speak of yourself being a sort of musical architect or a creator of projects. So for your performances with the Kyle Shepherd Trio this week, what will you be creating? 
I’m not sure. The great thing about performing with Kyle and his trio is they are such amazing musicians. I can completely relax in the music formation process and trust that the resulting sounds will be great. I’ve written some sketches for us but I don’t want my ideas to dominate, so I’m waiting until our rehearsal to fully form how we approach the set. It’ll be epic though. I’ve got a load of music from the Blue Notes, which I’ve never performed in South Africa.

Will you be involved in other projects while you’re in Cape Town this month? And what can we expect from you in 2016?
I’m doing some performances with Louis Moholo on January 15 and 16, and performing with Nduduzo Makhathini at the Orbit in Jo’burg on February 5. I’ll update my website with new dates as they come while I’m here. I’ll finish the album I mentioned earlier with Jo’burg musicians and record my string quartet. One of my London-based groups, The Comet Is Coming, is releasing its first full album in April and another group, Melt Yourself Down, is releasing an album in may so there will be a lot of touring going on. In addition to this, I should be starting a new commission writing an opera for the Royal Opera House alongside Ben Okri in a few months.


Shabaka Hutchings plays with the Kyle Shepherd Trio at Straight No Chaser, in Cape Town on 7 and 8 January 2016. Visit the Straight No Chaser Facebook page for more info. 

*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Shabaka Hutchings is 34 years old. This is incorrect. Shabaka Hutchings is 31 years old. 


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