Shabaka Hutchings

Black to the Future

Air Date: June 21, 2021

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings discusses his newest visionary album, racial justice, and the cosmos of music.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome back to the program one of my all-time favorite guests, saxophonist extraordinaire, Shabaka Hutchings. Thank you so much for joining me today.


HUTCHINGS: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: It’s great to see you again. We did the podcast and then we were in the studio a few years ago. You’ve delivered some of the most impeccably timed albums in recent musical history. And of course, the music is gorgeous. It’s astoundingly good quality. “Black to the Future” is your latest. “We Were Sent Here by History” was the most recent that we discussed a year ago. But I was hoping you could give our viewers a sense of this newest album and its origin “Black to the Future.”


HUTCHINGS: Yeah, “Black to the Future.” Well, the first thing to say is that we started the recording before the pandemic. We started it in 2019. But the way that we…


HEFFNER You said that about “We Were Sent Here by History,” too.


HUTCHINGS: Yeah. And yeah, we started the process and normally what would have happened, well, if not for the pandemic, is that I would have gone onto the road with the Ancestors, touring that album “We Are Sent Here from History” and then a mobile production of “They Came Here” album because the year was going to be really hectic for me. Because of the lockdown, I was able to actually spend a lot of time, really conceptualizing the arc of the album and how the actual structure should be, on the internal tracks themselves, but also on the album as a whole. In terms of the theme of the album “Black to the Future,” what it’s trying to do is just really assess the need to check out African cosmologies and ontologies, you know, all for simpler words, check out worldviews that are different from our Western, you know, mind states.


HEFFNER: How are they different?


HUTCHINGS: Uh, one of the core differences is the conception of the circle as opposed to the line. So the linear thought process suggests that, you know, in one sense, we’re going forward in terms of progressing. We are progressing from a state of devolution, or uncivilized-ness to a point of perfection. That’s the general mind-state of the Western, you know, that kind of fall in terms of where we’re going now, the African mind-state if you’re talking about general cosmologies, they suggest the circle. They suggest that we’re not necessarily going forward towards progress, but we are on a cyclical journey throughout the cosmos. We’re not so much developing to a state of perfection as re-evaluating ourselves. And re-imagine, you know, reliving lessons that we’ve not maybe in the past and learning as we do.


HEFFNER: How would you say since we last spoke, Shabaka, things have changed in the UK, in terms of just the, what you’re describing: the re-evaluation of our society. And it feels like when we did speak a year or so ago, there was the formation of a new consciousness and maybe part of that consciousness was the circular consciousness, a kind of hybrid, not a purely Western philosophy, but how would you evaluate it a year now into this movement that is committing to at least in principle, a kind of ethics, racial equality and understanding that had not been apparent ever, or at least for some time?


HUTCHINGS: Yeah, it’s a difficult one because it’s like, you can talk about things in the macro, you can talk about things in terms of, you know, has society progressed as a collective unit, but then it really does come down to the individual. You know, it comes down to have you evolved as an individual, has your immediate social group, your family unit evolved, and then it spreads out from there. So to be honest, I can’t tell you if the UK has evolved. One, because I’ve just not seen enough people for the last year to be able to say I’ve got a sense of the society in general. And two, because I’ve really detached myself from social media especially over the last year, but for the last couple of years it’s been shrinking and shrinking, and that doesn’t mean I don’t post, but I try to really limit the amount I take in from other people. So, I’ve got a kind of strange relationship to what’s happening in terms of societal trends. And that means that I just have to be a bit more apprehensive and a bit more perceptive when I’m just in the public, because that gives me a sense of what’s happening, what the zeitgeist is, you know, like me walking down the street, me going into central London trying to see what is the mood, what’s the atmosphere.


HEFFNER: Has that been a healthier approach? Has that inspired a source of renewal? Because I know the plight of the artist during the pandemic is that you, you couldn’t do your bread and butter. You couldn’t resonate with an audience in person. Many artists who’ve been on The Open Mind since the pandemic started have experimented with the virtual audience. But where is your mindset now, as it relates to what you just described, how the pandemic impacted the way you go about your daily life and the music that you create and perform?


HUTCHINGS: I mean, well, if we look at it from, you know, like what I said before, the cyclical mind-state approach, then if you have a situation where things have to pass and die away for new things to be born, that’s the cyclical cycle. Things are born, they blossom into fruition, and then they pass away to make way for, for other new lives. So for me, this pandemic time is a time of, a form of our artistry dying, a form of the way that we consider our relationship to the for the audience clearing away. But the challenge is for us to actually find new ways of us relating to the audience or even to our art forms. For me, that’s been the excursions into the technical realm because before the pandemic, I was really a musician, musician, in that I played my instrument and I composed with pencil and paper or the most basic computer program that, you know, you would write music on.


I really had not a lot of knowledge in terms of the technological developments that many musicians have been using to, you know, produce and stuff. So this has been really a period of me trying to birth a new version of my musical self, a version that can actually do a lot more of the procedures that I outsourced to other people in the past, which I think ultimately will make my connection with the audience stronger, because I’ll be given a greater sense of my personal artistry, but it does take a period of having the old gigging constantly version of Shabaka, to just get out of the picture, a way to make space the new, you know, improved technological form. I’m putting an optimistic slant on it because if you don’t see optimistically, it’s really just the worst period, ever.


HEFFNER: Well, I’m glad you do. And, and optimistically spoken, have you had a chance now to get back out into, you know, the pubs as it were, or at least you know, some smaller performing audiences and do you anticipate touring to resume in the near future the next six months, or year?


HUTCHINGS: Yeah, I mean we’ve got some small tours coming up from the end of June. Not like any, anything near what we were doing in 2019, but we do have like limited gigs and especially, you know, from July, the gigs are just kind of trickling in, but at the moment there’s a lot of just impromptu plays with musicians, you know, because the gigs are opening back up, to socially distanced audiences. So it means that I’m just going to stop in by gigs where my friends are playing and say, can I come up? Or just asking some of my friends who I know have venues in the city, you know, do you mind if I get two or three people to just jam in the corner? And for me it’s really, it’s amazing because the way that stuff was going before the lockdown, I wasn’t playing in small venues which is great cause I was playing for lots of people, but there is something really special about the intimacy of performing to small audiences where, you know, their face is near to your saxophone bell.


And, you know, you’ve got to really negotiate acoustic sound as opposed to everything being amplified. And I’m enjoying that, you know, resurgence of that spirit of, you know, musicians are around, they don’t have a lot of gigs, so they’re just finding ways of creating music.


HEFFNER: Right. And that kind of local energy is dynamic and can speak to the core of humanity, can speak to, you know, how we’re living with our neighbors. When you think of the macro questions, that’s when you kind of contemplate big tours. But Shabaka, you have a group Shabaka and the Ancestors that is, that is quite cosmopolitan around the world, you know, representing multiple countries. And I wonder, you know, speaking for your group and also speaking for your heritage and growing up in Barbados and now living in the UK, what is your global panorama in terms of the pandemic and how some of your band mates have coped and lived with it? I know you’ve had a band member from South Africa you know, over the years, I’m sure, you’ve had band members from all around the world, but I’m quite confident you have a very perceptive idea of how the pandemic has been experienced in a lot of different countries and worlds.


HUTCHINGS: Yeah. It’s been tough, you know, like the other members of the Shabaka and Ancestors the ones, who’s from Argentina or from South Africa, from Johannesburg. And especially for them, it’s been real tough period that’s forced them to actually come together as an artistic community, you know, and just with their, you know, respective family units to try to find ways to just get by and, you know, yeah, it’s tough. There’s no other way of putting it. It’s a difficult situation and it just, it takes creativity. It takes creative approaches to finding the solution to what we’ve come up with in the last year or so.


HEFFNER: I imagine at least part of you, if not all of you, is clamoring, you know, for folks to be vaccinated. Do you see that as really the necessary step in order for you, you’ve done a lot of global tours so in order for global tours to really resume, countries have to pick up the pace when it comes to vaccination. Do that you see that kind of directly connected with your livelihood, the pace of the vaccinations?


HUTCHINGS: I guess so, because, I mean, if they say that everyone’s got to be vaccinated for touring to resume, when, if everyone’s not vaccinated it is going to just take a lot more time for that process to happen. I’m not really completely up on the science on it, but what I do just know is that, you know, as far as the science says at the moment, the more people that are vaccinated, the less the virus will spread. And if the virus spreading is what’s going to cause everything to shut down, then we just need to be able to get to the point where that’s not happening.


HEFFNER: And I know that even prior to the pandemic, because your group represents a lot of countries and immigration statuses and the process for assembling the Ancestors is quite an undertaking, separate from the pandemic, right?


HUTCHINGS: Yeah, exactly.


HEFFNER: I mean,


HUTCHINGS: The visa situation is hectic, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like going forward because, you know, I guess everyone will need a COVID passport. That’s what they’re talking about now.


HEFFNER: Yeah. What’s when you reminisce about jazz festivals in which you’ve participated, I mean, I so viscerally remember being on the lawn in Saratoga and seeing you and being awakened, if you will, or, you know, the cosmos was entering me through your performance, which was just magical. I would imagine in addition to becoming more technically sophisticated in the way that you described, in incorporating the technology into your music, that you’ve had some reflections on particular venues where you’ve played in the pre COVID times. Did, did you have any insight into, you know, that story for you and kind of the performances over the course of your career that had been most poignant either in the UK or the States or anywhere around the world?


HUTCHINGS: Yeah, I mean, going to Japan for the first time, which we did in the end of 2019 was a real big one for me, just because it’s one of those places that I’ve known as being really into jazz in a major way for so long and all the jazz greats have gone there. And, you know, finally we got to play Fuji Rock Festival, which was a, you know, amazing. The audience was very, very perceptive in a way that was more internal than I’m used to. But very intense. So you can tell that everyone’s very, very concentrated on what we were doing, and they show that at the end, you know, as opposed to during. In terms of the States I see the touring that we’ve done on the States as one block. I can’t separate it into small units.


And for me, it’s, what I find interesting is the journey we’ve taken as a, in terms of the level of band that we are throughout the time in the States. So we really started touring in the States when we weren’t particularly well known. We were known within certain circles, but we had to do those clubs where it was tough. And, you know, we had to, we weren’t treated necessarily like great, but we just had to work our way up. And it feels like the last time we, for instance, we were in the States and the last few times we’ve been there, we can really see the progression in terms of the infrastructure that opens up the way that you’re treated. And then actually, how the audience treats you when you’re presented within that infrastructure of kind of higher tier bands.


HEFFNER: What is the bridge from, “We Are Sent Here by History to “Black to the Future?” Because they’re both topical and the way you conceive them, I’m just wondering kind of what the musical lineage or philosophical lineage and when you extrapolate from the music itself to the experience of society, you say you’re a little bit more in the background now than you were previously, but what was like that kind of integral bridge from last year’s album to this newest album?


HUTCHINGS: I think the real bridge is the fact that we’ve described both albums as sonic poems and the words that accompany each album are really pivotal to understanding what the album is. So with “We Are Sent Here from History,” every track title is a part of a poem that, you know, you can see if you look at the back of the album. So when you read the poem and that the whole reason of calling it a sonic poem, is that the music and the words are a part of the same thing. You listen to the music, you read the words and greater meaning opens up intuitively in your mind. It’s the same thing with black to the future where each of the track titles combines to make one poetic statement. So the aim is that, well the hope is that you listen to the album, and you maybe just have the consideration of what the track title is and then falls to do with it, to inform your intuitive understanding and not try. It’s not a sonic novel. We’re not trying to give you all the pieces of the puzzle. We’re not trying to say this is specifically what you should think. We’re trying to open up poetic gestures so that your, you know, the audience’s mind considers certain statements and then goes with it from there. So that was the biggest link, I think.


HEFFNER: The eleventh track, the final track of “We Were Sent Here by History” had to do with vulnerability, teach me now to be vulnerable. And that is sort of the, the closing line. And when we think of the bridge, what is the opening sonnet, if you will, of “Black to the Future?”


HUTCHINGS: Mm, well, the opening song, the opening song is “Field Negus” Negus is the Ethiopian word for king, and when we preface with field it’s when you normally associate field, anything like fieldhand or those that work in the field, you you’re thinking about the proletariat, those who are working on the ground, on the frontline to produce the stuff that society runs on. So we’re looking at actually, what are the aspects of kingship? And by king, I don’t mean the hereditary king. I just mean the values of kingship. If you’re thinking that the title of king originally must’ve come from a set of principles that characterize the leader. So if you’re thinking the leader within the realm of the workers, the common, the regular people, the masters, what are the values that we hold as high as high principles.


And when you think in teaching me to be vulnerable, the whole idea of the “We Are Sent Here by History” album is that it flows from a point at the beginning where there’s a destruction where they, who must die as the first track. So you get the destruction and then you get a rebirth. And with that rebirth throughout the outflow of the album comes an appraisal of manhood. So you’ve got a track called “Finding the man Christ.” And it’s the idea that you get that destruction and within the destruction, there’s a reappraisal, a reevaluation of where we’re at as a society or individuals. And that reevaluation was really a reevaluation of masculinity and the patriarchal systems that have guided us to the destruction. And one of the things that, you know, we were trying to kind of hint at, with “Teach Me How to be Vulnerable” is that the defeat of patriarchy comes with the acceptance of the vulnerability of men, you know, and what happens when you actually open that up and you deal with those kinds of real deep-rooted vulnerabilities. And then I guess if you link that to the next album, then once you’ve accepted and, and come over those vulnerabilities, when you actually get the characteristics of a king of sorts, the Negus.


HEFFNER: And to the extent that that you can entice our listeners to hear you out now and then to retrieve the album and download it well, buy the CD. Where is the narrative? Where does the narrative evolve in the, in the discussion of kinship?


HUTCHINGS: It just begins with “Field Negus” and then it actually, the next track is to “Pick Up Your Burning Cross.” So it’s actually looking at, you know, pick up those elements of oppression, that have held you down, you know, think of home, consider the past, hustle, which is that kind of call to really make the best of your immediate surroundings for the culture, so that you never forget the actual cultural underpinning that you’re trying to maintain within the struggle, in remembrance of those fallen. And so that you’re always looking back in a circular motion to those who have actually not made it as far as one has the struggle that you’re in. And then the titles go on and so on.


HEFFNER: And that’s amazing. And of course you can understand the words and you can listen to your sax and the band. I urge all of our viewers to find “Black to the Future” and download it. You said that you’re a little bit more removed than you had been when it comes to observing the cultural landscape, but this was described last year as a moment of reckoning for the achievement or the prospect of actually achieving civil society, where there was the illusion of civil society, but then the reality of rights that had not been achieved and the reality of a perpetual marginalization and abuse of people and that the kind of racial injustice that was apparent through the whole history of the United States was still alive and well, even though slavery in its original form did not exist, or does not exist today, but economic enslavement and disempowerment, you know, in the form of marginalized communities and police brutality are very much still real, in the United States. And I would ask you if that, if you find that to be the case in the UK as well?


HUTCHINGS: Yeah, well, you know, obviously the UK has a very different history than the United States, and a lot of the oppressive forces are less overt, but I think that the underlying issue that you’re dealing with or that we are dealing with is an issue of multidimensionalism. And I don’t mean that in a spatial, you know, a kind of cosmic space way. I mean, not in that the dimension of racial inequality is a dimension that is separate to the dimension of civil society, as in the society is a form, both the UK and the U S in a way that you can live within the dimension of civil society and not see the racial injustice, you know, I guess with the advent of the mobile phone, you know, there’s a lot more, that’s being done to actually open people up to the dimension of racial inequality that people have been talking about, but not necessarily have been believed for so long, but it’s, you know. What I say multidimensionalism is that recently, I guess from the point of the George Floyd murder, it opened up a dimension that a lot of people had been not necessarily unaware of, but it was hard to, it feels like it was hard for people to actually grasp that dimension of racial inequality cause there’s, there was that rhetoric that we’ve passed that, you know, there’s the idea that it has been dealt with in an earlier generation. We don’t have to deal with that because we’ve just gone past it. And I feel like this, the moment of George Floyd’s murder and similar moments that have happened in the UK, have actually alerted people to the fact that there is a dimension that you possibly can’t see, that you’re not aware of. And that runs in tandem to the civil society as you might call it. And it may be even a part of the structural underpinning of it. These are just the complexities that come with being a human on earth that multiple dimensions exist simultaneously, and it takes certain keys to access them. And that key might be, is normally information. The key is knowledge, the knowledge of what’s happening outside of your immediate surroundings.


HEFFNER: I think you said that beautifully that there was that folklore or that kind of Cinderella story of human experience or utopia that was very far afield from the dimensions that you ascertain to which more people are exposed now. But just as a final question, Shabaka, in thinking of “Black to the Future” the nomenclature of this album, right, I think about the circular way in which we can reevaluate definitions of progress, right, not in the linear fashion, but in kind of the community gathering, right, the space in which we can together reevaluate that question, but reevaluations only go so far, whereas empowerment is something that can endure and you know, to your mind, is there a mechanism in place either in the UK or one that you would espouse that would really, you know, be able to measure the extent to which those, those universes or those dimensions are accessed. And it’s one thing to access those dimensions. And it’s another thing to kind of live by them, right, I mean, to, to practice equality in public policy. And I’m just wondering how you think we should, you know, beyond accessing those dimensions, live in those dimensions.


HUTCHINGS: Hmm. That’s an incredibly tough situation. I mean, question, and I’m afraid I do not have the answer.


HEFFNER: But maybe, maybe you can listen to “Black to the Future” and you will have the answer. I think you’ll have some answers if you listen to the album Shabaka and to your comrades the Ancestors, I want to thank you for your insight and time and wish you all the best and health and with the aspiration to see you in performing in not just the local pubs and local music scene in the UK, but in the States. And we hope to see you back here in the States soon.


HUTCHINGS: Yeah. Thank you.


HEFFNER: Thank you, Shabaka. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.