Shabaka and the Ancestors Cap off Ottawa Jazzfest Tuesday in the Late Night Tent

Shabaka and the Ancestors

Photo: Mike Bouchard

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The Ottawa Jazz Festival and City Folk Festivals bookmark the summer for me. It starts with the rush of good weather and sounds of all sorts of jazz, and then the bitter sweet wave goodbye in the fall, with a farewell to the summer festival season at City Folk. The Jazz fest is the crown jewel of Ottawa’s Festivals. It’s for people who really listen to music. Some looking for the strange, some for the traditional. It’s all here, and every year seems to have incredible depth. I’m missing most of this years shows because I travelled to another fest a scant 7 hours away. This year I have to shoot with a rifle and not with a shot gun. I can’t just see as many acts as I should, and hope for the best. This year I have just a couple targets in hand. 

Shabaka and the Ancestors are one of those targets. Their record, a collaboration between Shabaka Hutchings and a group of Johannesburg based South Africans, has been smouldering on the side lines. Hutchings, has floated around the London, U.K.  jazz and electronic scene for a good number of years and is best remembered for his Son of Kemet band, and his work with Mthunzi Mvubu in the Hellocentrics.

This outfit, Shabaka and the Ancestorsis only a couple of years old and have one record, “Wisdom of Elders”. This was only released last September. They are part of a swell of young jazz musicians tapping into the past with references to the present and then shooting it out into the either to expand and shape the future.

The record has, Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophone), Mthunzi Mvubu (alto saxophone), Siyabonga Mthembu (vocals), Ariel Zamonsky (bass), Tumi Mogorosi (drums), Gontse Makhene (percussions), and with Mania Miangeni trumpet and Nduduzo Makhathini Both the trumpett and piano are not part of the touring band. Their absence drives the vibe away from Ibraham’s compositional style of Dollar Brand, and more towards torrents of flow and turbulence in their live sound.

Wisdom of Elders consists of a psalm in nine parts and the whole piece was recorded in one day. Rooted in the traditions of Afro Caribbean rhythms and filtered through 21st century jazz composition and musical improvisation, I was expecting more Sun Ra like blowouts, but what i got was more Pharaoh Sanders circa 1970. And that was good. There was a real spiritual element to the band that was present not only in the music but in their presence on the stage. They were listening to each other. And we were listening closely as well.

A continous refrain was repeated by the singer, Siyabonga Mthembu, throughout the show. It went something like this (it changes at each show, but more or less is this)… 

In the burning
In the burning of the republic
Of the mind
and the republic of the heart
Coming out to look at this world
We need a new people
We need new hymns

Spoken with reverence and repeated without mercy, the need for new hymns was often followed by poignant epitaphs like “We need to feminize our politics”, or “ The God’s don’t hear our prayers any more”, “ The power is in the people”, “You can not possess land, land possesses you!!!””.  This is a call to a greater consciousness, one of vulnerability, and within this a new strength.

The idea of using kindness as a weapon. Siyabonga Mthembu singing exemplified the flow and turbulence that fuelled the performance. They were sound carriers, all of them. Standing in bare feet Shabaka would blaze a raging river of runs over a syncopated rhythm section. Other times he would lay sweet melody over the strikingly turbulent alto sax of Mthunzi Mvubu. The red sparkled shoes of Siyabonga Mthembu were traded for just his beige socks early on in the show. Wrapped in a blanket, and wearing a hat Siyabonga brought meditative vocals and raging epitaphs with equal magic. He was as deranged as Damo Susuki was when fronting Can. Possessed by the moment and the spiritual message, he was always in touch, but on the outside, at least as far as he could get away with.

This was perfectly explored in “Mzwandile”, which eventually heats up to a fiery and ferocious pace, all the while harbouring the melody explored and echoed by Hutchings and the singer Siyabonga. Everyone in the band got their due. Highlights included a well worked out solo by bassist Ariel Zamonsky (who had a passing resemblance to Phish’s Mike Gordon), whose weathered, and old, beat up body of his stand up bass stood in stark contrast to the updated bridge and neck… very much like his contrasting tonal and rhythmic adventures.

The percussionist played back into the groove, exemplified by his patch quilt clothing and Sherwood Forest green floppy felt hat with white feather sticking out from its band. But it is the drummer Tumi Mogorosi who held the band together and pushed it forward. Often chocking up on the drum stick, he used less of the typical soft jazz hands and more like a baseball slugger swinging for the fence. And then, effortlessly, he would tap out a series of triplets crossing his hand in an over and under pattern, making it look as easy as spreading butter on toast. All killer, no filler. 

The set ran long, with an extra encore added in for good measure, as Shabaka points out, they have traveled a long way so they might as well play another. A disappointingly scant 100 people or so filtered in and out of the tent. Maybe the “late“ night slot of 10:30 and the rainy weather kept fans away, but it was clear that Shabaka deserved more from Ottawa.

In contrast to the Kamasi Washington show last year that reached fever pitch, and had frothing at the mouth adoring fans, this jazz performance was mostly attended by those in the know. The crowd gave the band their due, showering them with the appropriate love, but it is my guess that if Shabaka stays on the road, plays where they can, and blowthe doors off of more summer festivals, they would be fitting into the NAC stages by next year.

They are set to break out. Powerful playing. Powerful message. They are part of a under current in jazz today. They are part of the new young jazz revivalists. Not so much a definable place, cultureor country, but one more of a river of young spirited sound carriers, who are equally traditionalist as they are futurist.