He's hot, he's hip and he plays the sax like the ancestors are with him
At a jazz session at the Orbit, Tseliso Monaheng is bowled over by music magic as saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings launches his debut album, 'Wisdom of Elders' My homie Dylan called me up in mid-February. He wanted to know if I'd lend a hand in documenting Shabaka Hutchings's recording sessions in Joburg."I'm down," I told him.Two great things happened that weekend: the recording of two albums by two musicians who are, depending on your understanding of longevity, either at their peak or ascending the hill to greatness - two "It" guys of the moment, recording their albums on the same weekend and featuring on each other's recordings.On a Sunday in February I was there when Nduduzo Makhathini assembled his outfit to record Icilongo, a songbook inspired by the isiZulu hymnal with which most Christian households are familiar. The line-up of musicians included London-based Hutchings, who is also a member of two British groups, jazz band Sons of Kemet and jazz-funk-electronica-psychedelic-rock group The Comet is Coming.story_article_left1Hutchings blew the living daylights, the dead of night, and the bright of morning out of his tenor saxophone on Icilongo.I also attended the Afrikan Freedom Station show, which featured all but one of The Ancestors, the Mzansi band assembled by Hutchings.Hutchings got in studio with his band that Saturday. By the day's end, they had banged out the core of all the cuts which the tenor saxophonist had composed for the project.Wisdom of Elders, the debut album by Shabaka and The Ancestors, launched in August at The Orbit in Braamfontein, Johannesburg , was the result.It's a Friday in mid-August and Jozi is suffering from late-winter blues. The weather has been cranky, but it couldn't keep its game face on when assaulted by the full-on charm of an octet of musicians. The warmth that reigned outside may have escaped from the sizzle indoors, as the album was launched to a first-night full house.Where Makhathini's efforts on keys seemed directed at the soul, Tumi Mogorosi's drums cracked through to the spirit. Siyabonga Mthembu's voice interrogated the sketchy corners of the mind, his poetry slamming dead-bang in the middle of Ariel Zamonsky's acoustic bass klaps .Mandla Mlangeni forced the audience to stand still and reconsider existence. Shabaka's tenor and Mthunzi Mvubu's saxophone played off each other with a melodic twist that rendered the show a spectacle and celebration . All this while Gontse Makhene sought to interject by caressing and controlling the congas.I attended the Friday night show, intending to come back on Saturday for the second round and to bring my camera as I'd done that week in February - partly to convince myself that what happened here really did happen. But the second day was not to be. Two shadows overpowered me en route to the show and took my camera equipment.Wisdom of Elders exists, however. Of the album's title, Shabaka says: "When we study the music, the lives, the words of our master musicians, we obtain a glimpse of that artist's essential energy source. This is the core vitality of the individual which leads them to utilise the musical specifics of their chosen genre in a way that mirrors their inner source of power. This is an intuited wisdom handed to us from the legacies of our elders."mini_story_image_hright1The album opens with Mzwandile, a name given to Shabaka by master drummer Louis Moholo, who is known for his role in making the Blue Notes the influential force it became upon moving from Mzansi to Europe in the early '60s.The band spans influences ranging from the '70s Afro-rock of Harare to the spiritual jaunts of Bheki Mseleku in the early '90s (Mseleku's album Celebration left a mark on Shabaka after he discovered it at the age of 18) to Caribbean calypso and Central African song structures.Often - and now more than ever when big-name record labels have all but stopped engaging with free-thinking music - a formation such as Shabaka's can easily disappear. But listening to the cats bang it out on Wisdom of Elders, one gets the feeling that there's a drive to push the rhythmic components of the music to greater heights.Says Hutchings: "I feel like in music, it's a shame to present one side of yourself."He says reflecting the full spectrum of one's personhood and embedding that in the music enables different people to define what the music means to them.That Friday at the Orbit people came, perhaps with different expectations, and everyone left with an understanding of the music only they could decode.