A Hopeful and Healing Conversation With Composer Hannibal Lokumbe

Posted in MusicWorld on September 19, 2018 by
Photo: Mark Winslett

For more than four decades, composer and jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe (né Marvin Peterson) has been celebrating and commemorating the African-American experience through music that leaves audiences and orchestras alike spellbound with its poignant and riveting historical rawness. His work, which can be defined as nothing short of a healing awakening, has been commissioned and performed by symphonies and orchestras across the country, including the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. In 1990, his oratorio African Portraits debuted at Carnegie Hall with conductor Paul Lustig Dunkel and the American Composers Orchestra. Since its debut, African Portraits has been performed over an astounding two hundred times by orchestras across America, and was recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. Other orchestral and choral recordings that have forever impacted listeners include Can you hear God Crying?, Dear Mrs. Parks, God, Mississippi and a Man Called Evers, In The Spirit Of Being, A Shepherd Among Us, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many others. In 2014, Lokumbe completed Trilogy Freedom Dance Cycle, a narrative about the murders of three men –– James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner ––who were registering African-Americans to vote in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer Campaign in 1964.

Lokumbe’s professional home base now is with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he has been chosen for residency through Music Alive, a national three-year composer-orchestra program of the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA. This residency continues Lokumbe’s long history with the orchestra, which premiered his commissioned work One Heart Beating in 1999 as part of its centennial celebration. In 2015, under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Lokumbe’s piece One Land, One River, One People, was also part of the orchestra’s repertory. His musical project for the Music Alive program, entitled Healing Tones, is a community-commission set to engage Philadelphians in writing a “hymn for the city” that focuses on healing communities that are experiencing trauma, homelessness, and divisiveness. Included in that community are inmates of the Philadelphia Detention Center, guests of Broad Street Ministry, and the youth of Philadelphia. These groups represent collaborators in the Orchestra’s HEARinitiative, which invests in projects that utilize music as a tool for Health, Education, Access, and Research. The world premiere of this new oratorio, Healing Tones, will be part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2018-19 concert season.

About Lokumbe’s residency, which began in the 2016-2017 season, Maestro Yannick says, “Hannibal is such a unique musician, full of vibrancy and life. I’m so grateful that the Philadelphia Orchestra and I have had the opportunity to collaborate with him on so many meaningful projects. It is incredibly important for our orchestra to work closely with our beloved Philadelphia community, and Hannibal’s work has helped to bring us closer to one another. We are particularly excited to premiere his Healing Tones this season, which will be the culmination of his three-year term as Music Alive Composer-in-Residence of our orchestra. We can expect Healing Tones to bring an important and impactful message of hope and light to our audiences.” 

BMI is proud to share Hannibal Lokumbe’s unique and touching story through the following interview, which the renowned composer and equally accomplished trumpeter graciously provided.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you start your career and take the direction you have taken in terms of wanting to help people through your music?

For the first five years of my life, I lived on my grandparents’ farm. My best friend was the sky. Nature informed my every being, and to date is my greatest musical influence.

Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore said, “Hannibal empowers and inspires communities in a way that connects us all at an emotional and spiritual level. In 2015, during our world premiere of his One Land, One River, One People, we saw compelling and moving evidence of the ties he can fashion for audiences in settings from detention centers to the concert stage.” Tell us a bit about that work and your work in general. What message are you hoping to achieve and how do you make it resonate from a content perspective to affect the audience?

Music doesn’t end when the last note is played. It is not concluded once you leave the hall, club or church. Music is life and life is a constant. The true ministry of culture often happens beyond the walls of enclosed spaces where the listener has been directed to sit at attention as if by some rigid draconian code. Certainly, this model has its place, but for me it falls short of the model to which I am accustomed.

I first heard music in my mother’s womb, then in the hot cotton fields of central Texas, where shouts of affirmation would validate the spiritual potency of a song. The same was true on the plains of a reservation in South Dakota and in a Masai village on the Serengeti Plains. Music belongs everywhere and to everyone rich and poor alike.

Finally, I have found an organization in The Philadelphia Orchestra and in the brilliant conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who shares and supports such thinking. Now we play everywhere and everything. It is widely known, my belief that members of the audience are not merely an appendage of the music, but the music itself.

You are the composer-in-residence for the Philadelphia Orchestra. How did you get involved with that organization and what does your position entail?

The Orchestra and I have had an ongoing love affair which began with their performance of African Portraits in the early 90’s. With Maestro Yan, and this orchestra and administration, I am finally able to achieve many of the dreams of social parity I found previously wasted on the ears of conductors and administrators who lacked the courage or vision to step outside of their comfortable cubicles of perceived cultural safety.

You have worked with various social programs involving music. How do they shape who you are as a composer?

In 1974, I made my first prison visit at Bethlehem Prison in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Armed with only my trumpet and the presence of over six hundred inmates, we turned the room into a frenzy of human affirmation. I was startled when one of the inmates commented to me that, “They will never bring you back here Brother Hannibal.” “Why,” I asked. “Because you made us feel free,” he solemnly replied. I would prefer having that invitation more than winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, The Everlasting always finds a way for those willing to do the work of human restoration, for at present, through the work of my organization, The Music Liberation Orchestra, there are thousands of inmates I have had the honor of laughing and weeping with. I am overwhelmed with calls on Father’s Day from the children of MLO members I met in prison who are now free. Those calls are my accolades, my awards, my hits, my affirmation.

What elements do you think a  piece must have to connect with people on a spiritual level? How did you achieve that connection with Can you hear God Crying? which is a compelling title on its own.

Truth is the most far reaching element in my work. There is no fantasy involved. What I compose is what I am given and what I have lived. I have never laid on my back in the holds of a slave ship for over five months in chains as my Great Grandfather did, but after fasting and meditating on it, I was able to create the smell of it in Can You Hear God Crying and African Portraits. The human mind has the ability to accurately access anything, because in truth, there is nothing it is not a part of.

Your work African Portraits has been performed over two hundred times by orchestras across America. Why did you choose that title and how do the different “portraits” fit together?

African Portraits was my Burning Bush. One day I hope to write a book about it. Daniel Barienboim conducted and recorded it. At the conclusion of his sixth performance of it he commented, “It should be played every day.” I agree, as it more actively addresses the volatile issues currently overwhelming this nation and world on a far greater level than most of the classical repertoire constantly exposed to the public. How does the Viennese Waltz impact the tax paying relatives of gun violence on the South Side of Chicago? 

You lived in NY and were very active in the city’s jazz scene for more than three decades. Now you split your time between Bastrop, Texas and New Orleans. Why the change and how has that move impacted your work?

The Jazz scene reminded me too much of a plantation system… a few people in financial control of a number of artists, mostly of color. The music, of course, is the most advanced I have ever encountered. Jazz musicians are among the most highly educated people in the world. Like trying to describe the force we call God, there is and can never be a word which accurately describes what came from the minds and souls of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane.

If you listen closely to my orchestral compositions, you will often hear me playing what people call Jazz, I simply now play it with an ensemble of over two hundred extraordinary singers and musicians.

Is there one of your works that says the most about you as a composer and why?

There are two musical bookends to my life thus far: African Portraits and One Land One River One People.

African Portraits is the result of the search for the knowledge of my physical existence. Why was everything and everyone looking like me portrayed as being bad, illiterate, evil, illegitimate? Why would five grown white men brutally attack me, cut my lip, and try to destroy my brand-new trumpet just for walking to high school on the, “white part of town.” Why’s, which persist to this very day.

These “why’s” left me with only two options which were, to be profound, or to go insane. Because of music, my cultural and spiritual baptism on The Serengeti Plains and the heart of my mother Lillian E. Peterson, I was able to break free of the gravitational pull of racism, hatred and all that is born of it.

One Land One River One People is the result of my search for the essence of my Spiritual existence. It gives me chills to think about. During the performances, Maestro Yan pulled nuances from the score which revealed new possibilities for humanity. When the two of us met to review the score, he said that he would, “Meditate,” upon it. He has that Pangaea mind - that borderless vision so desperately needed at present.

Maestro Donald Dumpson, my beloved choral master for decades, has the same gifts of unrestricted vision, genius and openness. Working with them, and the musicians of this remarkable orchestra, is a gift I will never be able to fully grasp. There is no greater feeling than placing your newborn into the hands of those who will care for it as though it is their own, which in fact it is. Can’t wait until we record it. It is my ultimate gift to humanity and to the coming of The New Being, one of free mind, one not in need of creating a deity or a demon.

With all you’ve achieved in making people aware of the African-American experience, what legacy would you like to leave and how would you like to be remembered?

Being that Mother Africa is the womb of us all, there can be no experience which excludes her. I would like to leave a legacy of love, because love is everything. To be remembered as a Man of Jonah, Chief Musician, Of The Tribe of Jonah would be wonderful.

What’s next for you? 

Currently composing a major work entitled Healing Tones, a tribute to my Great Grandmother, a Cherokee Shaman who was a member of The Trail of Tears.  She has also been my spiritual guide since I was thirteen years old. The composition is an hour in length and features The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by MaestroYannick Nézet-Séguin, a mass choir with Dr. Donald Dumpson as choral master. The three soloists are Funmike Lagoke, singing the role of The Everlasting, Karen Slack, singing the role of Eternal Mother, and Roderick Dixon, singing the role of Shaman. The world premiere will be on March 28, 29, and 30, 2019, at Verizon hall on Broad Street in Philadelphia, Pa.