Video Presentations and Photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists. Hannibal has a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.
Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.
There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth. Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering. But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music. Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:
It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do. I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.
Frank J. Oteri: I want to begin with something that you said in an interview last year for BMI Music World, which I’d love to have you talk about in greater detail. You made this beautiful statement: “Members of the audience are not merely an appendage of the music, but the music itself.”
Hannibal Lokumbe: Yeah.
FJO: I was hoping you could explain what that means to you and how—if other musicians and composers, as well as concert presenters and others are mindful to that—it could result in a different experience in making music.
HL: Well, my initial encounter with music was in the kitchen of my mother and my grandmother, but collectively, it was in the cotton fields of Elgin, Texas. So I saw no “us” and “them,” you know, it was all us. And to this day, the most sacred place I’ve ever heard music performed in is a cotton field in Elgin, Texas. So I don’t let a room take that from me, take from me the fact that my grandfather would sing a certain pitch when the sun is over your head and it’s unbearable. He would say [sings], “I love the Lord; he heard my cry.” Then the rest of us would say [sings], “I love the Lord. He heard my cry.” Then he said [sings], “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me.” Then somebody said [sings], “Yes, Lord. Mercy. Yes, Lord.” But because I’m sitting in a box seat at Carnegie Hall or the Kimmel Center, if I feel that presence of the ancestors in what I have struggled and given my blood to produce, I can’t say, “Yes, Lord.” I can’t say, “Yeah, Hallelujah.” If I can’t say that, then something’s wrong. Then all that I experienced is a lie. All that I experienced is nothing. All that I’ve experienced is second to any other culture, and I don’t see that. So if I feel the need to testify, that’s what I’m gonna do! And I always encourage the people to do the same, because what would it be without the people?
FJO: Playing to an empty hall.
HL: My grandfather could say [sings] “I love the Lord; he heard my cry.” That’s one thing. But it’s another thing when everybody else calls and responds to what he called, because they’re all calling on the spirit.
FJO: Tell me more about growing up in Texas.
HL: Whew. Well, I was very fortunate because I lived on my grandmother and grandfather’s farm for the first five years of my life. I never had shoes. I never wore shoes. And my best friend was the sky. Ever-changing paintings. The river, the sound of the river. The sound of the dove. The sound of the wind in this huge oak tree. The sound of the guineas [sings], “Dat-dat-dat-dat-da-da-dah.” All these sounds are exactly what informs my music. When I went to the university for seven days, that was seven years too many. They were trying to take these sounds away from me because they didn’t understand the sounds I was making. But I had sense enough to know that these sounds didn’t come from humans and that I must protect them, be mindful of them. So I sold my composition book, got my money back from that, got me a sleeping bag, and went into the forest for the summer.
Then I made my move to New York City. But these sounds and healing tones in all of my music come from those five years of heaven on earth. “On earth as it is in heaven.” That was and is my heaven. Why are we always being taken from this to somewhere else? We say, “Mother’s up there.” No. Mother’s in here. Everything is in here. That’s what this [new piece of mine, Healing Tones] is saying: “There is no place where the streets are made of gold. Heaven and hell are by your own hands made.”
FJO: So in terms of human interactions, I’d like to talk to you a little about musical influences, the music you heard that left a deep impression on you. You talked about call and response in the cotton field, the spirituals that people sang. But aside from the roots music and gospel, there was blues and jazz and you also had a great-grandmother who was Cherokee, so I’m also curious about how that impacted you musically.
HL: This piece [Healing Tones] is in honor of my great-grandmother who was a Cherokee shaman. She walked the Trail of Tears. When the Trail got to southern Tennessee, she broke away and hid in a cave on the river and remained there until she met my grandfather’s father. She spent her life gathering and planting herbs and healing the family of any ailment you could imagine, from skin rashes to broken bones. She had a poultice that could heal broken bones. When I was 13, from hearing all these stories about her, of course I could picture in my mind what she looked like. So then when I was 13, her presence came to me in a dream. Scared me to death! Good thing my mother was poor. We lived in a three-room apartment in the projects, so we didn’t have money to go to some psychiatrist to play with my thinking or try to interfere with the beauty of what I had been given. But given my Christian indoctrination, I thought it was evil. But it felt good. So I went with the feeling. I always go with the feeling. So as it turns out, she’s my spirit god. She gave me the name Lokumbe.
HL: She never speaks with words. Only expressions, only with her hands. Through the years, I’ve learned these languages, just like sign language. A Yoruban priest gave me the name Hannibal in Brooklyn at the Blue Coronet, a club we were playing at.
FJO: I never knew that story, but I’ve always been curious to know more about this because the first album on which you used the name Hannibal was Children of the Fire, which is an extremely cathartic record about the trauma of the Vietnam War. And yet the name Hannibal comes from a famous military commander from over 2000 years ago.
HL: But he didn’t like it. And this is why Rome was not conquered. When they were within striking distance of Rome, Hannibal’s generals said, “Let’s go take Rome and be done with it.” Hannibal said, “No, enough killing for today.” That gave Scipio time to slip out of the city and rebuild his army. So, in fact, I am a warrior. I don’t like killing. But my weapon is music.
FJO: Well, music is ultimately a much more effective weapon since it is able to change people’s minds, hearts, and souls.
HL: In a dressing room in Berlin when the wall was up, some members of the [African National Congress] came in and inducted me into the ANC. I said, “Well, when do I get my rifle?” They began laughing. It was humiliating. They said, “Oh man. We have people who are crack shots. We don’t need you. We need you to write the music. That’s the most powerful weapon. That’s more powerful than any weapon.”
FJO: So is that what led you to compose the song “Free Mandela”?
FJO: The album that first appeared on, Visions of a New World, was the first time your music was on a major record label, Atlantic Records, which was a really big deal back in the 1980s. It could have led to you becoming a huge mainstream success, because that’s what major labels did for folks back then. But it turned out to be your only album with them.
HL: Well, they tried to do that with me, and I told them no. I don’t follow people. Humans did not give me the music. That’s what I told Whitney Houston, right before her big breakthrough. I met her at a club on 95th Street. James Baldwin’s brother called me up at 11 at night and said, “Hannibal, you’ve got to come hear this singer.” So I went and I heard and I said, “Wow.” And I told her, “Sister, whatever you do, follow the music. Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”
But, at any rate, this connection with the Native Americans—I went to South Dakota to get permission from the Lakota people to write about their holy man, Chief Crazy Horse. I went there for that reason and I was really baptized because I went into the sweat lodge for the first time. And it exposed to me both the god and the demon in me. And of course, my ego was that I didn’t have as much devil in me as I thought I did, but I had this anger that I didn’t know about. And I had this fear that I didn’t know about. I had all these things that I didn’t know about that I had pushed aside. But when I came out of that sweat lodge, on a bright, clear, sunny day, and it began to rain, the elders said, “The ancestors heard you, Hannibal. And they washed you clean.” So then that’s when I wrote this piece for the Kronos Quartet, called Dance Chief Crazy Horse Dance.
That was from a blanket dance [the Lakota] did one night. I had never heard it live before; I had only heard it on TV. On that particular night, it was raining. Someone had died, so they took this blanket and they held each corner of it and they walked around. The rhythm stayed with me. I began to subdivide it, on the cymbal; then I put the cry of my grandfather on it [sings]: “I heard the Lord, I love the Lord. He heard my cry. I love the Lord.” Then I break it down even more at the end of that section. The choir sings this line [sings]: “I am the hunter. I am the bee. I am the mountain. I am the sea.” That’s universal. That’s the same rhythm I heard the Lapplanders play in Scandinavia.
FJO: What I find so extraordinary about what you do is that you take the musical elements of all these different people from all over the place, and you don’t just jam them up against each other; they’re seamlessly woven together. You show the connectivity of all of these different things. A spiritual and a Native American drum chant fit together and they totally meld. You’ve been doing that since Children of the Fire. But to take it back to even earlier, before you moved out of Texas and were given the name Hannibal, you fronted a group called The Soulmasters, which released one live album. You sing on it and, if we were going to attach a genre label to it, it’s more akin to R&B or soul music. For decades it was a Holy Grail album for collectors, but thankfully it got re-issued a few years back. I’m curious about how you got involved with that music and when you transitioned into doing things like Children of the Fire.
HL: Well, at 14 I was playing with T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Otis Redding and playing with a great singer who was so extraordinary that Curtis Mayfield said for him to join his group [The Impressions]. But he suffered a great deal from drug use so that was unsuccessful, but not because he was not one of the most brilliant voices I’ve ever heard. So I liked being around great singers for so long, I figured I’d just do it.
You know, when Gil Evans and Jimi Hendrix were to do this record but then Jimi died, Gil said, “Hannibal, I’d like you to sing on the Hendrix pieces.” I said, “Yeah right, Gil.” He said, “Yours is the voice I hear for it and I want you to sing on it.” I said, “Gil, please, come on.” Gil was always serious. So I thought about it. He set the record date up, we went in, and I loved it. But I never considered myself a singer, unless everybody’s good and drunk. That’s when I figure I sound pretty good. On this record I really enjoyed it, but that was the nature of Gil. He always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves, like a great basketball coach or something.
FJO: But I listened sober to you singing on the earlier Soulmasters record and I loved it!
HL: Yeah. [laughs]
FJO: I hate putting things into categories—that’s soul, that’s jazz, or that’s classical. That’s all marketing nonsense, but for years you were marketed in the jazz world, even though I know that’s a term that you don’t really use for your music. So I’m curious about how you navigated through these different boxes people try to put music into since that Soulmasters album was coming more from a soul or R & B—or even a funk—place than from a jazz place, but then your subsequent music went in a very different direction. These were all very separate categories from each other back in the ‘70s.
HL: Well, I had ‘Trane [John Coltrane] in my head since I was 13. His music and my mother’s love helped me to recover from an accident that resulted in three weeks of total loss of memory. I began to live in two worlds and still do. Someone just asked me where the sounds that I create come from. Well, it comes from that other world I live in. In this other world, there’s no fear. There’s no hatred. It’s beautiful.
FJO: I brought up Children of the Fire already, but I’d like to talk about it some more with you. It really feels like the beginning of who you’ve come to be as a total musician. One of the things I find so fascinating about it is that in addition to playing amazing trumpet lines, you’re also doing some very unusual things on a koto.
HL: I was always interested in the scales of the Eastern part of the world. Everywhere I go, I see things that in fact teach me and inform me. I try as best as I can to be respectful of it, applying a certain level of scholarship, research, and thought. During one of my tours in Japan, I heard the koto played by a master. You can tune it to any scale you want. So of course the first scale I heard was the blues. So I got one and I started experimenting with it. I found that it really made me feel better when I had a headache. So I started using it when I’d have headaches. If a friend of mine was depressed, I’d have him come to my apartment and I’d play it. He felt better.
FJO: Well, what I loved about what you did with the koto is that you were playing it in such a way that it made me hear a connection between the koto in Japan and the kora in the Gambia. They are so completely far away from each other geographically, but I was hearing resonances.
HL: Of course, there was Pangaea. The physical example of the oneness of everything and everyone—that’s Pangaea. That was the land mass. Well, the spiritual land mass of humanity is music. No matter where you go, you’ll hear a common human tonality if you listen for it. But if you go saying what I hear is greater than this, you won’t hear the commonality. You’ll miss out on all that richness. Music is the spiritual Pangaea of humanity.
FJO: That’s a very nice way of putting it. It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years back with Randy Weston which sadly, as it turned out, was only weeks before he passed.
HL: Knowing him, meeting him, and eating his biscuits—his father taught him how to make biscuits. Those are some of the greatest biscuits I ever had in my life. We lived down the street from each other in Brooklyn. I was on St. James Place. What a great gift he was and is. Man. Whew.
FJO: The way you put that is yet another example of the inspiring way you are able to see tragic events and focus on them in a way that allows us to celebrate the humanity beyond the tragedy. One of the most moving examples of this in your music, for me, is The Angels of Atlanta, which was a response to the horrible serial murders of 29 people in Atlanta—mostly young African American children. But the music you created was mostly not mournful; it’s often uplifting.
HL: Well, you can call it a gamma ray burst or whatever you want, but that’s why we’re here. A gamma ray burst is today the most powerful force in existence, right? I liken it to giving birth. I’ve never known a woman to give birth to a child and feel no pain. What our world and what our nation are going through now is giving birth. Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering. But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.
FJO: So you think things are going to be better.
HL: Absolutely. It’s in preparation for what I call the new being. The new being has no hatred of anything or anyone and has no fear of anything or anyone. Therefore, it doesn’t need a god and doesn’t need a devil. It doesn’t need a heaven. It doesn’t need a hell. The ancestors say that heaven and hell are made by the actions of your hands.
FJO: We talked a little bit before about the different musical traditions that have informed the work that you do and how you don’t see any barriers between them, but I’m curious how this plays out when you work with specific musicians. Say, for example, the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who—like most classical music players—sit with notated music in front of them on a music stand, read from their parts, and turn that into music. Based on what you or whoever else wrote in the music that’s in front of them, they take those written guidelines and the additional visual directions of a conductor, and from that make their own interpretation. In other musical traditions—like work songs, spirituals, even blues—melodies are passed down from generation to generation rather than being learned from looking at notations on a page. Instead the musicians hear it back and will re-create it. It inevitably comes out slightly different, which is how it becomes their own. But then with groups of jazz musicians and other kinds of improvisatory musicians, you might have someone who is the group’s leader, who has composed the music for the group, but each of the musicians involved will contribute their own voices in real time and create along with it. Those three ways of making music are very different from each other. But you write pieces that reflect all three of those ways of making music, so I’m wondering how that works when you create music involving an orchestra.
HL: Well, first of all, being a composer-in-residence with this orchestra has given and taught me so much. First of all, it reminds me of the extraordinary skill of these musicians and, in addition, the extraordinary love they have for all music. There are many musicians in this band that play in salsa groups and in jazz groups. The paradigm of what is called classical music is something that’s in flux now, too. As it should be. The foundation of that music—Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, all of them—if they were alive today, they would be part of the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Celia Cruz. Because they had the Pangaea mind.
The conductor of this orchestra has the Pangaea mind. Everything goes through the conductor. So the musicians play according to the knowledge, the skill, and the openness of the conductor. When this orchestra plays this music, we play field shouts [sings]: “I am that I am…I am who I am…” They love it. So it’s just a matter of the composer telling their [own] story. It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do. I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.
FJO: So are there any specific guidelines you offer orchestra musicians when you have the opportunity to work directly with them, as you have been doing through this Music Alive residency with the Philadelphia Orchestra, or to any of the singers in the choruses you have been working with, or is it all in the scores you write for them?
HL: There are things I need to say to the choir [for Healing Tones]. They need to know who they are in this piece; they’re the ancestors. They’re not just singing notes, and they’re not just singing words. These were notes and words given to heal. To heal, you must become what you’re singing. You must become what you’re seeing on the paper in order that the ancestors come from other places and from in here, because the ancestors are in here first of all. They’re in our memory, so when we live a certain way, when we play a certain way, they become obvious. I have to tell them these things, so they won’t get confused. It’s not just singing the notes. It’s becoming the sound.
The Everlasting says to the shaman, “One day this garden will be gone. It will only exist in your memory and in the stars in the heavens that once looked upon it.” The shaman says, “How will it come, Everlasting? How will it end? Where will it come from?” The Everlasting says, “It will come from the sky. And with it will come the end to all that you know. And the beginning of all you have yet to know.”
In the base of our brain lies everything that ever was. Every gamma ray burst that ever existed and that will ever exist. My great regret with humanity is that they do not see the full infinity of the mind. We’re still groping in the dark about the true nature and quality of the mind.
FJO: But if you become the notes—
HL: Then you see it. Then there’s no fear. There’s no hatred. Then there’s everlasting life. This goes away, but this goes somewhere else. That’s the everlasting life. It’s not in a cup or a chalice.
FJO: Or even in a score.
HL: Or even in a score, brother.
FJO: In recent years, you have been so focused with the orchestra, but the first group you created music for as Hannibal was a group you called the Sunrise Orchestra.
HL: Ooooh! Oh, man!
FJO: It begs the question of what makes a group of musicians an orchestra.
HL: I think it’s how they hear and how you hear. When Diedre [Murray] would play the cello, I heard bass, but I also heard flute, I heard oboe, I heard English horn. I heard all those wind instruments in her cello, the way she would play it. When I played with Roy Haynes, I heard French horn. And I heard tuba when he played the bass drum. Then, in the overtones in his cymbals, I heard trumpet. I heard it all. And I realized that it was all connected.
FJO: So it actually wasn’t such a conceptual stretch when you created the first of your compositions that was performed by a symphony orchestra, African Portraits, back in 1990.
HL: The two musical bookends to my life are African Portraits and One Land, One River, One People. African Portraits saved my life. I went to Kenya to die. My Park Avenue doctor said I would die. I had double pneumonia. If we’d go to the hospital immediately, I still would probably die, so he made me sign a release form and I booked the next flight going to Africa, because I wanted to die in the land of my great-grandfather who was taken from Africa.
So I got on the airplane with my trumpet and three hypodermic needles with penicillin and a bag of dry ice. I wrote my mother a thank you letter. Thank God it never got mailed. The plane was going to Nairobi, Kenya, via London. When the door of the plane opened, there began my healing. There was a man I’d never seen—a stranger—he walked up, helped me down the steps, put me in his jeep, drove me out to what I later found out was the Serengeti. In that drive, for the first time, I saw 40 feet away a herd of elephants that wasn’t confined. That was my medicine. I left my penicillin on the plane, because when the door opened, there began my healing. Then seeing the elephants. Then we drove out to this place, and he said, “Wait here.” And he went and he talked with this man dressed in clothing like I’d never seen before. Certainly unlike the images that the then-Tarzan movies portrayed of men of color— big buck-eyed idiots.
He said, “I’m gonna take you into a place, and I’ll come back and get you before the sun comes up.” He came back and got me early in the morning. In the meantime, I’m going in and out of consciousness, but the medicine I had received so far kept me alive until he came back and got me. We then went back to this village, this same spot. But at this point, the whole village had gathered, dressed in clothing that I’d never seen. They had formed a circle and there was an opening facing the east. And on this side of the circle was the elder of the tribe who touched my face and said, “Welcome home, my son.” Those my age said, “Welcome home, my brother.” And on the other end of the circle was a lady who had a newborn baby whose father had been killed by a lion, and she took his hand and rubbed my face and said, “Welcome home, my father.” The healer saw my tongue, made me a tea, I think from acacia leaves. And the next day, I was running with the kids on the Serengeti.
HL: So that’s that other world—that world with no fear, because I had no fear of dying. I went to die, and I was reborn. When I was about to leave, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life. I wrote in my journal that it was like if someone would take a chain and tie it to my guts and drag them out. But the only reason I went back [to the United States] is because my mother was still here. I had to make sure that she didn’t get that letter. I hoped she didn’t get that letter, which she didn’t.
But then from seeing the truth of this, brother, I was reborn and then I could understand why five white men would jump on me and break my collar bone when I’m walking to the white school with my brand new trumpet, trying to figure out how to play “Tenderly” with vibrato to play for my mother for her birthday. They were gonna brutalize me because I’m in the so-called white part of town. That was just one of a myriad of instances that could have changed the backbone of my humanity.
When I got back, I was overcome with anger. But before I left, the chief said, “Tell my son to be mindful of anger. It will destroy him. And it will not help my people.” For three weeks, I stayed in my apartment on 312 West 89th Street. I didn’t go out. People brought me food. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe’s girlfriend lived next door to me and she gave me food. I was too angry to be among other humans. And then came African Portraits.
FJO: The amazing thing about that piece is it combines so many different forces—three choruses, an orchestra, a kora soloist, a gospel singer, jazz players, all these different people. It’s very expensive to put on because it requires so many people, yet it’s been done more than 200 times.
HL: Four thousand dollars a minute it costs to rehearse it.
FJO: That’s amazing.
FJO: Normally folks at orchestras complain about such expenses. If they do music of a living composer, they’ll do a ten-minute piece and you can’t use two harps. But this thing is over an hour and you’ve put in all this extra stuff, yet it gets done all over the place.
HL: I followed orders. There was the order of the chief that I not use anger. The first word of the piece is the word god—dafengba—in Mande. It ends with the word god in English.
FJO: And that piece was the door opener. You suddenly became recognized as a classical composer.
HL: I never thought of that.
FJO: Over the past decade you’ve created several massive oratorios for chorus and orchestra—Dear Rosa Parks for the Detroit Symphony, One Land, One River, One People for the Philadelphia Orchestra which you mentioned, and now, also for them, Healing Tones, which is the culmination of this Music Alive residency. And everything connects to everything else. Music Alive is a partnership program of the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA (the successor organization to Meet The Composer, which was involved in the commissioning of African Portraits). And this residency has also been an important catalyst for outreach activities in the community that you have spearheaded, such as visiting a prison with members of the orchestra.
HL: We’re all in a prison, brother. We’re all in prison if we cast our eyes from those in need. We will remain in a prison until we start to see the divine in others, and the divine in ourselves.
FJO: And can music take us there?
HL: Oh yeah. Music is the key. Music is the key to the door of our imprisonment. It’s the most effective key I know.