Shabaka and The Ancestors on Constitution Hill – reclaiming identity through jazz

Shabaka and The Ancestors on Constitution Hill – reclaiming identity through jazz
The horns of Shabaka and The Ancestors in full cry. (Photo: Massta Visionz)

An evening of jazz at the Women’s Prison on Constitution Hill explored the world of slavery and the Rasta response, celebrating the power of people.

On Saturday, 25 February, Shabaka and The Ancestors and friends took over the ex-Women’s Prison yard on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The Dig ZA did an excellent job of hosting the event – with funky lighting, a beautifully designed stage, food and drink, a record shop and loads of hay furniture and benches.

People were dressed to the nines, sipping on bubbly and smoking aromatics, grinning, chatting and dancing. Photographers and videographers perched around the stage.

Directly preceding The Ancestors, who were there in celebration of the 50th anniversary of a very special album (of which more later), was Mamthug, who sound-curated up a storm of rhythm and funk, the crowd whooping and boogying along.

Darling of the international jazz and hip music press for years, Shabaka Hutchings has won praise as a collaborative artist with acts such as The Sun Ra Arkestra and Polar Bear and through his three groups – Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming and Shabaka and The Ancestors.

Hutchings spent his formative years in Barbados but got into the London jazz scene as a student, quickly making a name for himself as a gifted musician. Coming and going to Cape Town during a romantic relationship he started jamming with South African jazz musos and found a special chemistry, specifically with Jozi’s Amandla Freedom Ensemble and drummer Tumi Mogorosi. A different romance, and The Ancestors, were born.

Saxophonist and flautist Shabaka and bassist Ariel Zamonski started with standard and bamboo flutes, improvising for 10 minutes, now touching on trumpeter Don Cherry’s minimalist avant-garde sound, now settling into a hypnotic groove, now meandering between stylistic orientations; the crowd is mesmerised. The full band arrived: first percussionist Gontse Makhene, followed by vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu harmonising with whistles.

Mthunzi Mvubu, Kgethi Nkotsi and Shabaka Hutchings. (Photo: Massta Visionz)

Gontse Makhene on drums. (Photo: Massta Visionz)

Guest vocalist Modise Sekgothe. (Photo: Massta Visionz)

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When the horns kick in – Shabaka on tenor sax, Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax and guest Kgethi Nkotsi on trombone – it’s on a propellent Afrobeat tilt, the audience shouting appreciation.

Later a classic track from Grounation (Jamaican reggae mystic Count Ossie’s seminal 1973 album), “400 Years”, which has a strong jazz vein. Siyabonga’s baritone muses on “400 years of colonial reign” while vocalist and deliverer of spoken word poetry, guest Modise Sekgothe, bemoans slave blood and “sun [being] seen as useless”.

The trombonist enters a New Orleans groove, in reverie; later an extended jam feels like a jovial thunderstorm, Mthembu’s vocals shafts of sunlight through the tumult.

Grounation, by Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, the album that inspired this concert, focuses lyrically on abduction and displacement of people in the slave trade while celebrating, through music, the power of people in spiritual awareness.

The Rastafari wield an innate spirit of rebellion against colonialist (and other) prescriptions and rules, not with rage or revolution, but in the simplest (and most audacious) state of rebellion – being and remaining one’s essential self in a world that demands conformity. Their message is a marriage of the political and the spiritual.

The Women’s Prison is becoming something of a music hub, having recently hosted guitar innovator Jonathan Crossley’s latest album launch, and last week a meeting of minds of two of South Africa’s brightest guitarists, Reza Khota and Vuma Levin. Space and identity are being reclaimed. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

DM168 11/03 FRONT PAGE


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