Shabaka and the Ancestors: ‘We Are Sent Here by History’

Floored. Absolutely floored by the sophomore album from South African group Shabaka and the Ancestors titled We Are Sent Here by History, released March 13. (And it seems like a trip to the group’s first album, 2016’s Wisdom of Elders, is mandated.)

Shabaka Hutchings is a tenor saxophone and clarinet player who also has two other groups: The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet. All three now record on Impulse!, the label that gave us John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, and hundreds of other brilliant jazz artists. Hutchings is British; all other musicians on this recording are from South Africa.

Shabaka and the Ancestors are: Shabaka Hutchings, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Mthunzi Mvubu, alto saxophone; Siyabonga Mthembu, vocals; Ariel Zamonsky, double bass; Gontse Makhene, percussion; and Tumi Mogorosi, drums; with guests Nduduzo Makhathini., Fender Rhodes electric piano; Thandi Ntuli, piano; and Mandla Mlangeni, trumpet. All tunes were composed by Hutchings; all lyrics written by Mthembu. The lyrics and English translations are in the album’s booklet.

Shabaka and the Ancestors

The sessions were recorded by Murray Anderson at Milestone Studios, Capetown, South Africa, and by Peter Auret at Sumosound Recording Studio, Johannesburg, South Africa. The album was mixed in London by Dilip Harris at The Crush E14 and was produced by Dilip and Hutchings.

Shabaka Hutchings

 

Suggestion: Put those headphones on before you listen. The recording is spectacular.

 

We Are Sent Here by History

 

“They Who Must Die” hits you with the force, as the title implies, of a historical locomotive. So many influences emerge: Coltrane, Sanders, Shepp, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Marion Brown, Charles Mingus, Hugh Masakela, Dudu Pukwana, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Les McCann, McCoy Tyner, Gato Barbieri, Osibisa, even The Last Poets. At the heartbeat of the song and the entire album are the amazing double bass of Zamonsky and Makhene on percussion and Mogorosi on drums. The harmonies Hutchings and Mvubu create on saxophones is brilliant, all coached along by the chants, shouts, and singing of Mthembu. Makhatathni’s electric piano accents are gorgeous.

There is a spoken word intro on “You’ve Been Called” with spacey music in the background. From there, this tune belongs to Zamonsky on bass, Ntuli on piano, Makhatathni on Fender Rhodes, and Mthembu’s vocals. The saxes make a brief entry later in the song, and the percussion is softer but always present.

Shabaka and the Ancestors

If you aren’t listening on headphones or a really good stereo, you just won’t be able to appreciate the enormous contribution of Zamonsky song after song. He opens “Go My Heart, Go to Heaven,” a beautiful tune with the saxes swirling around each other. Hutchings takes an awesome solo, with Mthembu chanting behind him. The polyrhythms of drums and percussion are riveting.

“Behold, the Deceiver” continues to deliver, wonderful harmony saxes, shouts and chants, and relentless percussion and bass. Electric piano takes the short introduction, before the song shifts into gear.

Hutchings picks up the clarinet for “Run, The Darkness Will Pass,” and clarinet and alto dance together throughout. Mvubu has a fine solo on this lovely uptempo song.

“The Coming of the Strange Ones” offers more of the same wonderfully complex music. Alto and tenor speak as one, then short solos from each before another long one from Hutchings.

The coming of the strange ones
They who had seen war and the darkness
They who visioned the future
Speaking in tongues
Dancing in praise

“Beast Too Spoke of Suffering” recalls the wonderful cacophony interwoven with the canophony of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, the saxes augmented by Mlangeni on trumpet. The vocal chants resemble the cadence beasts of burden at work.

you thought we had no language
you said we had no god
We who built a relation to the cosmos
through the fire of ancestral sacrifice
We who dreamed of harmony, of nature, of eternity
You called us animals
Beasts too spoke of suffering

What sounds like a flute and tribal chanting begin “We Will Work (On Redefining Manhood),” reminiscent of Osibisa’s “The Dawn.” As the main portion of the tune begins, Hutchings again demonstrates that he is a master of the clarinet as he and Mvubu dance once again; the drums are percussion are outstanding.

“’Til the Freedom Comes Home” opens with alto dancing over an obstinate rhythm as the chant repeats “Rastafari.” Hutchings’ solo is magnificent. Did we mention bass and drums yet?

Oh Rastafari
Show us meaning
Show us values
Teach us to love nature
Teach us new myths
’til the freedom comes home

The repetitive cadence of “Finally, The Man Cried” allows the song to center on Mthembu’s incredible lyrics., provided with translations in the album’s booklet.

“Teach Me How to Be Vulnerable” is deeply spiritual, invoking Coltrane. There are no vocals, but the lyrics suggested are:

Teach me how to be vulnerable
How to lay down arms
how to stare into the face of death
Open eyed
Teach me how to breathe

This may be the most important jazz recording of the millennium. Your mileage may vary, but probably not by much.

 

For good measure, here is a live recording:

The album credits refer to a double-disk vinyl release. To help you interpret if you have the album on CD or digitally:

A1 = Track 1    B1 = Track 3    C1 = Track 6    D1 = Track  9
A2 = Track 2    B2 = Track 4    C2 = Track 7    D2 = Track 1
.                               B3 = Track 5    C3 = Track 8    D3 = Track 11

 

Shabaka Hutchings
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