Shabaka Hutchings: BBC-winning ninja clarinet comes to Cape Town

‘Mutant ninja clarinet’ player Shabaka Hutchings, recipient of BBC’s “New Generation Artist” for 2011/12, snuck into Cape Town to complete a commission for a British string quartet. But he’s also taken the time to play with local jazz-men Kyle Shepherd, Louis Moholo-Moholo and Ntshuks Bonga – and playing at the launch of the Joule City arts incubator.

Shabaka Hutchings. Courtesy Shabaka Hutchings

Shabaka Hutchings. Courtesy Shabaka Hutchings


This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ of 2013/06/16.


England-born and Barbados-raised Shabaka Hutchings majored in classical clarinet at the Guildhall School before joining Jazz Warriors, CBE-awarded  Courtney Pine‘s ensemble in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded as the BBC 3 “New Generation Artist“, which led to various commissions, and performances with the BBC Big Band, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and “Jazz Legends” presenter and composer Julian Joseph. He has shared stages with jazz luminaries like Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden, UK live trip-hop pioneers Red Snapperon their tour of Russia, and also with ska-founder Jerry Dammer (of The Specials) in his Spatial AKA Orchestra. He is also an active member of London’s thriving improvised music set, playing with the likes of Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill, and with South African jazz giant Louis Moholo-Moholo, and confesses a long-standing love for South African composers ranging from Pietermaritzburg-born minimalist Kevin Volans, to jazz figures like Bheki Mseleku and Zim Ngqawana.


“I thought I’d come to Cape Town to finish my commission for the Leasowes Bank Festival, with the Ligeti Quarte,” says Shabaka Hutchings from his temporary home in the Mother City. “They got hold of me to do something, and I thought of a string quartet with clarinet. Because it’s such an unlikely combination, I thought I’d see what I can come with. I like to throw myself into unusual situations. It’s neither hard nor easy, but it’s about getting to know the sounds of the instruments. I had to do a lot of research, because I’m used to hearing jazz horns and rhythm sections. Lots of listening to find out what string instruments are capable of. Another reason was that I’m a big fan of Kevin Volans‘ second quartet, “Hunting: Gathering” (written for the Kronos Quartet in 1987). I like the first one too, but I really like “Hunting: Gathering“, where it’s using the string quartet as a means of exploring other sounds and instruments, like mbira; of taking other influences and letting those seep into the quartet.”


“I’m not pursuing ‘new’, but I don’t want to be bogged down to just what I think I should do. I’d think, ‘Why am I writing the same old things?’ I want to progress and move forward.”

– Shabaka Hutchings on a compositional ethos that ends up with a roomful of tuba players, or a piece for string quartet and clarinet.


For Hutchings, it is this musical osmosis – what he calls a “transpollination” – that intrigues him. “It’s about merging together, and maybe something interesting comes,” he says. “The new just happens, unless you stop yourself. I’m not pursuing ‘new’, but I don’t want to be bogged down to just what I think I should do. I’d think, ‘Why am I writing the same old things?’ I want to progress and move forward.”


He admits, though, that there is much to learn. Take, for example, the jazz player’s first orchestral composition, a piece for the 2012 London Jazz Festival, where he assembled his band, The Sons of Kemet, and two electronic musicians (Leafcutter John and Jason Singh) with the BBC Concert Orchestra for a piece called “Babylon”.

Shabaka Hutchings. Courtesy Shabaka Hutchings

Shabaka Hutchings. Courtesy Shabaka Hutchings


“It was the first time I’d written for orchestra, and one of the things I would have done differently is that I was spurting out too many stream-of-consciousness thoughts into this orchestral piece,” he says. “Going, ‘Here’s a good one! Here’s another! Oh, here’s another!” As opposed to taking a section of music, and really dealing with that, and then moving on, and then seeing how they can be connected into a big modernist piece. Also, orchestration-wise, there are things I learned about using the range of the orchestra, but I’ve spoken to quite a few composers and they say there’s nothing really you can do about it, but listen to the result and learn from it for the next time. In the golden age of orchestration, because composers had patrons who were providing most of the work, and those patrons had resident orchestras, they could workshop what they were doing, and perfect it. That doesn’t really happen today.”


“How can I play with these guys who are my age, but just in a different scene?”

– BBC ‘New Generation Artist’ Shabaka Hutchings on hooking up with Cape Town jazz talents like Kyle Shepherd, Bokani Dyer, Reza Khota and Ntshuks Bonga.


Hutchings is also in Cape Town for one of the best reasons – his love for a lady. Happily for our ears, his partner comes from the city. “I thought I’d split my time between the two countries and, also, I had quite a few musical links to Cape Town,” he says. “Even before I came over here, I was checking out Bokani Dyer and Kyle Shepherd, two really good piano players that have played in Europe, but never in London, and their style is unique. I though, ‘How can I play with these guys who are my age, but just in a different scene?’ It was a stroke of fate that I could get here and, since I’m here, I set up gigs.”


Hutchings has played burning sets at Observatory’s Tagores with recent Cape Town International Jazz Festival co-headliner Reza Khota, and at the CBD’s Mahogany Room with Kyle Shepherd. He also reprised his association with Louis Moholo-Moholo for improvisation session – and a guided tour of Langa. He will also play the launch of Joule City a new inter-disciplinary artist’s workshop and arts incubator.


“That came about through (saxophonist) Ntshuks Bonga, who’s from Cape Town, but lives and plays in London,” says Hutchings. “We’ve never done things in a smaller group setting, mainly playing together in bigger ensembles, but this one is him on horn, me playing clarinet and with two double-bass players.”


When Hutchings returns to England, in addition to the string quartet composition, he will release an album with The Sons of Kemet. “Two years ago, I started a new group because I wanted a musical setting that demonstrated the music that I grew up with in Barbados, and the sounds around London that I hear when I go out with friends,” he says, “But I didn’t want it to be something where I play a funky groove or a calypso rhythm of something overlty Caribbean. I wanted those influences more shadowed, more mysterious, so you’d get a glimpse of modernity into the stuff I like, and grew up liking. I listened to a lot of Caribbean folk music and Rastafari music to see how I could get this atmosphere in a jazz setting. The first thing I realised is that it needs to be drum based. I wanted so much drums that it’s nearly overwhelming; that everything stems from this rhythmic place, instead of there being a sax player, and then a drummer and the hierarchy that this forms. I wanted to reverse that. So, I thought, ‘Why not two drummers?’ Then I got a tuba, which has a dual function – it can be a more melodic; a horn player. But it can also be a bass and, instead of electric bass or a double-bass, the frequency of the tuba is more earthy. There’s something… I don’t know, I guess ‘tribalism’ might be the right word… It takes you onto the street feel of New Orleans, or Balkan music. So I called up guys I know, and they all said they wanted to be part of it, and we gigged and gigged and then took about a year to make the album, and now it’s ready. ‘Burn‘ will be released in September.”


This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ of 2013/06/16.



Shabaka Hutchings plays at “Black Swan Night”, the Joule City Interdisciplinary Studios and Arts Incubator opening on Thursday 20 June (1st Floor, Spracklen Building, 107 Longmarket St (opp Eastern Bazaar fod emporium), 5.30 for 6pm; details 021-4612022 and, also featuring Ntshuks Bonga (UK / ZA), Shannon Mowday (SA / Norway), Dizu Plaatjies (Ibuyambo / Amampondo), Nduduzo Makhathini (Berklee / Language12), Malcolm Jiyane (Johnny Mekoa Music Academy) and others. More on; see for a revolving roster of recent Shabaka Hutchings recordings, including sets with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Louis Moholo-Moholo, and TheSpace.Org for more on his Sons Of Kemet project. Also keep your eyes peeled for “Just Not Cricket“, a film chronicling the 2011 Berlin festival featuring three generations of the British free improvisation scene, scheduled for release “in the near future”.

Pushing the envelope: Shabaka Hutchings

Pushing the envelope: Shabaka Hutchings


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