Album reviews

Shabaka – ‘Afrikan Culture’

Shabaka – Afrikan Culture
(Impulse Records – digital release only. Review by Graham Spry)

Whereas Shabaka (Shabaka Hutchings) has been called the “young forefather” and the “figurehead” of a whole generation of young British jazz musicians, it is only now he has released a record in his own name rather than under a guise such as Sons of Kemet, which he leads and for which he composes. Afrikan Culture is a solo record on which Shabaka plays all the instruments and has composed all the songs. Shabaka’s only collaborator is the producer and mix engineer Dilip Harris who has worked with him many times before and has facilitated the multi-layering of the relatively unconventional acoustic instruments Shabaka plays.

The overall sound of Afrikan Culture is a substantial departure from that of his other projects although it is still recognisable as a Shabaka recording. The title of the first track, Black meditation, more or less encapsulates the objective of the entire record, which is to provide the perfect accompaniment to meditation. Afrikan Culture belongs to the trend in the last year or so – perhaps as a result of the Covid lockdown – where jazz and improvising musicians have released records of a generally meditative, perhaps even ambient, nature. These include Park Jiha’s The Gleam, Nala Sinephro’s Space 1.8 and, of course, Promises by Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders.

The selection of instruments that Shabaka plays on this album is fascinating. In addition to African instruments such as the kora and the mbira are the music box and the shakuhachi. The music box is a kind of clockwork synthesiser that uses a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder or disc to pluck the tuned teeth of a steel comb. Its origins can be traced back to to the 18th century and arguably earlier. The shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made from bamboo that has a beautiful timbre and is probably the nearest there is to a lead instrument on this album. The shakuhachi is often multitracked over itself to create a gorgeously ethereal sound.

The record is a complete piece of work whose music differs markedly from the percussive sounds of Sons of Kemet and the heavy beats of The Comet is Coming, but at times aligns with the South African rhythms of Shabaka and the Ancestors. Such song titles as Black meditation, Ritual awakening, Explore inner space, The dimension of subtle awareness and Rebirth are more or less descriptive of the nature of each tune. It may be that Call it a European paradox is a reference to Western colonialism, curiously evoked by the harp-like sound of the kora, but this delightful tune could just as well be oriental and African as it is occidental. Ital is vital is a soothing song that celebrates the vegetarian food that arouses the life energy that Rastafarians believe exists within everyone. The most intriguing track on the album may well be the shimmering and jittering Memories don’t live like people do whose title suggests a thought-provoking perspective on personal and collective memory.

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This eight-track record is just under 30 minutes in length, which is why it is described as an EP: too short to qualify as an album, too long to be classified as a single. However, it would be wrong to consider Afrikan Culture as nothing more than a curious detour in Shabaka’s musical career. It is clearly a significant achievement for Shabaka to make such a coherent and distinctive album by layering his own playing over and over again on itself.

This record is available as a digital only release on Universal’s Impulse! Records, the label most famous as the home of John Coltrane’s later recordings. There don’t appear to be any immediate plans for Shabaka to tour this music, but it would be fascinating were he to do so – if it is technically possible – as it is such a contrast to his otherwise more propulsive musical projects. This is music best listened to in a darkened room and in a horizontal position. And much recommended for precisely that reason.

LINK: Afrikan Culture digital album

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