Shabaka channels The Wisdom of Elders


London based saxophonist and bandleader Mr. Shabaka Hutchings recently launched Wisdom of Elders, the latest project from his outfit, Shabaka and the Ancestors, at The Orbit, in Johannesburg. In this exclusive conversation with MS. ALUWANI RATSHIUNGO, he took us track by track, through the project.

“Normally, when I write songs, I just start to write and then afterwards I can look at the song and see how it makes me feel and actually see what events within my life or what’s happening in society at that period. But it seldom starts from a title downwards. In general I find that if I try to write with a specific title or theme in mind, I kind of give what impression I think that should portray. So if it’s a song about, I don’t know, Black Lives Matter, my brain will start thinking about it in literal terms and I’m not a big fan of that; of literally going: this is what musically I think it symbolises. I’m a fan of that being a part of your life so that whatever you actually produce in that period of really thinking about assimilating all the themes to do with that topic, they’ll naturally come out in whatever you compose in that time.


My last couple of trips to Cape Town, I started going to Luis Moholo’s township, Langa, and just hanging out with him for the whole day and just meeting his friends and going to his house and seeing what life there is like for him. At the end of one of these trips they gave me this name, Mzwandile – the home is expanded. I never thought: I have an African name, now I can disregard my Queen. But I thought the meaning behind the name was pretty fitting considering the journeys I had been taking between England and South Africa in terms of the musical home or otherwise being expanded. So after them naming me that, I was in a writing period and that was one of the melodic fragments that came shortly after that event.

And generally how I compose, I kind of spit out lots of ideas because I like to just get ideas out and not have any filters and then the big work is actually in the construction so I’m less about inspiration. My big ethos is that all ideas are valid so if you let it come out you might think it’s a crap idea because it’s not yet formed but combining crap or unformed ideas with other things will make them into something. For me it’s all about architecture and what you do with the material that you spill out. So Mzwandile is one of the melodic fragments that came out in that period. In the actual session, about half the tune is what I composed and that’s what we started with and after that we just let the journey take us which is the running theme throughout the whole recording session.


I wrote this one about 12 years ago and I never played it in any groups after that. It had never been recorded or played and as soon as I started to put together the music for this, I just knew that this tune had to be on the album.

The Observer

I wrote this song for a Caribbean calypsonian called The Observer. I lived in Barbados between 6 and 16 and when I was 15 I played in a Calypso Tent and that’s basically where you get calypsonians and they perform two songs and judges would pick the top ten like a sort of pageant but it’s not really a pageant show. The observer was a really famous calypsonian back in the day and he took a hiatus for some reason. But when I was doing the Calypso Tent just before I left Barbados, he decided to come back and this one song that he sung – I can liteally remember the melody line now – stuck with me forever. It’s not the melody line in that song, but it’s the feeling that I got – like melancholy.

The Sea

The Sea is an interesting one. A lot of the inside parts of it have got this thing with the alto sax and the tenor sax playing lines that kind of cascade off each other and I wrote that listening to lots of Amadinda music from Uganda. It doesn’t sound like Amadinda music at all but that’s the idea I was going for. I was listening to a lot of it and reading a lot of instructional books about how the music is supposed to be structured and then kind of like jamming along on the piano trying to do bad interpretations of it. The inside part of The Sea was what came out of that.

The outer part of it – the introduction and the outro – kind of contrasted that. The inner part is my take on what I call African counterpoint, as in music derived from the Amadinda, and the outer part of the tune is my take on the European counterpoint.

It’s called The Sea because that’s the kind of feeling I get when I listen to Amadinda music. It sounds like it’s got this one continuos flow to it and there’s no central point that you can anchor yourself off. You just go into it and you can go in at any point and as soon you submit to it you get immersed in the flow of sound.

My big ethos is that all ideas are valid so if you let it come out you might think it’s a crap idea because it’s not yet formed but combining crap or unformed ideas with other things will make them into something.

The Observed

The Observed is a kind of reprise of The Observer. Give Thanks was the first thing that was recorded. Tumi (Mogorosi) and I were alone so we did some drum and sax improvisation and the main chunk of it is Give Thanks. In the editing studio, we cut what seemed natural but then after that I ran into the melody of The Observer so then we decided it might be good to have a Observer reprise and that’s The Observed. I didn’t plan it, it just came out spontaneously. The title was an offshoot of The Observed.


The title comes from ‘Natty Dread’. Natty was a tune I wrote when I was thinking about how to write melody lines and basslines that sound to me like it’s just dripping of Carribean and then giving it to the guys and seeing how much of that feeling remains. When you think about Carribean music, there’s certain signifiers that people generally think of and those things are all correct. I like the idea of looking deep into those things and seeing if they still retain the feeling if you put them out of context and how listeners react to that. The bassline in this tune suggests a certain type of rhythmic groove. The nature of the bassline propels the tune in a certain way so you almost feel the implication of the groove.


I wrote this in Observatory in Cape Town. I just saved it on my computer as O.B.S. as a way of filing it and it kind of just stayed and I never got another name for it. It’s not a great story behind that title.

This was another one in the same vain as Natty where the bassline is just a straight up calypso bassline. I wanted to get Nduduzo (Makhathini) on piano for this and this is a good example of his role on the whole album. I didn’t give him any chance beforehand so everything he plays on the whole album is first take. He has so much information and knowledge about the history of how to play the piano in jazz and South African jazz. I didn’t want all that spilling out of him. I wanted him to get knocked out of his comfort zone; to just listen and get inspiration on the more abstract level.

Give Thanks

We talked about this one already. With the title, because this was our first performance, it just kind of felt like there was no hangups, it was just us like: this is our music offering. It was just us giving thanks for being able to play music and that’s the feeling I get whenever I play with Tumi. He enjoys playing the drums, I enjoy playing the sax a lot and then when we put it together, the whole process is like thank you to whoever created this situation.”

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