• Ben Lee

We Are Sent Here By History - Shabaka and the Ancestors (Album Review)

Shabaka and the Ancestors

We Are Sent Here By History

13 March 2020

Impulse! Records


Album Rating 5 / 5

Live Potential 5 / 5

Solo Performances 5 / 5

Diversity in Songs 4 / 5

Favourite Songs 'Til The Freedom Comes Home; They Who Must Die; Go My Heart, Go To Heaven; Behold, The Deceiver

Shabaka Hutchings returns with one of his three immense projects, releasing a second album with the group of South African musicians he admires under the title of Shabaka and the Ancestors. Recorded in Johannesburg and Cape Town, We Are Sent Here By History emanates a great feeling that any subject the group sets to tackle and write their music about, can really change our thinking through the power of what they have created.


Hutchings met the musicians through working with Mandla Mlangeni, bandleader of the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, and after sessions with the group they released their debut Wisdom of Elders in 2016. Whilst this album follows its spiritual musicality, a new theme has emerged from the music. The LP is a meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species. It is a reflection from the ruins, from the burning. A questioning of the steps to be taken in preparation for our transition individually and societally if the end is to be seen as anything but a tragic defeat. For those lives lost and cultures dismantled by centuries of western expansionism, capitalist thought and white supremist structural hegemony the end days have long been heralded as present with this world experienced as an embodiment of a living purgatory. 


The album flows superbly and almost finishes sooner than expected, which is a strange feeling especially given it is an hour long in length. Hutchings states in his interviews on the group's social media about the album's message is that he wanted the listener to read the poems to fully paint the picture of the narrative (the poems are here). The poems come from the lyrics of Siyabonga Mthembu who provides chant-like vocals and cries of despair at our extinction and the suppression committed by colonial expansionism throughout the whole album.

The sense of urgency begins immediately with 'They Who Must Die' as Hutchings on tenor sax and Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax back each other up sensationally as the furious rhythm section of Ariel Zamonsky (double bass), Tumi Mogorosi (drums) and Gontse Makhene (percussion) seem to shift their grooves automatically and perfectly to the tone of different sections without losing any pace to the song. The shouts of 'burn the archives, burn the records, burn the books' add a deep sense of destruction that we have committed in our society repeatedly. The keys and percussion offer moments of respite but the suspense is tangible and Hutchings delivers a magnificently aggressive and trademark solo. This statement is typical Shabaka and gives the listener an extremely accurate portrayal of what will come in the rest of the album.


The freedom that each musician seems to have in conveying the message of the album never ceases to be anything short of spectacular and the first single 'Go My Heart, Go To Heaven' seems to growl with the sturdy bass line that starts some tenor sax murmurings. This song like most on the LP offers tribal and trance rhythms to move to, and Mvubu's alto sax solo continues the deep, spiritual vain that Hutchings craves from his own performances. A weaving journey follows on from Mvubu on 'Behold, The Deceiver' as Zamonsky's bassline attacks before the keys enter and illuminate the track to feel less heavy.


Hutchings features on the clarinet in 'Run, The Darkness Will Pass' and 'We Will Work (On Redefining Manhood)' with the latter changing from natural, flowing chanting to fast melodies that shift in multiple directions. The trance-like sensation resonates strongly as the clarinet matches the vocals. Second single 'The Coming Of The Strange Ones' again has hypnotic looping sax phrases that move constantly in between unhinged improvising; this is accompanied immediately by 'Beasts Too Spoke Of Suffering' where everyone tumbles down with such ferocity it rambles on until the hummed vocals sound like beasts asking for mercy from our society's ruins.

'Til The Freedom Comes Home' stands out as the bass matches the tenor sax at the start, moving together like water gushing over a waterfall. Eagerly waiting for a wall of spiritual jazz to crash down seems to take forever with the 'Oh Rastafari' lyrics teasing alongside the alto sax's melody, but when the drums kick in Hutchings once again rips into an intense and surely lung-exhausting solo. 'Teach Me How To Be Vulnerable' ends the album with a tenor led ballad and the piano is used to offer a more positive tone to reflect upon for the listener, as even Hutchings himself admitted he is an optimist despite the motif of the album in a The Guardian interview.


Hutchings sees himself and the Ancestors to be acting as the griot, common in West African culture as a storyteller who will take the history of the nation and let everyone know about the lessons from them and preserves them in history through different types of arts. The group achieves this through songs that seem to be presented from a future of ruins that only seems eerily present right now, and aims to challenge and tackle the societal norms that have led to our destruction. One key theme seems to be challenging masculinity and its role in destruction, as various track titles allude to changing this. Acting as the griot and producing relentless, restless and primal free-jazz music to accompany these lessons of history are as powerful a message as any to come from an album.

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