Shabaka Hutchings is a paradox. A paradox, that is, in the sense of “a person, thing or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature” (dictionary.com). He was born and lives in the U.K.’s capital city, but he has inherited dark skin and African features from his Barbadian parents. His last name is fairly common in this country, but his first is extremely rare. He spent his teenage years listening to reggae and hip-hop, but studied the clarinet at school and now plays saxophones and flutes in a number of unconventional jazz bands. His work drifts between world music, afrobeat, and jazz fusion, never settling in any one style.
“My core vocabulary is jazz, but I’m not trying to have the energy of someone in a suit standing stationary in front of a microphone giving a nice round sound, I’m trying to just spit out fire.”The Shabaka Hutchings website.
Even that is puzzling in the context of his first solo album, Afrikan Culture, which has a laid-back, world music vibe, as this track from the album illustrates:
Paradoxes have a long history. The one about a footrace between the supreme athlete Achilles and a plodding tortoise goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, who lived from 490 to 430 BC.
Suppose Achilles gives the tortoise a head start of, say, 100 metres. Zeno argued that Achilles can never win the race. To catch the tortoise, Achilles must first travel half the distance to where the tortoise started, by which time the tortoise will have moved further forward. The distance between Achilles and the tortoise is shorter now, but the tortoise is still ahead. We can repeat this argument from the new positions of the runners. Before he can catch the tortoise, Achilles must once again travel half the distance to where the tortoise started this part of the race. And once again, the tortoise will have moved a little further on. No matter how many times we repeat this process, Achilles will never catch the tortoise.
I understand the resolution to that one. Zeno’s argument doesn’t cover the whole of the race, only the part in which Achilles catches up with the tortoise. And, breaking down that part of the race into an infinite series of ever decreasing steps doesn’t mean Achilles needs to run an infinite distance.
But there’s a rather more recent paradox that I can’t get my head around.
A farmer buys a ladder and wants to store it in his barn. But the ladder is 6 m long and doesn’t fit in the 5 m barn. So the farmer calls his friend, Superman, and they make a plan. The farmer opens the doors at the front and back of the barn. Superman picks up the ladder and flies faster than a speeding bullet towards the barn’s open front door. The farmer sees the ladder shrink to less than 5 m long, exactly as Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts, and prepares to shut the barn doors as soon as Superman drops the ladder inside the barn. But Superman doesn’t drop the ladder. He flies in the front door and straight out of the back door again, carrying the ladder with him. The farmer, puzzled, asks Superman why he didn’t leave the ladder in the barn. Superman replies that, for him, it was the barn that shrank and the 6 m ladder was never going to fit in a barn that was less than 5 m long.
Smarter brains than mine tell me that there is no contradiction in the ladder and barn situation. The resolution of the paradox, they say, is that different observers can see events happening in a different order. The farmer sees the back of the ladder enter the barn before the front has exited. Superman, on the other hand, sees those two events in the other order; the back of the ladder only enters the barn after the front has exited. In other words, time is relative. There is no absolute timeline that you and I both share. And that’s just unfathomably weird.
It seems to me that the key to the Shabaka paradox is his impeccable taste and impressive versatility. This guy leads Sons of Kemet, co-leads The Comet Is Coming, and has contributed to projects by artists such as Yazz Ahmed, Makaya McCraven and Angelique Kidjo. For his first solo album, though, he has immersed himself in spacious ambient territory. On Afrikan Culture, Shabaka paints an African twilight, the clouds ablaze with the colours of a setting sun, the air quiet and still. Using wooden flutes, standard and bass clarinet, saxophone, kora, tinkly, jingly percussion and a smidgen of electronics, he conjures up the African way of life at its most peaceful.