Shabaka Hutchings on OneFest in Sheffield

Jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has curated a festival that aims to bridge the North-South divide. He talks to Duncan Seaman.
Shabaka HutchingsShabaka Hutchings
Shabaka Hutchings

Founded to support a community enterprise in Wiltshire, OneFest has grown in size, scope and location over the past nine years. At its heart is a social mission and its latest iteration is an ambitious twin city event, to be staged over successive Saturdays at The Leadmill in Sheffield and Earth in London, with themes of encouraging new talent and bridging the North-South divide.

Its curator is the saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, one of the hottest names in British jazz whose numerous awards include a MOBO with his band Sons of Kemet; he was also nominated for the Mercury Prize with the group The Comet is Coming and a Grammy for his playing on Angelique Kidjo’s album Celia.

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“One part of it was to try to curate a programme for the North and the South and bridge that divide, which caters mainly for the South in particular,” the 36-year-old explains. “The Leadmill felt like a really great place to host it.”

The central idea, he says, is “a multi-faceted look into the industry”. “In the daytime you’ve got lots of panels, lots of talks on what it means to be a musician and how you can navigate yourself as a musician through the industry and in the evening time is special collaboration projects that we’ve put together including Steve Williamson and Leafcutter John, Okumu, Herbert, Skinner and Byron Wallen.”

The event, which is supported by Arts Council England, National Lottery Community Fund and PRS Foundation, will also feature a showcase for young artists selected after an open call was put out last year. “I don’t know the exact number, but we did get a lot [of applicants],” says Hutchings. The selection process was interesting, he adds. “It was for us to look at each artist in their own capacity, it wasn’t genre-based. It was to try and see 1) what the potential is for each artist, and 2) it’s got to be intuitive, what artists resonate. I’m guessing the whole point of having me involved in it is that I have add level of subjective musicality to it. Some of it came down to which artists I listened to and thought, ‘This is really great’, just as an entry point.”

The daytime panels, to be chaired by John Robb, will examine such issues as access to funding, mental health and female entrepreneurs in the music industry. There will also be workshops and surgeries with industry professionals. The idea, says Hutchings, is to broaden the conversation between musicians. “I think it’s really important that musicians start talking about every aspect of their musical life, especially for instance the panel on mental health, that’s a really important area.”

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Of the evening collaborations, Hutchings reflects: “Collaboration is one of those things that has always been around in jazz, I guess because of the nature of our learning, our vocabulary, our language that allows you to create with different musicians spontaneously.”

Ultimately he hopes: “Firstly that people exit the events stimulated – I’m talking about musicians – thinking about directions to issues that they’ve not really considered before, just because they’ve been able to approach them with many others, and then there’s a spirit of experimentalism, not in genre but in putting together the groups in the end, various different musicians who don’t regularly play together, and even having the bands that entered the competition play on the same stage. Hopefully people will have ideas of what’s possible in different musical circumstances.”

Hutchings’ own musical career goes back almost three decades. He was nine years old when he first picked up the clarinet and went on to study for a classical music degree. His first contact with jazz came through the high school big band when he returned to England from a spell in Barbados. “When I moved to Birmingham I went to a jam session every week,” he says. “I’d listened to little bits of jazz before but that was the real nucleus to the actual journey of learning jazz and I think the important thing was being able to see it done live. I could see the actual vibrance of having a young person who wasn’t that much older than me really dedicating themselves to learning.”

Later in London he joined the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme for young BAME musicians. “It was really crucial, I guess, [to developing my playing], because before I was an official member I was going to the jam sessions every week and this is how you learn to play jazz. Everyone says you learn by the book but actually you have to immerse yourself in the culture and sessions are a part of the jazz culture, as long as they are inclusive and friendly and supportive, and that’s an environment that Tomorrow’s Warriors gigs and jam sessions always had. A couple of years later when I officially became a member we did a gig every week at the Spice of Life in London and it meant that I was able to progress learning the jazz canon through tutoring from older musicians and that was the important thing in forming how I wanted my music to sound even if it didn’t come out sounding exactly like the music you were playing at that time.”

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Hutchings’ latest musical project reunites him with the South African group The Ancestors, with whom he made the 2016 album Wisdom of Elders. Called We Are Sent Here By History, it’s described as “a meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species”. Hutchings sees it also as a call for profound changes in the way humans behave. “The meditation on the extinction is just the very beginning of that,” he says. “As the album progresses it’s about what next? It’s about how we reconcile what we think we are sent here to do. Our aim as the album progresses is to try to address issues like masculinity and vulnerability and try to look at the idea of otherness as we approach the closing of an epoch, not necessarily the end of the epoch but the closing of one and the opening of another.”

OneFest runs at The Leadmill, Sheffield on Saturday March 7.

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