Shabaka and The Ancestors heed history’s call

To set the tone for what their audience is about to experience, the first utterance that is heard on We Are Sent Here By History is “Ayeye”, a term used to express either validation or to signify the coming of trouble.  

Piecing together different parts of the African diaspora’s take on jazz, Shabaka and The Ancestors is a sextet comprising Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophonist and clarinet), Siyabonga Mthembu (lead vocalist), Tumi Mogorosi (drummer), Mthunzi Mvubu (alto saxophonist), Ariel Zamonsky (bassist) and Gontse Makhene (percussionist). The Ancestors also called on Nduduzo Makhathini, Thandi Ntuli and Mandla Mlangeni for the keys and trumpet moments. 

We Are Sent Here By History is not just an album. Taking its cues from the fireside storytelling mode of retaining ancient histories, the record is a sonic film addressed to our post-colonisation but currently white supremist, capitalist, self-serving, corrupt, apathetic, detached and amnesic world. Ayeye: It is as comforting as it is damning. 

Set after a period that Shabaka and The Ancestors refer to as The Burning — a time where the capitalism model unravels and its principles are rendered useless because none of it matters when the world is burning — We Are Sent Here By History is a call to action. 

In a video posted on their Instagram account, Hutchings talks about how the audio film’s plot is about what happens after The Burning. “You can look at that as literally or metaphorically as you want,” he says. 

If we take the metaphorical route, the release of We Are Sent Here By History is well-timed for a South African audience. 

Last month it was reported that South Africa is experiencing its third recession since 1994. Two days thereafter the country confirmed its first case of Covid-19. We Are Sent Here By History was released a week later. 

South Africa has just started its 21-day lockdown in an attempt to control the coronavirus pandemic. With only those whose services are essential being exempt from the lockdown, it is the first time that South Africans’ mobility is not determined by their socioeconomic standing but by their ability to serve the nation. Everyone is affected and at risk. 

We Are Sent Here By History is the collective’s second studio album. It follows Wisdom of Elders, the 2016 debut that warned against the coming of an apocalypse

To facilitate a reflection under post-burning circumstances, We Are Sent Here By History asks: What do we do to go forward? What is there to be reassessed? What lessons do we need to learn?

“I’ve always thought that music is one of these spaces where you have the privilege of being able to … consider things in an unhurried way,” says Hutchings in an Instagram video post explaining why The Ancestors took this route for the album.

As a piece of music, We Are Sent Here By History is a dark, chaotic, hypnotic and profound  passage that marks a rebirth. At times it calls for incessant hand-clapping and wailing. At other points it calls for attentive, reflective silence.

Unlike their debut album where the lyrics were the carrier of the narrative, We Are Sent Here By History uses instrumentals and rhythm as the primary means of communication. Mthembu’s voice hums and scats more often than it sings. For starters, They Who Must Die encapsulates the song’s title by throwing its audience into the deep end with a series of urgent percussions and a determined bassline that span the track’s 10-minute duration. 

Another example is Behold, The Deceiver. With only its title to go by, the listener is able to establish the song’s characters, its setting, plot, conflict and resolution based on the tempos and notes that each band member plays. 

To visualise We Are Sent Here by History, The Ancestors worked with London-born illustrator Daniela Yohannes. In figuring out the contemporary manifestations of consciousness, race, ancestry, magic and spirituality and all things ethereal, Yohannes describes herself as “the painter of the invisible”. The album cover is that of a naked, gender-fluid being who seems to be surrounded by halos and is emerging from the cosmos. With only the logo of the record label on the album sleeve’s front, the audience is beckoned by the figure’s unwavering, collected stare. 

We Are Sent Here By History album cover. (Daniela Yohannes)

Apart from its instrumental and lyrical inputs, We Are Sent Here By History is able to cement its message because it is framed by telling song titles and an arresting image. 

The record oscillates between eradicating white supremist strongholds and imaginations of feminist ways of being that are rooted in our neglected indigenous knowledge systems. The result is a body of work that calls the unjust to order as much as it consoles the disempowered.  

Shortly before the album was released, The Ancestors took to social media with instructions that all songs were to be listened to in conjunction with their corresponding short poems. In order to create a coherent and arresting story Hutchings explains how he “took some of the lyrics from what Siya [Mthembu] has written for the album and tried to form poetry” that acted as a golden thread between the songs on the album. “The album is to be conceived in its entirety as a story (a sonic poem) which both expresses a perspective of the times we inhabit and proclaims a visioning of the path forward within our present zeitgeist.”

One example is the poem that presents You’ve Been Called.  To introduce the audience to the speaker, You’ve Been Called begins with an eerie piano instrumental that asks the listener to be curious about what they are about to hear. “We are sent here by history/ The lighter gave fire, and was present at the burning/ The burning of the republic/ Burnt the names/ Burnt the records/ Burnt the archives/ Burnt the bills/ Burnt the mortgage/ Burnt the student loans/ Burnt the life insurance … burnt passed impoverishment,” says Mthembu when introducing the ancestors that were sent here by history. 

Although the poem seems to be obliterating what we’re accustomed to, its message leans more towards defying the things that seperate us. 

The entire album is bewitching, but We Are Sent Here By History’s stand out moments take place in songs like We Will Work (on Redefining Manhood) and Finally, the Man Cried. Here The Ancestors — all established men in the world of jazz — use their collective pull to ask the listeners to imagine a model of manhood that is harmless and empathetic. In Finally, the Man Cried, Mthembu does this by drawing on the rite of passage that is initiation school, calling upon the initiates and encouraging them to be open to experiencing and showing vulnerability. We Will Work sings the same message and enforces it by promising to actively work on what being a man means. 

But the solace isn’t just in the songs that offer the listener hope. Kinship is also found in demonstrating resonance by singing along when Mthembu bellows “Hamba hamba hamba hamba nhliziyo yami/ Uye uye uye uye ezulwini ezulwini ezulwini ezulwini” commanding the spirit to leave the earth because there is no rest here. 

Overall We Are Sent Here By History reads like an archive of our times. A moment we should thank The Ancestors for.   

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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