Shabaka Hutchings: Britain’s Best Export

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Your Queen Is A Reptile serves not only as a spirited critique on the opulent lifestyle of England’s monarchy but also a celebration of queens of a different sort, whom Hutchings describes as icons of courage and freedom.

“The reason behind my political thinking is the fact that we need to consider the feminine space and tell women’s stories of hope,” he said. “We need to articulate who we draw our inspiration from on a feminine perspective. I started to think, who are our queens? It’s like what Sun Ra said: People who are oppressed have the power to create their own mythological structures. I started thinking of the myths in our society, the royalty that dominates our thinking so that we don’t even think of them as myths. Here in Britain, it’s all about hereditary privilege just because someone is born into a certain bloodline. As a second-generation immigrant, I have the power to disregard this ridiculous myth and replace it with myths of my own.”

The “queens” in Hutchings’ worldview include American heroes such as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, activist and educator Angela Davis, black liberation activist Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and civil rights leader Mamie Phipps Clark—all of whom are referenced in song titles on the new album. Each song title begins with the phrase “My Queen Is … .” The opening track, “My Queen Is Ada Eastman,” is a rollicking tribute to Hutchings’ great-grandmother, who lived to be 103. “She came back to Barbados from England and held the family together,” Hutchings said. “The vocals on the track sung by Joshua Idehen are about the dark, angry times of immigration to England.”

Other figures celebrated on the album include Albertina Sisulu, a prominent anti-apartheid leader in South Africa; Yaa Asantewaa, the political and military head of the Ashanti Empire that fought against the British colonial army in 19th century Africa; and Jamaica-born Doreen Lawrence, a police-reform campaigner dubbed by the BBC in 2014 as “the most powerful woman in Britain.”

Thematically, Hutchings knew he wanted to honor queens but admitted that he “didn’t have a big knowledge of women I could call queen.” So, he turned to Facebook and asked for suggestions of powerful women. “I got 400 to 500 responses,” he said. “I couldn’t be comprehensive, but I went through many stories of women who inspired me.”

One of the more poignant stories on the album is “My Queen Is Nanny Of The Maroons.” Its rhythm was spirited to Hutchings after the band finished recording its Angela Davis tune. “We just started a groove, tapping into a vessel of connectivity,” he said. “It was the nyahbinghi groove from the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari that was so important in the Caribbean experience; people would gather and play this rhythm for hours and hours in celebration.”

It turned out to be the perfect fit for the Maroons story that is about Nanny (1686–1755), the woman who led enslaved people in Jamaica to freedom. They established a community and were never captured or enslaved again. “That resilience, that spirit, really inspires me,” Hutchings said. “It’s a space where you’re constantly aware of living a life that fights for freedom. Nothing can be taken for granted.”

In tandem with his explorations of the Afro-Caribbean and South African traditions, Hutchings cites American jazz giants as significant influences on his playing. “At the moment, I’ve been listening to a lot of Charlie Parker,” he said. “But not in the same way as in college when I was trying to learn the stuff he was playing. Now I’m listening to him as a drummer. It sounds like he is sparring, like a boxer. Charlie Parker has been teaching me how to rhythmically spark with my drummers.”

On a technical level, Hutchings champions Eric Dolphy: “The first time I heard him play a bass clarinet, I didn’t know how he could do it at that level. Then I listened to Last Date [1964], which showed me what I could do on bass clarinet and play in a certain way that expressed my personality.”

With his divergent musical tastes, Hutchings has made a fresh impact on a generation of jazz Brits who are forging an adventurous style. “Shabaka has played an extremely vital role in the current resurgence of British jazz,” Skinner said. “He has paved the way for the new wave of talented young musicians coming out of the U.K. right now. From when we started Sons of Kemet back in 2011, even before, he has had a vision for a new type of jazz music that respects and observes the tradition but is not stuck in the past and is constantly looking to the future. This is a very important thing: to question where you’re at and not sit on your laurels. Shabaka is a visionary, and I’m excited to see where he takes it next.”

As the end of the interview, Hutchings mentioned that he was eager to get back to work fulfilling a request from a web company to create a playlist of British jazz. “I’m going through all my collections,” he said, followed by a slight pause. “Really, there’s been a lot of good music that has come from Britain over the years. We’ll continue to keep doing that.” DB

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On Sale Now
April 2020
Gregory Porter
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