Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Shabaka Hutchings

This conversation was recorded on 17th June 2021. Speakers: Ashish Ghadiali, Activist-in-Residence, SPRC // Shabaka Hutchings, jazz saxophonist, clarinettist and band leader of ‘Sons of Kemet’

Ashish Ghadiali: Hello, my name is Ashish Ghadiali, I am an Activist-in-Residence at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre, and I am joined today by Shabaka Hutchings. Shabaka is a leading light of the UK jazz scene, a member of Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming, and Shabaka and the Ancestors. With The Comet is Coming, he was the winner of the Mercury Music Prize in 2016 with Channel the Spirits and a nominee with the Sons of Kemet with Your Queen is a Reptile in 2018. The latest album out that you’ve been working on, if I’m right, is Black to the Future?
Shabaka Hutchings: Yeah.
Ashish: With Sons of Kemet, featuring artists including Kojey Radical and Lianne La Havas. Shabaka, thanks a lot for joining us.
Shabaka: It’s a pleasure, thanks for having me.
Ashish: I’m going to start off with a very long-winded question. I’m going to tell you the story of how I ended up getting in touch with your manager, Rachel, because this has been nearly two years in the pipeline. I remember in May or early June 2019, with Sons of Kemet you were doing a gig at Somerset House.
Shabaka: Oh yeah.
Ashish: I’d basically been talking on climate at a community event in Devon, where I’m based. I talk about race and climate, race and ecology. And I remember just getting on the train thinking, this is like a hard slog, it’s really hard to get this story across to people that are thinking about the environmental crisis, from a particular prism, and I remember getting to your gig and just being in another world. Obviously, the music, but also just the kind of euphoria of being in a crowd and singing that we’re not going to take this country back, we’re going to take this country forward, or like the euphoria of that moment that you put up the slide of Boris Johnson’s quote about piccaninnies.
Shabaka: Yeah.
Ashish: It just created so much heat on the floor. And then you said this thing that knocked me out a bit. You were talking about unity and you were talking about the land and you were talking about this land, the nation of Britain and something that pre-dated the church. I remember waking up the next morning and just thinking, what was he talking about actually? So, I got in touch with your agent and we started planning an interview, which was going to happen at different stages for different publications, but I’m very happy it's now happening during my residency at UCL’s Sarah Parker Remond Centre; it seems a very fitting platform to have this conversation. So, long intro, that’s the question, what were you talking about, what is the unity of Britain that pre-dates the church?
Shabaka: Well, I wouldn’t say the unity, it’s actually the opposite of that; it’s the kind of disunity of Britain that pre-dates the church because, in some way, the codification that the church brought was enforced. The church was a system that actually strove to eliminate all other factions of belief, so like the kind of traditional paganism, the beliefs that are closer to actually African ontologies. The Catholic church, throughout hundreds of years of struggle, managed to wipe out even the knowledge of those indigenous forms of Britain. So actually, it’s the multiplicity that was in Britain that’s been erased.
It goes to a point that actually I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which is to do with Black History Month, or Black history in general, in that it’s not so much that we need the Black history, it’s that we need the better white history, to realise that our histories are actually joined in ways that are rarely known because of forces that have chosen to make unity where actually, from certain angles, from certain ways of looking at history, there’s just more multiplicity than we would realise. Even looking at the factions of Christianity, like say Gnostics, who believe there could be a direct link between the believer and the supreme source of energy, that you didn’t need the intermediary of necessarily the prophet, or the priest, or the preacher, that you could actually get a one-to-one. They were really at odds with the Catholic church who really believe that you need a go-between, you need someone who can interpret the message. The Gnostics’ message was closer to traditional African ontologies, that would suggest that actually the source of energy and power stems from within and then is contained within, and stems out to have a universal connection between all beings. Whereas the general ontology of the Catholic church would suggest that the Word is given to a third party, a prophet, or the Word is given to an intermediary who then dispels it to the masses.
So, that’s what I was trying to allude to, the fact that actually there are ways of interpreting our relationship to the land, to this land, Britain, that actually are unknown to the native inhabitants. And what does it mean to live under empire? What people are given is a really fun, children’s story that’s all about waving flags and having a great time and ruling the waves; whereas to live under empire is to live under propaganda, the propaganda of empire. By its definition, an empire is a place that actually propels and perpetuates itself through propaganda, through sharing a myth of its greatness, and that myth has to actually exclude stories that don’t subscribe to the form of greatness that it would like everyone to believe.
Ashish: So, for you, that connection between the church and empire is really clear. How did you get to the point where the church was the thing that you were identifying as the kind of root of that?
Shabaka: Well, I wasn’t really identifying the church specifically as the root of it. I was really bringing the idea of the church as an example of the fact that there are different ways of seeing the culture of Britain, but the way that we see is stemmed from the church, which has been the dominant force from this land. It’s been a force, historically, that has shaped the way that the nation has seen its narrative and its relationship to others.
Ashish: At what point in your development and journey did that become apparent to you?
Shabaka: That’s an interesting one, actually. Definitely reading Marimba Ani’s book, Yurugu, where she does go into in great depth actually what the history of the church was in forming the mental procedures that end up in colonial mind states. I read that in 2019 and reread it during the lockdown. I was going to church when I was younger in Barbados, maybe up to the age where I could say I didn’t want to go anymore, but when I was going, I did read a lot of it. I kind of engrossed myself in it, just in terms of seeing what the thing is, and religion and spirituality in general has always been a topic that has been fascinating to me for a long time, because it really is to do with the way that people see reality, how people perceive their relationship as individuals to a collective. And this is actually the root of it all; how you consider, on a cosmological level, your position as an individual in relation to the external, whether that external is another in terms of another culture, or another as in nature.
It’s not universal how we make these relations. In many cultures, the relationship between human and nature is one where nature is the subject and man is the object, and you have to almost like prostrate yourself before nature, which is the dominant force. Whereas, in the West, by and large, in the kind of dominant manifestations of the culture, nature is seen as the object which is acted upon and humans are seen as the subject, and our job in the dominant paradigm of the West is to control and utilise nature for the purpose of profit.
Ashish: So, we’ve started off talking about that through the prism of a relationship with the land of Britain but then, when you’re talking about the church you’re talking about your experience in Barbados. How does that picture that you’re describing become more complex, in terms of the geographies of your own life - London, Birmingham, Barbados – how have those different locations fed into this understanding in different ways?
Shabaka: Well, it’s just trying to find a place, trying to find a way of seeing my relationship to what’s going on around me and it definitely wasn’t coming from the church. I like using parables as metaphors and as myths and seeing what I can gain from them. So, I’ve thought a lot about, for instance, the story of Adam and Eve, especially going on in my life and travelling through all of these different locations; for me, I keep coming back to that story as a real, interesting, almost prophetic tale of where we’re at, as in you’re able to access knowledge but with knowledge comes the certainty of death and the harshness, the progression towards death, actually.
So, if you consider that knowledge is almost synonymous with progress, so to eat of the proverbial fruit of knowledge is to actually be able to progress, but to progress not towards enlightenment or vitality of life, it’s to progress towards destruction. And that for me is the foundational story of the West’s paradigm, in that there is more and more knowledge and there is greater understanding of the way that the world and the functions of nature are structured. But after all is said and done, it’s progressing to a state of climate collapse, where we can’t actually sustain ourselves. So, it’s summed up in that one parable. For me, this is the important thing about these religious texts, is that they do contain elements of not necessarily truth, but elements of consideration that could teach us about the mythal forms of what we’re doing and how we’ve come to be in the state that we’re in.
Ashish: How does the geography of your life influence your understanding of those forms?
Shabaka: I don’t know. It’s like what it means to move, to be dislocated, as in to start life in, say, England and then move to Barbados and then move back to England, and then spend a lot of time in South Africa, is to not have a clear sense of continuity. And I don’t mean that in a necessarily derogatory way, as in I’m not at odds to find my position. It just means that there may be certain things that are sometimes taken for granted in terms of cultural forms that I just haven’t, if I’m honest and if I’m not talking in an academic way, I don’t see myself as from anywhere.
I wouldn’t say I’m from Barbados because I’ve just not spent enough time there, when all is said and done. I would say I’m British, in some senses, because the only way we can have agency is to actually be a part of the place that we’re in. But then I’m British to a certain degree because I am also Barbadian and I am also African. It’s just a kind of murky relation. So, I think with that murkiness comes a disregard for certain forms and structures, psychological forms and structures, that are maybe culturally taken as a given.
And I think that that dislocation has allowed me to look at certain aspects of society that are not necessarily unquestioned, but sometimes just taken with more weight than they need to be afforded or should be afforded, and just kind of see them as like weird and then try to find artistic ways of portraying that weirdness. For instance, calling the album Your Queen is a Reptile, as a way of springing that conversation, in terms of who are our leaders and actually why do we afford them the privilege of our gaze?
Ashish: At a discursive level, it is a brilliant album title. I’d love to really understand that journey that you’re describing and the way that the movement between places created a kind of iconoclastic approach to form. I’d love to understand that in terms of your musical idiom. When did you start? When did you first pick up an instrument?
Shabaka: In Barbados, when I was nine and it was just that someone had instruments in class. Who wants to play a recorder? And I just put my hand up and it progressed from there.
Ashish: Can you tell me the story of that progression?
Shabaka: Yeah. So, I started with the clarinet. My mum was able to actually send me to music lessons in addition to what the school was providing and got me a decent instrument because she’s a teacher, so she was able to get a school discount. And I’m an only child, so I just spent a lot of time on the instrument playing along to the radio and then playing in various calypso bands, reggae bands. And because I started in Barbados, it had that kind of colonial education thing, which meant that you did the Associated Board of Music classical exams once a year. An adjudicator would come down from England and judge everybody. So, I did all of those exams before moving to England at 16.
This, I guess, is the first point of reflection. I knew I was never going to be a classical musician, even though I was playing the clarinet. I just liked playing the clarinet and the clarinet was an instrument of the classical idiom. So, I did my exams, but they weren’t the most important thing. Coming to England, I realised that actually people who do - I did Grade 8 by the time I was 14, just because I liked chipping away at problems, problems to do with the instrument that I was studying - I subsequently realised that most people who actually dive into this area of study singularise the process. So, it’s like if you’re a classical musician who's doing those exams, you are classical, you immerse yourself in that culture and that’s how you categorise yourself, you don’t necessarily play jazz. Whereas for me it was just a thing to do, it didn’t mean that I actually saw myself as that, which meant that I could then go and in the night time play in a reggae band, play calypso music, listen to hip hop, be starting to delve into trying to learn about jazz music.
And that brings me to the point when I moved to England and met I Soweto Kinch and Courtney Pine, and starting just hanging out with Soweto a lot in Birmingham, going to jam sessions and learning about the American form of jazz music and just trying to find my way through it. I went to Guildhall when I was 19, I did my A levels and then went to Guildhall and did a classical music degree on the clarinet. Again, not because I wanted to be a classical musician and I knew it was never even a thought that I would be a classical musician, but it was just because I just wanted to learn that instrument. I was kind of obsessed with the clarinet.
Throughout that course, there were so many - this is a whole other area in terms of the academy and that European culture, hegemony and hierarchy in relation to other forms - but there were already forces that were trying to get me off the course, or kind of put faults and barriers between what it was to be a jazz musician and what it was to be a classical musician. So, I even remember having a conversation with the head of woodwind and brass at the time, who said, 'what are you going to do about this jazz problem, because you know you can’t play jazz music and classical music?' And that’s actually a statement that I really thought about for a long time, about what does it mean to say that jazz music will destroy- actually, yeah, the words specifically were 'jazz music will destroy your classical chops, so what are you going to do about this problem?'
If you actually break it down, so jazz music isn’t jazz music. The jazz course is reflective of jazz music. Jazz music is reflective of the culture that jazz music comes from, and that culture is coming from the Black community of America. So, what that person was saying, whether they understood it or not, was that what are you going to do with your proximity to Black culture, which is going to destroy or damage what we’re trying to cultivate in you, as a course that’s perpetuating white cultural, European musical values. I didn’t say it to him because it was only on reflection that I thought about this, but at the time, it was just kind of shocking. I thought that that was a really weird and specific way of seeing the relation between cultural forms, as in one is out to destroy the other. It’s not the only way of seeing forms. Relations can be mutually beneficial. But to see the other as something that is coming to destroy you is something that’s very specifically British / European, at least in this particular period of time. And that summed up a lot of things in the society for me. It’s like I’m looking and thinking, well, if that’s what he / they think about even just some music form, what does it mean when actually the cultural other comes in a physical body? That must be a real problem.
So, I finished the course. I didn’t stop playing the classical course. What I actually told them was all you have to do is judge my exams at the end of every year, and if I don’t do well enough, then you can actually kick me off and I’ll just join a jazz course, it’s not a problem. They didn’t kick me off because actually I did enough practice to get really good results and actually their music isn’t that hard, it just takes practice. A lot of it is to do with mechanism. So, if you spend enough time getting those motor functions of your fingers down, then the emotional aspect will be there.
So, I did well and I finished the course. Then I left the classical world, apart from a specific project; I was a part of the BBC New Generation Artists Scheme, where they said you could do whatever you want to do at the BBC. The first thing I said was I wanted to write a piece for an orchestra. And I hadn’t had any training to write for orchestra, but I just thought, it’s just one of those things that I don’t see any big mystic about this form, this cultural form called the orchestra, that’s supposed to be the pinnacle of the musical achievement. So, I was like, I’ll write for it even though I’ve got no training in it. And I’ve had certain things like this, so writing for string quartet, writing for orchestra, writing for brass group, just because I think it’s one of my goals to just break down these mystics of cultural forms that are supposed to be so complex, and complicated, and revered, and actually say it’s not more complex than other music. It’s just a different vocabulary that you can learn and not necessarily with superhuman effort.
In my life outside of doing those things, I was just playing as much music as possible, so free improvisation, electronic music, jazz, reggae stuff, and then it’s all kind of condensed itself down into the three main groups that I do now with the Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming, and Shabaka and the Ancestors; the last of which is a group that is a collaboration between myself and South African musicians, because I’ve spent quite a number of years going backwards and forwards between Britain and South Africa.
Ashish: Is having three different groups that you play with important for this kind of movement between and this dislocation that you’re talking about?
Shabaka: In retrospect it probably is but at the time of forming these groups, I didn’t form them for the intellectual purpose of remedying the dislocation. They worked and so we continued them. This has actually been the practice throughout my whole musical life - if it works, you continue it. These are the bands that actually resonated from an artistic level and they resonated with audiences. So, we just kept them going and they’ve managed to just grow organically.
But what I have found throughout the years in playing in these different manifestations is that the music is about interpersonal relationships. What you hear as a listener is the sonic representation of these relations between myself and others, and they all just feed into each other. So, me spending a lot of time in the studio, or on tour with Sons of Kemet, affects the way that I see the relationship between myself and The Comet is Coming musically and otherwise, and I think that that brings a certain, different type of energy to it that wouldn’t be there if I was specialised in one group. Then when I go and play with South African musicians, that brings a whole other area, even just in terms of the stuff we talk about. The stuff that we talk about and the conversations we have, and the times we have as social beings, that informs the music.
And in general, in terms of the titles of the albums and the themes behind the albums, they don’t stem from abstract ideas that we think would be cool to put on an album cover, it just stems from the stuff that we’re talking about when we get together to play or rehearse or just to hang out. It’s just better to have broader relationships, and I think musically and just generally, socially. Again, if we look back to the idea of the cultural other coming to destroy, if you’re looking at actually the kind of varying of cultural relationships as being something that is just, ultimately, beneficial, but you might have to actually search for that benefit, that the benefit might be subtle and it might be something that you’ve got to work for, then it actually puts a whole different gist, a different tinge, on immersing yourself in different cultural ways of being, musically and otherwise.
Ashish: Tell me more about South Africa, how did the South Africa connection come about for you?
Shabaka: Initially, it’s because my girlfriend was South African and we were doing the long distance. We started seeing each other when she was studying at SOAS, so for a year we were together there and then she moved back to South Africa to start a PhD, so then she was spending half the time in South Africa / Swaziland; six months in South Africa / Swaziland, six months in England. So, when she was in South Africa, I would just go over and spend two-three months at a time, once or twice a year and that happened for two to three years. So, I just found myself in South Africa hanging out, seeing what was happening in the musical community and just further understanding what the place is, because it is a complex place and actually it gets more complex the more you’re there. Or at least from my perspective, it’s that the more I’ve been there, the more I don’t know, the more murky the relations.
I think that when you first have ideas of South Africa in terms of you understand its history from a basic level as in there was apartheid, there is an uneven society; there’s this idea of, I don’t know, for me, before going and spending time in South Africa, there’s an idea of just struggle, that’s all I could envision of the country. All I had in my head was the struggle and maybe some musical forms and at a very basic level, an idea of the politics. But I didn’t know what that looked like on the ground, like actually what does that mean when that history that you can read in a textbook or see on a TV documentary, what does it mean when you’re actually there in front of human beings for whom this history is reality, who they’ve actually got to deal with the ramifications of living within the society for better or worse.
For instance, in somewhere like Johannesburg, I feel like it’s complex. There’s a feeling of acknowledgement of the situation, but also the struggle to actually, as large communities, to try to uplift themselves from the situation – and I’m talking on a kind of broad timespan scale – but then there’s also that interpersonal level where you see your neighbour as a person, where that is actually the ultimate aim to respond to your neighbour as a neighbour.
And that’s maybe the complexity that I hadn’t really appreciated, that after all the struggle, after all the historical narratives, then there is still, when you see a person, when you’re in front of a person, as one human being to another, how do you treat them? And that’s the end product, like how are you going to react to your neighbour? And just the ways that I’ve seen various people just react, it’s been really transformative in that it's possible to view someone outside of the prism of race, without discounting race as a part of the equation of what comprises the hierarchical boundaries that maybe separates you, if you’re looking at it from that dimension.
Ashish: Amazing. So, how’s that reflected in what you were observing in what was going on musically there? What is going on in South Africa musically?

Shabaka: Loads of stuff. Loads of creative musicians. That’s the first thing I realised when I went there, that there’s a whole world of creative music that I just had no idea about whatsoever. People in the jazz scene, so people that actually are maybe now more well-known; so, Nduduzo Makhathini, like Mandla Mlangeni, a real great producer called Card On Spokes, who also goes by the name of Shane Cooper, an electronic musician and jazz bassist. And then there’s the whole underground electronic scene, people like Spoek Mathambo. These names I hadn’t heard before going there and, subsequently in years to come, they’ve become a lot more well-known, or at least in the circles that I’m in.
But going there it was just like, how I have not heard about all this stuff? And actually, it made me think about the limitations of the scene that I’m in, in terms of thinking that I know what’s happening in music and realising that the world is a larger place. And actually, that's a good metaphor for kind of everything, realising that being in a metropole makes you think that you understand what culturally is vital in the world, where actually we aren’t in the centre of the world, musically or socially, and there are cultures that are formulating real vital - I keep using the word vital because, for me, it’s the most appropriate term - real vital relations between music and living.
One of the most different aspects of being around musicians in South Africa when I was there, and to England, is just the conversations were different. There was a lot more talk about music and healing, and music and spirituality, what it meant to be a musician outside of just the commercial exchange of I play sounds for you and you pay me money; like what it means to actually have a role in the society as a musician that is vital, that is necessary for people to actually live in a way that is sustainable spiritually and also just kind of healthy and just joyful.
Ashish: Tell me more about this, how does music heal?
Shabaka: It depends how deep you want to go. If you consider that we are, on a core level, comprised of vibrating molecules just as human beings, like when you go down to an atomic level, we are vibrating molecules and actually what separates us from specific individual bodies of matter from our surroundings, when you look at it from an atomic level, isn’t much. When you consider down to the tiniest point, the core of our bodies, vibrating down, down, down to the smallest denomination that you can get, when you think about how that relates to the external, then there’s kind of not a lot separating us, and especially when you consider things that we can’t see with our eyes in terms of energy, in terms of the vibration or energy force that go out of us.
And the main thing about what music is, is music is a vibrational force being propelled outwards, using whatever means. So, we have the ability as musicians for altering the vibrations of the people in our vicinities. And it sounds, just from the conversations that I’ve had, that in many cultures, especially in Africa, that there is an acknowledgement of this fact, that to alter the vibrational capacities of the people around us with music is a healing force, and if you understand how to do it, and actually when it’s needed and what specifically is needed, then you can just do a lot for your community, as one of the ways of healing.
Ashish: People talk about your music as like transcendent. I find it transcendent. It sounds like transcendence is an actual intention, is that right?
Shabaka: Yeah, but not to necessarily make the audience transcend, but to make myself transcend.
Ashish: What does that mean then for you, what are you transcending?
Shabaka: Well, if we take away the word transcend for a second, what I’m trying to do is to shift my focus, my orientation, shift my focus of mental vision not from what is around me but to the sound of a collective enterprise. So, when I am in my most kind of profound, deep musical experiences, that to the external listener would be described as transcendence, it’s when I’m not thinking about the technicality of what I’m playing, I’m not thinking about the audience in front of me, or the situation that I’m in. All I’m involved in is the sound and how my contribution to that sound creates something that’s greater than myself, that’s more immersive than myself. That for me is one of the greatest experiences that one can have. And it doesn’t require technical prowess. It just requires you to be a part of a communal endeavour of music making. Even if you’re playing a cowbell on the first beat of every bar, it’s the same thing, you’re embarking on a collective experience. 
For me, that transcendence is, essentially, the movement from the individual state to the collective state. Yeah, that’s probably what it means in its most basic form, when it’s not about what I am feeling on an individual level, it’s not about is my monitor at the right level, or am I playing the right notes, or how does my part fit in? It’s just about everything. Well, you’d have to start from those points. That’s the thing. You have to start from the individual, technical level and then, as you go through that, I find that you can get to a point where the collectivity of the endeavour just supersedes everything. It rolls over all individual concerns and then becomes just one collective form of music making, and that’s when the real powerful stuff happens.
And for me, it doesn’t stop at the stage, which is the reason why streaming concerts are, by definition, going to be lacking in some kind of spiritual power, because that communalism then flows into the audience, who respond to it with their bodies, and then that response feeds back to us, and then we get more energy and then we give back. So, then there is this kind of exchange of energy and musicality and that, for me, is the transcendence.
Ashish: Why is technique part of that? Like, why not punk? If it’s just about the individual to the collective, what is all the rest of it that you’re bringing about?
Shabaka: Well, it depends what you call technique, and that’s the thing. Sometimes we see technique within the prism of what the classical mentality, not necessarily the classical music but the classic mentality would want us to see technique as. Whereas there is a technique to playing punk, like if you spent enough time on your instrument, then you have a technique of playing it. Whether it’s an orthodox technique or an unorthodox technique, it’s still a technique.
For me, technique is just a way of actually being able to sustainably do something. For instance, if I play my saxophone with what I would consider to be the wrong technique, it means than when I’m about to go to that point of transcendence and going into the communal space, then there might be elements that bring me back into the individual space. For instance, if my lip starts hurting because I’m actually not blowing through my diaphragm and I’m blowing on a surface level; or if my fingers are too flat as opposed to curved, or my wrist is at a wrong angle, it might mean that when I start actually really trying to concentrate and go into the sound, that a physical limitation brings me back into the individual. So, for me, that’s really what technique is about, it’s about being able to sustainably contribute to that communal endeavour.
And the same thing with tunes. All the other stuff about making tunes and having a set is just so that there can be a steady flow. The communal space is a space that you arrive at after journeying for a while and this for me is what our skill is as musicians, being able to structure that departure and journey and then bring everyone back safely. It’s not just like boom, here is transcendence; it’s not like you press a button and you just get transcendence. It’s about creating that environment where yourself and the audience, is able to travel to that point where, hopefully, you get to it.
Ashish: Describe it to me, what’s the moment, like what happens in that liminal zone?
Shabaka: This is the thing; I think that you shouldn’t be trying to describe it. To describe it, especially within the English language which really is, from what I know - obviously I only speak English so I can’t say specifically that we don’t have the right capacities for it - but just there are things that I don’t have the words for. There are situations, musically, that when I’ve talked to people in South Africa, for instance, they’ll talk and then they’ll just say, sorry, I just need to speak Zulu right now. They’ll talk to everyone else and they’ll be like, you get what we mean? And then they might refer to a type of moment and I’ll go, I get what you mean but there just isn’t a word for it. I think that sometimes when you try to impose legibility on the spiritual, it devalues it.
So, I don’t want to go too far into actually what that space is, because there’s just something about it that just gets becomes profane. If you try to strip it away to actually what it is, it’s a mysterious space and it’s not a space that’s replicated. It flies in the face of actually what we’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to be workers, maybe cultural workers, but we’re supposed to be people that have a commodity and our commodity, say the way the media portrays me, my commodity is supposed to be that guy that brings transcendence. But it’s not that. It’s that there might be, if you’re lucky, it might be that, but I just play my music and, hopefully, it gets to that stage but maybe not and no-one will know. The great thing is that the set has good music, so it might be that we don’t have that state, that state where we actually move away from the limitations of the individual, but you’ll still have a great time musically, it will still be something of value.
It’s a tough one. I probably could break it down in a very intellectual way, but I just feel like it’s not going to be of greater value if that type of experience is broken down because it’s about a feeling, and the question is, is it worth depicting feelings in words? Not, is it worth it? It might be worth it, but what is the worth of it? Because it’s not going to make the listener have that feeling any greater. It’s not going to make you experience the feeling of transcendence any clearer and it might actually make you more self-aware in that state, which will be something that will takes you away from the state, ultimately.
Ashish: I feel like you are a big reader as well as a great listener, right?
Shabaka: Yeah.
Ashish: Let’s maybe talk about influences. Who are your readers, musicians? You’ve told us who your queens are, who are your prophets?
Shabaka: For me, the head would be Marimba Ani because her book, Yurugu, is foundational. It’s the book that actually explains a lot of stuff that people have problems explaining in British society about the root of the problem. I don’t want to go into it in any more detail because it’s incredibly complicated, but, yeah, Marimba Ani. I read a lot of Amos Wilson, Chancellor Williams, and bits of Stuart Hall. Who else am I reading? Then stuff about traditional African ontology. So, recently I’ve been reading a book on the San people and their beliefs and the way that they structure their world view. Yeah, I read all the time, but these are the books that are sticking out to me, that are in my head right now.
Ashish: Who have been your guides musically?
Shabaka: Musically, all the greats who you would probably think are great. So, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, in terms of jazz - the music that we call as jazz - on that level. But then people like Don Byron, for instance, an American clarinet player, he’s very, very eclectic. He’s one of the first people that actually first showed me the clarinet can be used in a way that is outside of what I’d been shown before, in a real eclectic way.
And in terms of music, a lot of the influence is asymmetrical. So, it might be that I listen to a Bjork record, so for instance, Vespertine, and I understand something about the power of sensitivity. And I know that, for instance, in making that record, one of the things that she was trying to do was to capture very small sounds, for instance, the sound of a flower blossoming and she used that as a metaphor, and then boost it up to be a real big sound so it has a real distorted image, that kind of relational values. And I really like that, not necessarily in terms of the idea of it but in terms of the feeling of the record. It’s a real feeling of an exaggerated or a kind of grand intimacy, a real expansive intimacy. So, for instance, that has influenced me as much as any specific jazz, in terms of trying to actually get a real expansive, emotional palette in my music.
People like Jimi Hendrix, Fela Kuti, just so much music. I don’t know, probably years ago, I would have been able to give more clear-cut answers to who my main influences are but just as the years go by, what I find is that you can be influenced by anything. Even some music that you don’t like, you can actually get clear ideas of how you want to go forward by listening to music that you think isn’t necessarily the greatest music and then that might actually influence you more than music that you think is amazing.
Ashish: So, the other thing I wanted to ask you about is the latest Sons of Kemet album, Black to the Future. I’m kind of interested practically. I understand that you recorded it in December 2019. So, I was curious to know what happened, what was lockdown like for you, were you working on the album or was it shelved until things eased up a bit?
Shabaka: No, I was just working on it all the way through lockdown. Actually, lockdown was great in that sense, in that we recorded it starting in May 2019 and did another session in September, and normally what would have happened is I would have been on tour and just given the recordings to the producer, Dilip Harris, and I would have given him feedback while on the road, and he would have gotten down to editing it and stuff.  But because I had so much time, it meant that actually I could listen and listen to what we had recorded.
How we did the recordings was we only did one or two takes for any given track but we recorded it for a really long time. So, any given track, even if it’s a three-to-five-minute track, we might have recorded it for 20 to 30 minutes, just keep doing it around and around, keep playing the melodies, keep doing the solo. And the reason we did that was to get to that point where it alleviates that individual tension, because there is always a tension when the red light goes on, and it’s like, okay now is the time to get that historical document. Whereas if you know that when the reels are rolling, that’s not it, that’s not the point that matters, you’re going to be playing it again and again and again and, at some point in the future, someone else is going to take it and find the good bits. But it meant that actually during lockdown, I was able to listen and listen to all the stuff we’ve got and kind of carve a narrative from all the information that we had recorded into an album. So, yeah, that was really what the lockdown was for me, it was really forming the album together.
Ashish: When you talk about a narrative, are you talking about the discursive narrative that runs through it, or are you talking about music as well?
Shabaka: The musical narrative, firstly, but for me, it all becomes the same thing, it all melds into the same pot, the musical narrative is the discursive narrative.
Ashish: What was the thing that emerged from this process of really being able to listen more deeply and more intensely through 2020?
Shabaka: Well, what has emerged was just a clear idea of what it should be, what that kind of arc was, and the arc in terms of the arc from the beginning to the end of the album, and the arc within each individual piece. Because if you’d heard what the tunes were before that process started, it was very unformed, it was a bunch of musical information that then gets whittled and whittled down into a specific more coherent form.
Ashish: This thing of creating the future through music, it sounds like that was already there as a kind of objective. Did that emerge through that process?
Shabaka: What do you mean by creating the future through music?
Ashish: So, it’s a future orientated album, right, and we started off at the beginning talking about the kind of refrain in Sons of Kemet about not taking the country back but taking it forward. It seems to me that that futurism pervades what you do, is that right?
Shabaka: Yeah, I mean because you have to think that the one thing that we are certain of is that we are going into the future. That’s a given of our life as human beings, we go forward. We go forward into the future, but then what that means, past that acknowledgement, is then where different cultural values, or different cultural ways of seeing cosmologies comes into play. Because if you think the future is something that’s linear, that is just a kind of disconnect from the past, you start from an unevolved state and you just go forward into a distant future that’s unknown, then that’s one specific way of looking at it.
If you’re looking at it in a cyclical way, where you go forward into a future that’s inexplicably linked to the past and actually repeats the past but in different manifestations and forms, then that’s another, I guess African form of seeing a relation to the future. And actually, the album, as a whole, is trying to actually suggest that we need to understand these African ways of considering the future and considering a cyclical relationship to it.
Ashish: Amazing. Shabaka, I’ve just really, really enjoyed talking to you. Thanks so much for your time.
Shabaka: It was a pleasure.
Ashish: I hope it’s a conversation to be continued.
Shabaka: Oh yeah, definitely.