Shabaka and the Ancestors We Are Sent Here by History Impulse! Records
Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has spent the past few years questioning our ideas of what constitutes history and why we shouldn’t just blindly accept the narratives we have been given. From his 2018 release Your Queen Is a Reptile with his band Sons of Kemet, which posited a series of notable women of colour as “alternative queens”, to the psychedelic collapse on his Comet Is Coming albums, Hutchings has been channelling otherworldly jazz futurism to create new musical understandings of our past and collective visions of the future.
On his latest record, We Are Sent Here by History, with his South African-based group The Ancestors, Hutchings’ work on reframing and rewriting experience through the force of his saxophone reaches some of its fullest expression. Written as a continuous “sonic poem” by Hutchings and poet Siyabonga Mthembu, its 11 tracks form an impassioned, if impressionistic, narrative of spoken word poetry and music which demands that we reform our relationship to masculinity, to the earth, and to our treatment of each other.
It’s a grandiose undertaking and one that opens itself up to potential pitfalls, yet the record artfully avoids being overwrought or unconvincing. Instead, each track title is taken from a line from Mthembu’s lyrics – exhortations like They Who Must Die, You’ve Been Called and Behold, the Deceiver, all calls to action which buffet the listener like Hutchings’ relentless phrasings. This double-breath of vocals and reeds serves to create an energetic communal expression, backed by the interweaving of horns from Hutchings and Mthunzi Mvubu.
Opener They Who Must Die provides landsliding washes of sound to jolt the listener into attentiveness, the melodies overlapping like a panning stereoscape while Mthembu calls upon “genes and spirits to keep us in time”. In fact, the call to “genes and spirits” acts as a refrain throughout the record, punning on their presence keeping us in rhythmic time, and linking Hutchings with a sense of his own genetic and spiritual history.
Throughout the record, the doubling of reeds pushing up against the rhythm of percussionist Gontse Makhene with drummer Tumi Mogorosi creates the teetering sense of things falling apart. We are ultimately “kept in time” but both the rhythm section and harmonic choices create a tension that challenges a simple, linear progression on tracks like Go My Heart, Go to Heaven and Finally, the Man Cried.
There are, of course, ample moments of musical beauty interwoven amongst the narrative; compositional elements like the plaintive clarinet and sax harmonies of Behold, the Deceiver, which call to mind the deeply-felt work of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, or the sloppy, languorous swing of Run, the Darkness Will Pass, and the percussive concatenations on We Will Work (on Redefining Manhood). Here, Hutchings shows his mighty capacity as a composer and arranger, as well as ideologue.
A record of this complexity can appear an obtrusive or difficult undertaking, and this involvement is part of its beauty. Hutchings shows that to recreate our narratives, we must delve into nuance, encounter ambiguous and confounding lyrics and different modes of interpretation. Since, the very thing he is trying to avoid is one overarching idea consuming all else. Life is more complicated than that. Once you let go and embrace this enveloping and sometimes overwhelming sense, We Are Sent Here by History opens up to reveal its depth and beauty. There is a freedom in the swirling chaos, a space to roam amongst the noise of this raw creation of drums, sax and voice.
Hutchings’ message may be grandiose and his visions lofty, but his expression is nonetheless heartfelt and captivating. On We Are Sent Here by History, he makes it apparent that change – the lifeblood of jazz music – is necessary, lest we descend into stasis and merely accept the damaging history we have been given.