Bonfire of the hierarchies

As a librarian, as a lover of history and the literature that constitutes it, as a custodian and celebrant of what might be called the collective archive of human discourse, it can be uncomfortable to hear someone shouting ‘burn the archive’, which is Siyabonga Mthembu’s opening declamation on this extraordinary, incantatory album. But there is a difference between archives and libraries, and it is not a bibliocaust that he and Shabaka Hutchings are calling for—it is a bonfire of records. In The Translated World, her extraordinary tour of libraries in literature, Debra Castillo situates the bibliocaust as a feature of the cyclical relationship between knowledge and power, but it is specifically libraries that threaten power, inciting its pyrogenic ire, while archives are a danger to the rest of us.

What a thing to say! Archives are the depositories of what has gone before, what has been said, what has been recorded, the totality of speech inscribed into the infinite metaphorical scroll of the Archive—every poem, every electricity bill, every certificate of indenture, every novel, every newspaper, every death sentence. But the archive whose burning Mthembu describes is full of life insurance and student loans—it is the archive of the things that power has written down about its subjects, the documentary instruments of coercion that keep us in our allotted places, walking our allotted paths. ‘We are sent here by history’ he tells us, just before he begins to celebrate the conflagration of its constituent materials.

In Archive Fever Jacques Derrida observes that at the root of every authority there is an archive, and that at the founding of every archive is an authority. The ‘archontic principle’ which he identifies in the archive is its etymological root—the arkheion, the town hall, the home of the arkhon or ruler. The ‘arch’ of the archive is the ‘arch’ of hierarchy, and it is this which is immolated in Shabaka and the Ancestors’ album We Are Sent Here By History. It is a narrow and specific sense of the archive—not the totality of that which has been inscribed, but the dead weight of the bureaucratic record which writes that we are free in the same sentence that condemns us to a lifetime of servitude.

If you are a historian then you will want these records to survive as much as any other, but some might argue (as Mthembu seems to) that it is better to untether ourselves from those particular manifestations of the past. History, whose name is invoked in the album’s title, is no more than a re-writing back into the archive of some of what is already there—it is a presence utterly distinct from the past. Whatever we may consider the past to be, to be made of, we define it by virtue of its not being (the) present. We experience the past in another domain, beyond the library and the archive, a gnostic domain beyond history, beyond philosophy, and beyond discourse, a world that Trevor Owen Jones imagines in The Non-Library.

Shabaka and the Ancestors play something that can be described as jazz, but it is a gnostic sort of jazz, exploring in a zone beyond the cerebral, rationalistic interpolation of harmonic rhythms which is usually taken as a token of authority. It is groove-based, rooted in Ariel Zamonsky’s propulsive bass ostinati, and collective, its solo improvisations emerging organically from riffs and falling back into them. Other than Hutchings all the band’s members are South African, and the sound certainly seems to owe more to that country’s distinctive jazz traditions than to any other stylistic source.

It’s a deep, immersive flow, which engages viscerally with the questions of historicity and archival subjection that are invoked by its verbal texts. This is not clever, difficult, intellectual jazz (‘clever difficult, intellectual jazz’ having become a well-established genre by now), but something far harder to achieve. This music embodies complex, particular and unique meanings without leaning on established tropes or shorthands, and without making its surface forbidding or off-putting. Its grounded rhythms and bluesy harmonies are inviting to the listener, although it is as demanding as anything else in terms of the questions it suggests the listener should ask of themselves. The playing is generous and social (and extremely skilled, of course), always reinforcing the sense that this is an act of communication, between players, between musicians and audience, between the past and history, between the future and the present. It can be easy to become despondent about the course of improvised music, to think that its moments of real invention and of broad relevance are all behind it, but in We Are Sent Here By History, as in much of his other work, Hutchings makes it very clear that there is a lot still to say.

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