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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Shabaka & The Ancestors - We Are Sent Here By History (Impulse!, 2020) ****

By Martin Schray

In some of my recent reviews I pondered about the question whether jazz can still provide some kind of relevant function for the African-American community or whether it has completely given up on that approach just to leave it to hiphop (Archie Shepp has suggested that, for example). There is indeed some evidence that this might be the case, especially if you have a look at the audiences, which mainly consist of older male white guys. Then again, there are musicians/bands that try to keep the political and musical fire from the 1960s burning, e.g. Irreversible Entanglements , Matana Roberts and Damon Locks (just to name a few). In Great Britain, tenor saxophonist and clarinettist Shabaka Hutchings has worked on this line of tradition with different ensembles like Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming and Shabaka & The Ancestors for quite some time now and he’s been relatively successful with it.

With The Ancestors, an ensemble of South African musicians, he released Wisdom Of Elders in 2015, until then the most ambitious attempt to connect history and new tendencies he had made. On the album, Hutchings was able to test out his free and spiritual jazz expeditions in a different, historically grown musical language, an approach which culminated in the outstanding track “Nguni“. We Are Sent Here By History takes these experiences even further. The eleven tracks are like an endearment of sound and vision, which ignores times and places of origin. The band - Siyabonga Mthembu (vocals), Mthunzi Mvubu (saxophone), Nduduzo Makhathini and Mandla Mlangeni (trumpet), Nduduzo Makhathini and Thandi Ntuli (piano), Ariel Zamonsky (bass), Tumi Mogorosi (drums) and Gontse Makhene (percussion) - tries to concoct something like a current state of spiritual jazz, which is enforced by the fact that the album is released on the relaunched Impulse! label. Based on the polyrhythms of the two percussionists the saxophones create floating melodies, which are flanked by keyboards and sometimes the piano tears the tracks into splinters like in “You've Been Called“ - a visit inside the space machine that Sun Ra once turned on. In general, Afrofuturism is a topic on the album. In the words of Siyabonga Mthembu, the Afrofuturists have arrives in the present: “We are here on history’s call“.

In a swirl of sound, Shabaka & The Ancestors conquer that attitude that seemed to have already
been lost to jazz: It is about music as a dynamic, subversive force. Although the first piece “They Who Must Die“ strongly reminds me of Sons of Kemet, the album is not as irreconcilable as Your Queen Is A Reptile , on which the guest rappers rant against Great Britain’s political class. Instead, Hutchings displays a vision of the future here. Outstanding tracks are “You've Been Called“, with its Sun-Ra-ish space scenario and apocalyptic lyrics and “We Will Work (On Redefining Manhood)“ with its dark and beautiful clarinet. The music is ready to embrace us warmly, to show us the way into the light.

We Are Sent Here By History is a record knee-deep in African tradition, it looks back in time from a near future. The fact that it was released at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic almost seems like dramatic irony: it’s an album about the apocalypse, a sonic time capsule which was supposed to be rediscovered by some future anthropologist. It reads as a statement of fact, a record of the failures that led to our own decline.

We Are Sent Here By History is available on vinyl and as a CD. You can buy it here:

Watch the video to “Go My Heart, Go To heaven“ here:



I must admit that i really enjoy their music.Really. But there's too much hype here. Plus its not clear to me how their sounds are, in any way, different from the radical sounds of african-american free jazz from the mid-60's up to the mid-70's.
Its quite possible they will make it very high up on the Wire's list for dystopian 2020 but that doesn't mean this is at any level new.
As a final note, to all those cool and hip newcomers who will adore this LP: have you ever listened, for example, what A. Shepp was doing back in the day?

James Allen said...

How I agree with you Fotis!
I first started listening to free jazz in the 60s,Shepp,Ayler,Taylor etc.,and this stuff does does sound a bit weak and derivative by comparison.
However I imagine Shabaka Hutchings is making quite a good living out of the music and he is a very good player live so it can't be all bad!

Anonymous said...

James and Fotis: I hear your perspectives. We must all be truthful to our ears. However, I believe that it is a severe mistake to hear new sounds as nothing more than derivatives of older ones. Shabaka Hutchings clearly admires the fire music of the 1960's but, to me, he does not at all attempt to emulate it. His clear tone and rhythmic insistence sound more like the musics of the African Diaspora than that era in American free jazz. For sure, there is less overblowing and an absence of rhythmically free collective improvisation. People seeking those sounds should look elsewhere. As with The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet (who I prefer over Hutchings' other ensembles), I feel this group is creating innovative music out of diasporic rhythms, new textures, and emotionally powerful messages about today's world

Anonymous said...

Is this music good. Yes
Does Hutchings have his own sound on his instrument(s). Yes
Is this music grounded in a tradition. Yes
Does Hutchings have his own sound within that tradition. Yes
Can it be enjoyed with out being considered in a historical context. Yes
Its very fine, enjoyable music

Can it be critically evaluated without considering context. No
Is it "innovative music". No


Hello again.

Just a few more thoughts.
I really like Shabaka Hutchings' music, both on Sons of Kemet and
The Ancestors.I own the LP's, if this proves anything...

Unfortunately though, for many of us, time and money is limited. All this hype can do is, in a way, shift the focus from lesser known artists (and maybe more important ones, if you ask me)
who really struggle to be heard, find gigs, live from their music.
This hype is the reason we make comparisons or whatever else we do. Sometimes, i admit it, its like an instant reaction to the hype: trying to figure it out, asking yourself, "yes but how good it is".
Even though the internet supposedly can provide equal opportunities, well (like everything in capitalism) it doesn't.
This is why i'm ranting right now and not because The Ancestors are good enough. They are excellent.

Anonymous said...

First anonymous commenter here. Thank you for the clarification of your perspective, Fotis. I agree that there is only so much oxygen in the room and that there are worthy artists who deserve much more of it, especially with musicians being especially hard-hit during this pandemic. I think I was set off by the comparison to a more or less distant history, with which I still respectfully disagree.

To the other anonymous poster, thank you for providing a conclusive judgment on the question of "innovative music." It is a relief to me that this question is settled once and for all.