Shabaka Hutchings: Britain’s Best Export

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It was at LPR in January 2017 that Hutchings was approached by Impulse A&R executive Dahlia Ambach-Caplin after a set by Shabaka and The Ancestors. “It was an amazing occurrence,” Hutchings said. “We talked for a couple of hours about my musical ideas, and then she proposed that I sign all my bands with Impulse.”

Hutchings was born in London in 1984 and raised in Birmingham, but at age 6 he was taken back to his parents’ native island, Barbados, where he spent his youth studying both classical music and calypso. He didn’t discover jazz until he returned to Birmingham when he was 16. He began to explore jam sessions and soon came under the wing of alto saxophonist Soweto Kinch, who was mixing jazz with hip-hop. Hutchings subsequently dug in and began studying jazz recordings at the city library. Then he advanced to securing a space as a student at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he met many of the young musicians who now are making waves on the London scene.

In 2011, Hutchings formed Sons of Kemet. The fiery quartet’s 2013 debut, Burn, paved the way for the provocative 2015 album Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, which Hutchings described as a meditation on the Caribbean diaspora in Britain.

“It all started with wanting to do a small gig that was about crowds dancing wildly, and I wanted two drummers who didn’t play rhythmically but had a conversation going without playing a groove,” Hutchings said. “Then I thought of having a tuba on the front line with me and playing off each other. It is a horn, not just a bass. The personality of the player was important, and the original band member, Oren Marshall, brought a sense of irreverence to the tuba, playing whatever he wanted and going as far out as he wanted. Theon Cross replaced him a few years ago and his background [has] a connection to Caribbean music, so we interact on a level related to Caribbean phrasings.”

In an email correspondence with the band, Cross concurred: “Shabaka and I both have Caribbean heritage, and we use the rhythmic cadences found in genres like soca, calypso and reggae as a basis to improvise off of,” he said. “Sometimes it may be just between two or three notes, but the big aim is to create interest and tension through rhythm and keep people dancing.”

“What we’ve been doing since the beginning is having four strands traveling simultaneously but not necessarily at the same time,” Hutchings explained. “That’s taken us into areas we didn’t perceive. We’re not interested in playing the same old things. We play adventurous music with pure power and fun.”

Veteran SOK drummer Tom Skinner added, “There are no extraneous, unnecessary elements. No frills—just melody, bass and rhythm. This kind of raw sound and energy speaks to people in a very basic, human way. It is body music, for dancing, for unity and community. It brings people together.”

Your Queen Is A Reptile is a nine-track tour de force that features Hutchings on tenor, Cross on tuba and a two-man drum team of Skinner and Seb Rochford. Current band member Eddie Hick arrived for two tracks to replace Rochford, who left SOK during the sessions.

“Call-and-response is occurring between Tom and me,” Hick said. “That in turn converses with Theon and Shabaka. It’s a four-way conversation. We balance frequencies and timbres on the drums to match different sections of the composition. This creates space to embellish with more abstract rhythmic language.”

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