Shabaka Hutchings

The Wisdom of Elders: A Classic Episode from 2017

Air Date: November 4, 2017

British-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings talks about how ancestors shape him as a musician and person.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When Cecile McLorin Salvant appeared right here with me, I promised you another gem from the Saratoga Jazz Festival when he and his bandmates could set sail from Johannesburg and London. So our guest today is BBC New Generation Artist, saxophone impresario, Shabaka Hutchings, creator and leader of the fiercely mystical British South African band, Shabaka and the Ancestors. Our timing today is just right. Days ago, Shabaka was profiled in the New York Times, as an ambassador of London’s revitalized jazz scene, reviewed at the Afro-Punk festival, presented by Jazz Refresh, “Shabaka Hutchings is melding a new generation of jazz,” the Times wrote, “Hutchings is probably the only musician of his generation receiving serious acclaim outside Britain,” adding that his performance of the latest album, Wisdom of Elders, was infectious. It is a delight to have you here.


HEFFNER: To come from South Africa to London, Afro-punk, you were just in Toronto…


HEFFNER: You’ve been on a whirlwind of a tour, and I was so humbled to see you and your Ancestors perform.

HUTCHINGS: Oh, thank you for having me. It feels, yeah, great to be here.

HEFFNER: Who are The Elders?

HUTCHINGS: The Elders are old, uh, musicians, older, the people, the figures who have contributed to what we are. I say we as, as a musician firstly, but we as, as people. So, I see myself, if I can speak as objectively for now, as the culmination of lots of pieces of information, lots of different traditions, ways of doing things that have been passed down to me, some more overt and less overt ways, and I think it’s, it’s helpful if you recognize that your actions don’t start from you. Everything you do, everything that, every way that you perceive things in this world stems from what has come before. And I guess the only way to go forward is to pay homage to what that might be, whether it be good or bad or perceived as good or bad at that moment in time. So, those are the others.

HEFFNER: We cannot be wise ourselves…


HEFFNER: Only through the grace of history.

HUTCHINGS: Yeah, that’s exactly it.

HEFFNER: You have a particularly interesting lineage and ethnic origin, born in England…


HEFFNER: In London, came of age in Barbados…


HEFFNER: Uh, moved there when you were six.
HUTCHINGS: Six, yeah.

HEFFNER: How did those, that mixture influence the saxophonist we know today?

HUTCHINGS: Well, my mother is a teacher. She taught English. And the reason we went to Barbados is because at that age we could see that the roots of institutional racism had started to set in in terms of the teachers thinking was problematic, thinking that the, the few black children in the school were forming what they called a gang, just by wanting to be together. They saw that as threatening, and just from the, the series of things that she saw were in her own, school context in the Caribbean it’s a different, it’s a different thing, you know, especially in Barbados, the education system is pretty stringent, you know, it’s in the old colonial way, which has its, you know, it’s a different argument, it’s a different conversation, whether you want to like, appraise the merits of a colonial system of education. But one thing that it does have is a kind of uniform way of trying to pick out the, the best and the brightest, so that they can then send them to America or, or Europe.

So, we both went to Barbados, and I received an education there, between six and sixteen, and I was able to come back to England, looking at my English contemporaries, especially at that age, around sixteen to eighteen, I think that what Barbados did, was give me a sense of purpose, a sense that, there’s nothing that can hold me back, that all I need to do is, in some ways it’s an entitlement that says that if you put in work, you will get results, whereas I see with a lot of young people in, in Britain, a sense that, if you put in lots of work, you might not a result,


HUTCHINGS: Because of your socio-economic background, you might work as hard as you want, but there might be invisible forces, societally, that might hold you back. For me, the Caribbean, what I could see, is that, you can put in lots of work and you, you will go, your attitude will be like this, I will go far if I, if I, you know, do the groundwork.

HEFFNER: When did you first pick up the sax?

HUTCHINGS: I started on a clarinet actually so, I started, nine years old. And it was just a case of, someone came into my class and says, do you want to play? And I said, yeah, I’ll have a go, and I just never put it down. I started, the saxophone in particular at sixteen, around about the time that I came to, no, just before I came to England, actually. Yeah, and it’s, I am an only child and my mum’s an only child as well, so I think there is a, a tendency towards solitude, but I really enjoyed being able to sit in a room and just play my clarinet, you know, or be able to practice on one thing, and not have to worry about communicating, or interacting with anyone ese, you know, until obviously we’re playing music with other people.

HEFFNER: Did you find, as you practiced and as you play now, that you can communicate with the ancestors or the elders through the saxophone?

HUTCHINGS: Um, when I was beginning, no. And even now, I feel like…

HEFFNER: Is that too ritualistic?

HUTCHINGS: Yeah, I, I get into a zone when I play now, where information that have taken on, manifests itself in a way that I’m not, I’m not like, in control of directly, and I see that as being informed by forces that have come, that have come before you. So I can’t say, you know, when I am playing or practicing, the ancestors guide me, but I’m trying to get into position where my logical brain isn’t guiding me, where something else is actually piecing together the information that I’ve been gathering and assimilating throughout the years.

HEFFNER: It’s enormously moving,


HEFFNER: Both the music and the band, uh, when you think of the wisdom, you talked about the ancestors and the elders, from where do you and your bandmates derive the, the wisdom?

HUTCHINGS: Well, with everything that we read and we hear, You know in South Africa, they are getting it directly from their elder musicians, from the traditions of their culture, that has been passed, that has been passed very directly down to them. For me, you know, I am from the Caribbean, where I guess lineage stops, you know, a certain amount of generations back. So there’s only so far you can travel back with a knowledge of where you come from before, doing specific research. So, for me, actually my interaction with those musicians is an interaction with the heritage and the tradition that they are privy to. And it’s stuff like reading people like Credo Mutwa who is a, a Zulu historian, uh, a Sangoma who passes down knowledge. Um, yeah, and for me it’s, it’s all a matter of whatever you take in, whatever you decided to, to immerse yourself in, in terms of history, in terms of information that you can get. That becomes the thing that inspires you onstage.

HEFFNER: The hope is that the wisdom in your music…


HEFFNER: Is not short-lived or fleeting at the time of the concert, but can be protracted,


HEFFNER: As a living history, a continuous history, and a political statement.


HEFFNER: Do you, have you and your bandmates a shared political objective in your music?

HUTCHINGS: Yeah. I mean for me, it’s about creating a space, a space that, where people can actually access information, and appraise the information that they have gathered. One of the, I guess the facets of living, that you need to not go crazy, is that you can’t process everything, all the stimuli that you get from the day to day life, immediately. You might read the news, you might hear about what your leaders are doing. You might see, for instance, the way that our society is patriarchal, or the way that certain, um, aspects of history manifest in the here and now. If you process all of that information at once, then it can be overwhelming. And for me, the music is a vehicle for us, the creating a space, a neutral space for people to be able to, without, to articulate the, the sentiments that all this information, like, creates in them, and it’s not about saying, you’ll be in a space where you can think about, you know, certain issues directly. For me it’s about going beyond the linguistic, or the semantic rendering of that information, getting into pure abstract feeling.

And, I’m a big fan of feeling. I don’t see it as, you’ve got tangible ideas and you’ve got feeling, which is a fuzzy thing. For me, the intuition and the feeling, in regards to um, certain information that you have received, it’s important. And yeah. That’s what I want the listeners to go away with. I want them to, to come into the concert, enter a space where the assumed way is that they, they live or they see things, they mold away in a, a inner space that is sacred.

HEFFNER: Is the idea of what seems particularly sacred,


HEFFNER: That you can achieve through the feeling,


HEFFNER: What you cannot, through the linguistic, but then you can ultimately return…


HEFFNER: To the linguistic,

HUTCHINGS: That’s how I feel.

HEFFNER: With the feeling?

HUTCHINGS: Yeah. It’s a way of directing your thoughts into a different, you know, I guess where, where you go through a certain trajectory, you think in a certain way, without the, you know, this, it can’t be assumed that you’re going to look at reality in a drastically different way. And for me, that’s what we need in society. We need people to be considering, elements of their existence in ways that are unfamiliar to them, maybe getting inspiration from other people. And music is a way of starting that process of trying to assess your reality in maybe a drastically different way.

HEFFNER: What are the political circumstances in Barbados and South Africa right now? I know that, musically, there’s been a robust jazz scene…


HEFFNER: In South Africa that has emerged within the last decade. And there’s a rich history of musical innovation in both countries and territories, but how do the, the relatively recent political histories in those countries shape the music today?

HUTCHINGS: Well, one of the big issues that is happening in South Africa a the moment is the, the, Fees Must Fall movement. And the, one of the key words is de-colonizing, uh, education, de-colonizing the way we, we see our right to education, or what education should be. The Fees Must Fall is saying, if you create a situation where, only people from a certain socio-economic background can have access to education, because the fees are so high, then you’re cutting off a section of society from actually advancing. But then once you’re in the institution, if the institutions have been formed within a period of, of naked white supremacy, we need to actually asses what they, like, how they are going about giving the information. Is the information being given in a way that suits the de-colonial project?

Uh, and I think that ties itself into music in that it, you know, it’s all a matter of receiving information and how you, how you then interpret, interpret that information. So, we listen to an American, we listen to the America traditional of jazz. And we appreciate that jazz comes from America and it has its structures, it has its functions, but we don’t want to just assimilate the music, um, naively. We want to take that information and actually look at it with the lens of our particular, our particular circumstances, and then we want to say, OK, this is the use of this information, this is what we want to use it, this is what we want to use this music, the music that we’ve gotten, gotten to as a result of assimilating the jazz tradition, we want to have this effect on our listeners, our audiences. And in some ways, that’s decolonizing the way that we see our relation to music, because it’s not just a matter of, here is a music, we will follow it, we will try to play, you know, jazz in the way it’s been presented by Americans, we’re saying it’s, it’s a fluid, it’s a fluid entity, that the traditions aren’t, aren’t kind of locked off. They’re not in, in enclaves.

HEFFNER: When you combine the experience of Europe…

HUTCHINGS: Barbados,

HEFFNER: The Caribbean,


HEFFNER: The Americas, too, and Africa, what kind of political harmony do you, do you enjoy?

HUTCHINGS: Wow, that’s a, that’s a big question. [LAUGHTER] I think the main thing is that we’re dealing with the diaspora. That’s the, the kind of the base level is, is that you’re dealing with a situation where, you know, as a, as a diasporic person, my culture has come from Africa to the Caribbean, and then from the Caribbean to Britain. And this is a thing that I have actually, you know, thought about, and I do think about in relation to playing, what it means to not be from one place in particular. You know, and for me it’s a matter of perspective. I can, I don’t see myself as locked into any one tradition. Paul Gilroy, who’s a sociologist in Britain talks about the black Atlantic as being synonymous with double consciousness, the fact that you can see yourself as being both British and, and from the Caribbean and what, what does that means? What does that mean to your way of evaluating who you are, and what you’re doing?

It means that, I guess, as a musician, I see my role as looking at the Caribbean, seeing it as my, this is my starting point, but I’m free to then mold that with, with the inspiration and the, the feeling of London, the, the, I guess the, the hecticness, the, the relentlessness of the, of just the, the atmosphere, the,

HEFFNER: What is the, the feeling of contemporary London?

HUTCHINGS: Exactly. It’s about, you know, people are, people are just going. You know, it’s a, it’s a tough place to live, um,

HEFFNER: But relative to New York, how do you see the chaos?

HUTCHINGS: Hmm. That’s a, that’s a tough one. It’s very similar in terms of the pace of life, but for me, oh, I’ve never actually articulated this, this, oh, I don’t know. I feel like everything in New York is hyper, like the people are, the people are hyped. The people are like, they have this energy about them that, in some way, it rides the energy of the city. Everything is, you know, everything is times ten, whereas in London, it feels like the city itself just pushes you to go fast, everyone individually.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting you mention that, in terms of the energetic nature of those cities. In this review, this profile of your musical debut on the American scene…


HEFFNER: The New York Times writes that you “convey seriousness and passion, creating lift without forfeiting control. The mutability of your sound,” praising the mutability of your sound, “the many angles of your attack, and the rhythmic,” I love this, “the rhythmic ebullience.”


HEFFNER: That’s your playbook.


HEFFNER: But I think of the rhythmic ebullience as something to, admire,


HEFFNER: And in your concert performance, I really identified with this author’s idea of rhythmic ebullience,

HUTCHINGS: Wow, yeah.

HEFFNER: What does that mean to you?

HUTCHINGS: I guess it means, I, almost gotta admit, I don’t know what the word ebullience means.

HEFFNER: Energy.

HUTCHINGS: Energy. OK. Um, one of the things that I have been trying to do on the saxophone for a long time, is try to find a way to become invisible within a band, within a band context. Um, it’s one of the things that, you know, when I talk about decolonizing the way that you see music, and separating yourself from the, the direct tradition say of jazz, as you,

HUTCHINGS: As it has been perceived in, in America, I, I get the whole, you know, I am a soloist, I am at the front, this is my show. But I’ve always wanted to find a way to actually disappear within the band, so there’s one entity moving forward rhythmically. And for me, the key is the rhythm. You know, the key is rhythmically creating one organism that moves rhythmically, with maybe the harmony adding spice, adding color and variety to that, but, for me, the rhythmic entities, the rhythm is a fact of our, our motion.

HEFFNER: Yeah. It, it makes me think about something that my dad implored me to do when we went to a baseball game,


HEFFNER: And apply it to a concert, which is, find the one actor, the one player, in your case, football maybe, soccer…


HEFFNER: Or in a concert, just direct your attention purely on one individual.


HEFFNER: And I find that to be, you can’t, you don’t necessarily want to do that for the entirety of the game or the concert, but, when, when you watch artists, do you use that same preciseness or precision in, you know, I, when I was watching you, I, there were periods, I’d just watch you,


HEFFNER: Cause I would want to focus entirely on the sax.

HUTCHINGS: I guess what your dad was getting on is focus. [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: Focus, yeah,


HEFFNER: Right, exactly,

HUTCHINGS: Actually focus,

HEFFNER: Really capture it.

HUTCHINGS: You know, actually direct your attention to one thing, and keep it there.

HEFFNER: What have you found, in the minute we have remaining, about your disparate audiences, Toronto, New York, London, South Africa, when you perform, do you find there to be a different experience?

HUTCHINGS: Hmm, it depends on the, the background of the audience. I’ve found similar experiences between similar age groups, and that’s the one thing that I’ve found constant. Younger people react in more similar ways, than older people…

HEFFNER: How are they reacting?

HUTCHINGS: They’re more able to lose, to let themselves go, if they feel, and that’s not saying that everyone needs to dance all the time, but you just find there’s a looser atmosphere within younger people consistently throughout, wherever I go. With older people, I find that there are certain traits of the concert scenario that will be character, you know, that is, that, engrained. You come to a concert, you sit down, you receive the music, you give your, your gratitude for it.

HEFFNER: And when you engage in conversation with any of your listeners, what have they said to you?

HUTCHINGS: That it’s been a journey. That’s the most, the most, frequent remark,

HEFFNER: A journey,

HUTCHINGS: Yeah, we’ve taken them somewhere. They don’t know where that journey has taken them. They maybe have to process that. But then think that it, it has moved them to something. You know, they’re not in the same, maybe they are in the same physical space at the end of the concert, but mentally, it seems like they have, they’ve gone somewhere. And that’s, I guess, what I mean when, we want to take them into a space, that is unfamiliar, how they navigate that space from there, you let them go, you know, that’s, that’s up to you. I know that my job is to take them somewhere. It’s not that I just present music and they listen o it and go somewhere. It’s, it’s a, without them, I can’t do what I’m doing.

HEFFNER: But you are a wise elder.

HUTCHINGS: No, [LAUGHTER] I’m not a wise elder. [LAUGHTER] no, no, no. I, I think I’m just aware of, of simple things.


HUTCHINGS: For me, it’s, it’s an obvious thing. It’s not just you playing an instrument and an audience, you know, doing whatever they do in the, in the seats. For me it’s like, it’s, it’s an interchange. We’re both in the same place. We both want the same thing, you know, and without the audience, without that essential part of the, the puzzle, I wouldn’t be able to do, you know, I don’t play the same way if I’m rehearsing, you know, or practicing.

HEFFNER: When you have interacted with listeners on the BBC…


HEFFNER: Where you have a special relationship,


HEFFNER: Which has allowed you to commission various musical projects over these last years, um, what strikes you most about the, the native Londoners’ reactions to your music? Do they feel camaraderie with you that is different from…

HUTCHINGS: Um, yeah,

HEFFNER: The foreign experience?

HUTCHINGS: I’ve been doing my thing in London for a while now. So I think, you know, London is my home in that, there are certain people who have been listening to me for, you know, the 13 years I’ve been in London, or the, you know, for a long time, so I feel comfortable, um, presenting new works, or presenting new ways of me actually discovering new things within what, what I think I’m capable of. And I feel London can take it, that they’ve been on the journey with me, or there’s a core fan base there. And I really appreciate that. It makes you just feel really relaxed. I can write a string quartet and play it, um, in a club, just because, hey, people will come out and go, yeah, I see what you’re doing. Great.

HEFFNER: And finally, Shabaka, the ancestry that you want to impart to this next generation, you, you describe it in some depth over the course of our conversation, but if you were to describe that ancestry, the hope that the next generation…


HEFFNER: Will enjoy the same connection to their, their heritage, what do you most want to inspire?

HUTCHINGS: I think it’s the fact that tradition is a dynamic entity. You know, but for it to be dynamic, it has to be learnt. You know, uh, and it has to be learnt from a position of humility. You know, you have to go this is the past. I’m not, you know, I’m not appraising the past with a, with an outcome, you know, cause then you’ll be putting your modern day perspective on the past and, you know, it will get all twisted up. You know need to just go, OK, I’m gonna try a, you know, try as hard as you can to try to imagine that your appraisal of the past is objective, even though it can’t really be. And from that, you go forward. From that you can envision what you want the future to be. And that future can be anything. I think, we don’t want to be stuck in, in a place where we think the future’s already bound up because we can’t see any way of going forward. There are many, many different directions, as long as you have a grasp of what, of what you imagine the past to be, you know.

HEFFNER: Beautifully said. I urge the folks out there to download or buy Shabaka and the Ancestors, and to learn your wisdom. Thank you Shabaka.

HUTCHINGS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of idea. Until then, keep an open mind. 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 programing.