Synchronicity doesn’t get much more righteous than Columbus’ preeminent modern interdisciplinary arts institution, the Wexner Center, awarding our finest composer, Mark Lomax II, with their residency award for one of the most ambitious projects in Columbus music, 400: An Afrikan Epic (pre-order at the link). Lomax premieres a suite of work from this 12-album epic under the Wexner’s auspices at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, January 26th at 8pm (tickets available here.) I had the privilege of meeting Lomax at a downtown coffee shop to discuss the project; continue below for that conversation and video.
The 12 records divide history into 400-year cycles, with the 400 years since the Transatlantic Slave Trade is agreed to have begun in the middle. They span long-running contexts of Mark Lomax’s work like the Ogun Meji Duo with Eddie Bayard; the Mark Lomax Trio with Bayard and Dean Hulett; and the Mark Lomax Quartet adding William Menefield; to ensembles that hadn’t recorded with Lomax like the Urban Art Ensemble with the quartet and Mary Davis on cello, Norman Cardwell-Murri on viola, Erin Gilliland and William Manley on violins; to Ucelli featuring Mary Davis along with Cora Kuyvenhoven, Pei-An Chao, and Wendy Morton, all on cello; and the Atlanta percussion ensemble Ngoma Lungundu. It’s a staggering piece of work I’ve only started absorbing in the three weeks I’ve had a press copy.
Asked about the daunting challenge of distilling such wide-ranging music into one concert program, Lomax said, “It’s the Urban Art Ensemble with Will [Menefield] playing the piano. He and I will conduct certain sections. It’s a suite using themes from various parts of the 12-album cycle and with new music at the end. There are sections one to one, it starts with the drum. It’s almost the Charles Dickens framework with this rhythm taking us to different parts of time. Things are interspersed throughout – I see these things visually so I envision a village scene and there’s a scene set in the future that might sound a little like Steve Reich where I’m playing a rhythm against that straight quarter-note pulse because the duple and the triple are not mutually exclusive. That means we don’t have to see ourselves as distinct human beings; we are one human race.”
Lomax spoke a little about the theoretical basis for the work. “I have a theory – when we were connected to our land, our gods, and our people in Africa, there were certain rhythms ingrained in our genetic makeup. Because vibration, rhythm, it’s all the same, right? When we were taken away from Africa, we became exposed to a different rhythm.”
Lomax drummed on the table to illustrate the point. “If you think about Africa, there’s a cyclical nature, four against three against four. What’s Western rhythm?” He played a straighter, more martial beat. “It’s duple, instead of triple, rhythm. There’s a lot more flexibility [in the cyclical time]. It’s the difference between what Elvin Jones plays and Louis Hayes, as an example. Both great drummers but they approach rhythm completely differently. Elvin had the cyclical thing; Hayes wasn’t a straight player but he played in that more linear, duple framework in terms of swing.”
“I think that having been programmed with this Western, military, march rhythm has helped to obfuscate who we really are. We’re not vibrating at our optimal frequency. The drums are trying to call back to the African drums but not playing explicitly African rhythms. We’re recalling but we’re different still. We can still become, again, but it won’t be what it was. That’s how it comes full circle.”
Coming full circle and awakening are paramount concerns for Lomax in 400. He said “It’s palindromic. Past, present, future, is the macrostructure for the work.” Befitting its subject, the piece begins and ends with the drum. The first record, The First Ankhcestor, features Lomax in collaboration with the percussion ensemble Ngoma Lungundu. Lomax said, “[Their name] means ‘the drum that thunders.’”
“They’re the drummers at my father’s church. My father is a Presbyterian pastor, a theologian who teaches Afrocentric homiletics. He’s traveled across the continent of Africa learning traditional religious practices and he’s incorporated a lot of that into the traditional Presbyterian liturgy. So the service begins and ends with the drum. When they play, the way they’re blending things in the context of traditional Christian worship, bringing this African spiritual presence, felt fitting for the concept of this project. You’re hearing four drummers [on Song of the Ankhestor] and I’m playing too. Mostly [I’m playing] bell parts and things like that when I’m not playing drums. The final record [Afrika United] is all me. The symbolism there is: with the first record, the drums are all in conversation. The drum set is a child of the African drum; every drum is a child of the African drum. Because of how slavery shifted the trajectory of a particular segment of the African people, particularly on the west coast, there was a transformation.”
“A new people were born, and so we had to create a new drum. There’s that evolution from the drums that I play in conversation with and connected to the African drum to where that essence is still there but it can stand on that tradition on its own. I’m trying to put them in the same space with obvious reverence being paid to the ancestral drum.”
Lomax spoke about the personal and wide-ranging spiritual connection to this history. “By my Dad’s count, there are probably five, definitely less than ten, African-American pastors who practice what they call ‘liberation theology.’ There’s a book called A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone published in 1960, about using the concept of ‘diety’ to free you both spiritually and physically. If you think about the Haitian revolution, a lot of that is attributed to their shirking of Western religious concepts and reincorporating the Yoruba tradition of Ifá into their practice because the Western religion was being used as a tool of oppression.
“That’s woven throughout . The third album, Song of the Orisha, is directly about the Yoruba tradition. In effect, Orisha are angels or saints. In South America, [for example], traditional worship was prohibited; they had to find ways to hide it, so they matched them to saints [of the Western canon]. “
Lomax dug deeper into that interweaving of the past and the spirit. “Stokely Carmichael Kwame Ture said ‘If you want to get beyond slavery you have to start before it.’ If we, as African-Americans, start with slavery as our beginnings, that’s trauma. Where in our history, then, do we find a time when we were whole and healthy human beings? So that time started tens of thousands of years before now. That’s why it starts with The First Ankhcestor. The ankh is a symbol of life but it’s also a person. You can even look at the symbols. We are always our greatest resource. Our cells have a perfect memory. If we can recall that time we were healthy and happy and whole – maybe not perfect – then we can get through the trauma that disrupted that trajectory.
“The Tree of Life represents a meditation structure that calls back to The Dance of the Orisha. The Spirits of the Egungun represents ancestral reverence. At the point where we reconnect to our spiritual center, we reconnect to our ancestors. In the African tradition, they are the intermediary; they are always acting in our favor, or against us if we don’t do what we’re supposed to do. There’s the sense that no one ever really dies because energy cannot be created or destroyed. Therefore they just transform.”
On a deep level, Lomax said, “That means I have to behave a certain way. I can’t sit here and disrespect you, because I’d be disrespecting my ancestors. They’re here. Think about trauma and how it changes us at the genetic level. Research has been showing the way to change what we’ve internalized as depression or a surplus of powerlessness in people who have been oppressed is: strength-based stories begin to develop a sense of self-worth and value. My Grandfather, who has passed, is here, watching over me, making a way for me. So I have a responsibility not just to myself but to him, and the ancestors before. It’s that lineage, that narrative, that says ‘I am because they were.’”
Going back to the first time I saw Lomax opening for and backing Amiri Baraka, he’s had an uncanny affinity for text, made clear recently on his Drumversations record which I reviewed for this site. 400 takes that to new heights. That affinity for text and the voice came early. “My Mother writes children’s music and she’s also a reading teacher so words have always been important in our house. And I grew up arranging music for singers. I’ve worked with a lot of singers over the years. Right after graduation, I started playing at a place called Snaps N Taps, and working with the poet Scott Woods. I did the arrangements for his Black Air Poets. Scott helped me understand how to work with a text.”
Lomax sees deeper connections between percussion and text. “In many African cultures, the drums literally speak the language of the people. My interest in the connection between the voice, particularly speech, and the drum is that we lost the ability to understand the drum in a literal sense. Because we don’t speak that way; we have inflection, but we don’t have a tonal dialect. You can’t play a pitch on the drum that represents a syllable. Reading Francis Bebey’s African Music when I was in High School, I became enamored – and still am – of trying to get the drums to talk. There are talking drums in African music but I mean the drum set. Calling back to that tradition. I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet. I want to do a solo drum set album where the performance is a recitation of poetry where the drums are playing the poem. I’m trying to figure out a notation that makes sense, it can’t be standard because you’re dealing with different inflections. That’s my next move.”
The most obvious pairing of text to music in 400 is The Coming, the fourth record of the piece featuring Daniel Black reading from his book with backing from the Mark Lomax Quartet. It sets a new standard for seamless integration of spoken word and music. “He’s a friend of mine who teaches at Clark Atlanta. He’s written several books but this one, I don’t know how he did it. It feels like an ancestor was giving him, word-for-word, every bit of text; he channeled it so clearly. I knew it was a powerful book just from hearing him talk about it, I bought it from him right there on the spot. We were doing a gospel concert in Atlanta around Christmas in 2016 or so. I was playing, the book had just come out and I wanted to support him [anyway] but when I saw the cover and heard him discuss it, I knew I gotta get this book. I bought a couple of copies and I couldn’t put it down. I started writing immediately – sketches, ideas. The piece has three movements that mirror the three movements of the book and I chose the passages he reads so the music matches the narrative.”
That literary empathy extends to Four Women. The record features the Columbus cello quartet Ucelli on four portraits of important women, three of whom used or use writing a key point of their larger work. “That was the hardest piece because there were so many women that I wanted to have represented, from modern folks like Michelle Obama to people in history, all the way back to ancient Kemet. As a man looking at Me Too and all this stuff around gender bias, racial bias, sexual bias, who also has been married to the mother of his children for almost 18 years and has two daughters, and is seeking to create something that honors them, I wanted to find four women that had a throughline that was consistent but were different manifestations of the feminine áṣẹ, the feminine energy.”
“In the case of Queen Nzinga, she learned immaculate Portuguese and she negotiated, using diplomacy to make sure the Portuguese didn’t annex her land which is present-day Angola. But she was also the first head of state for that culture to ride a horse into battle. Not only that, but she didn’t want to be called Queen; she demanded that her people call her king and treat her with all the rights and respect all the powers she wielded as king. That level of fortitude – it was never about her, it was always about her responsibility to her people, to her ancestors. In the modern day struggle for human rights, so many more women have been at the forefront. That selflessness we, in a patriarchal society, say ‘Well, you’re a woman, you’re nurturing,’ and we often see that as a weakness when it’s the greatest strength. She brought all of that as a great leader in history.”
“We wouldn’t know half of what we know about the lynchings that took place in the early to mid part of the 20th century without Ida B. Wells. Before Rosa Parks, she took [the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad Company] to court because they wouldn’t let her sit in the section where she’d purchased a ticket. She used the power of the pen but didn’t hide behind her words; she was with the people. She left the South under threat of death and returned to save two gentlemen who had been wrongfully imprisoned. She understood her abilities were beyond just her. The fight for human rights is one where you have to see yourself beyond yourself.”
Moving further into the 20th century, Lomax said, “Angela Davis is a public figure I’ve been enamored of for as long as I can remember. That iconic image of her walking in the courtroom, Afro, black power fist like I’ve got this. My Dad has a Ph.D., my Mom has a Master’s Degree, I was raised around a lot of highly educated black people. But she showed me how important it was – even before Dr. King – to be educated in a way that allows you to engage fully. With all the faculties. She was educated, literally, in Germany as a philosopher; she had an American education, European education, the best. But that didn’t change her consciousness; that didn’t stop her from having an impact, not only for black people but for women, for prisoners.
“A lot of times, you think about the DuBoisian ‘talented ten,’ and how that didn’t work because a lot of people entered into that strata, took advantage of whatever spoils they could, and kept it for themselves. I don’t blame them! When you’ve not had and you finally have? It’s difficult to find a balance. That’s why people who hit the lottery go broke in five years, right? You think they have all these resources now, they can do this good, but they’ve never had it. [Davis] didn’t let her education get in the way of her experience and her work.”
One of our shared passions is the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the subject of the closing movement of Four Women. Lomax said, “Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie] is really interesting to me. While the three women who come before her were in very real, present danger because of the way things were, Chimamanda is Nigerian by birth, lives in Lagos and has an apartment and teaches in New York, and I wonder if white feminists really understand what she’s saying as an African woman talking about feminism in the context of a non-racialized construct. The patriarchal structure of Nigerian society is not run by white males. One could argue a lot of that [structure] could have been influenced by Colonialism and you can’t negate that influence. But her fight is not with white men when it comes to women’s rights in Nigeria.
“So when she comes to the West and she’s talking about feminism to largely white female audiences, I wonder if things are getting lost in translation. That’s why that piece starts with her strutting down Broadway then goes into a more classical texture, almost a fugue. I think she’s radical at home but when she comes here her argument is kind of conservative because she doesn’t have to face what many African-American women are facing. I don’t know that she has to balance that, I don’t think it’s her responsibility. I’m playing with the perception that we put on her because she’s saying these powerful things that are absolutely true but may not apply one-to-one where she’s coming from. That, to me, is fascinating.
“Women of African descent, whether they’re in the diaspora or born and bred on the continent, should absolutely have the freedom to just be. And yet because the world is the way it is, we put these narratives on them that box them into a framework that ‘we,’ the public can ‘understand.’ I think [Ngozi Adichie] turns that on its head. “
Another important figure for this writer and the well-spring of the rich Blues in August piece was August Wilson. Short North Stage hosted the premiere of the piece, commissioned by the Johnstone Fund for New Music, as part of their landmark August Wilson Festival. ”They thought it would be great to have a concert element with a composer commission. Jack and Zoe called me and I said ‘Hell yeah.’ I was already an August Wilson fan.
“I wrote Blues in August, which was the first time the Urban Art Ensemble – which didn’t have its name yet – performed together. That was fun because the strings allow me a different set of textures, timbres, and colors. It’s something different because we don’t see that kind of mixed ensemble in Columbus a lot. I don’t know we see it a lot elsewhere. I had been wanting to do that and they offered me an opportunity. The first four movements are each named for a play, my favorite plays [of the cycle.] I saw Fences and Gem of the Ocean and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“There’s a chant in Gem of the Ocean, that’s where that bass line comes from right after the strings.” To illustrate his point, Lomax sings the chant to the bass line, “City of the bones.” He continues, “I also know Dwight Andrews who wrote a lot of music for August Wilson’s plays. I asked what he was thinking and it was mundane stuff, ‘I needed something for The Piano Lesson so I just sat at the piano and it was like church.’ I’m like, ‘That’s it?’ There’s a certain thing that August always calls forth in his work, that’s deeply spiritual. Substantive humanity. The best expressions of humanity I’ve ever seen or read.”
On Wilson’s Fences, Lomax said, “I read that play probably ten times. I saw it once, I watched all the PBS stuff. And I started to realize the framework for that play is a baseball game [the protagonist Troy Maxson had been a lauded baseball prospect cut short by the era]. It took me a while to get to it, it’s not just baseball that’s in his past, that’s the archetypal framework for what’s going on. When I started to see that, there are a lot of unforced errors because of the perception of things. The perception that ‘I missed the boat’ or the perception that ‘They didn’t see me.’ This, this, and this, so, therefore ‘I have to fill this hole with somebody who made me laugh.’ It’s an unforced error because it’s a swing and miss. You keep striking out, after a while… I’m thinking about the ball that’s bouncing, you’re down to get it, and it pops up.” Lomax sings a few notes from the piece that echo that sense perfectly. To be able to capture that metaphorically, he all but says it, that’s where [the theme] came from.”
“With ‘Gem of the Ocean,’ I wanted to capture the deep spirituality. That’s why I think the words are so powerful. Like Daniel Black, it was just coming through him. Channeling. ‘Gem of the Ocean’ is a deeply spiritual play to me and the quasi-atonal opening is trying to capture the ethereal nature of spirit. Then we come in with the more traditional Coltrane-esque kind of thing, then it’s all blended together. I renamed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone to ‘Joe Turner’s New Money’ and the idea there is transformation happens when you least expect it. He’s carrying something and through the unfolding of the play, that thing gets released. In the PBS documentary, his wife described a ritual he had: he’d circle the typewriter and with his hands, not wring them but do one of these numbers,” Lomax made a hand-washing gesture. “Then he would type. As if he was communing with that ancestral voice. The last movement was just my thinking about that ritual, African melodies, and kora music.”
Asked if he’s done much work with strings before this project, Lomax nodded and said, “Not a lot of recordings. I’ve done a lot of orchestrations of gospel music for orchestras all over the world, I’ve written a string quartet, I’ve written a ballet for chamber orchestra that’s not yet been performed, music for piano trios. With any writing, even for my quartet [of many years], it’s not finished until I hear it. You don’t know it works until it works.”
Ma’afa, named for the Swahili term for the “terrible occurrence” of the slave trade, also features strings, opening with barbed, acidic dissonances but balancing those pieces with timbres fans of Lomax’s jazz work more often associate with his writing. The third piece features a saxophone solo that made me stop walking and stand in the street, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard him play, and that’s coming from a long-time fan. I asked Lomax about the long-running dilemma of balancing that orchestration with improvisation.
“One of my gripes with ‘third stream,’ in general – I’m not saying I consider this third stream, but there’s definitely a connection – is that oftentimes it bends one way or the other. It’s either really heavy on the classical or really heavy on the jazz. Very rarely do you find an organic hybrid. In creating ideas for an ensemble that incorporates any non-improvising musician I want to make sure they’re an integral part of the piece. I love Max Roach’s double quartet stuff but I get the sense the string quartet is just taking the place of the piano; they’re not playing things necessarily idiomatic to what a string quartet can do. So I wanted to make sure the textures were such that the string players feel comfortable, the improvisers feel comfortable, and one can’t happen without the other. That’s the lens I’m always composing through for that kind of mixed ensemble.”
This extended work afforded Lomax the opportunity to revisit one of his earliest records, Tales of the Black Experience, after 20 years. I asked Lomax about the experience and he said, “Strange. We haven’t played it since 1999. I felt like the 20-year-old me, in a lot of ways, still has legs. It was the first large piece I ever composed and it became the genesis for all this other stuff. It’s an overview of the whole project because it starts, again, with Africa, and ends with a spiritual awakening. It’s placed at the beginning of the last section because we can’t ever forget, we have to always remember. Remembering isn’t only the trials and tribulations, it’s also remembering when we were whole and healthy. As we walk, that’s why those stories are important. They help us remember who we can become.”
There may be no better use of art than memory in the service of empathy. And we have no greater practitioner of those core values than Mark Lomax II. Miss 400 at your own peril.