Hannibal Lokumbe: how history inspires musical influence








The African American Museum and American Jewish History Museum in Philadelphia / Photos by Amy Dennis

It’s Black History Month in Philadelphia – A time of reflection, celebration and … spring weather?!? Although the high temperatures this past weekend were shockingly warm for February, it certainly made for a beautiful afternoon of musical museum crawling.

On Saturday, February 25, Philadelphia’s African American Museum and American Jewish History Museum collaborated with the Philadelphia Orchestra for “And Their Voices Cry Freedom,” a musical performance and museum crawl event.

shawn-theodore-photographer-african-american-museum-of-philadelphiaWorks of Shawn Theodore, Photographer, on display at the African American Museum of Philadelphia / Photos by Amy Dennis

The lives of Fannie Lou Hamer, an African-American voting rights activist, and Anne Frank, a historical Jewish diarist and Holocaust victim, inspired the original string quartets “Fannie Lou Hamer” and “A Star for Anne.” Each piece was an original composition by Hannibal Lokumbe, Composer-in-Residence for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Music Alive program.

hannibal700pxPhoto courtesy of Hannibal Lokumbe

Together, The Philadelphia Orchestra violinists William Polk and Kimberly Fisher, violist Kerri Ryan and cellist John Koen performed “Fannie Lou Hamer” and “A Star for Anne.” Both pieces made their world premiere just last Wednesday.

Each musician brought Lokumbe’s compositions to life with “technique, sound and feeling,”- the three necessary elements of musical performance, according to Lokumbe.

IMG_2008.jpg“And Their Voices Cry Freedom” string quartet performing at the American Jewish History Museum / Photo by Amy Dennis

Although, Lokumbe is a natural born composer, he talks about food similarly to the way he talks about music, and couldn’t help sharing with the audience that he had some marinated turkey legs waiting for him at home that evening. I had the privilege of speaking with Lokumbe after the performance, to find out where he draws his musical inspiration from and of course, what he marinates those turkey legs in. . .

img_2034Interviewing Hannibal Lokumbe at the American Jewish History Museum in Philadelphia / Photo by Zeth Marra

How did you get your inspiration for the original pieces “Fannie Lou Hamer” and “A Star For Anne?”

Growing up in Texas, during the ’60s, it was very volatile, and very excruciatingly painful for me in terms of the way society saw me and looked at me. My mother had a dear friend, his name was Dave and he owned a pawn shop called “Dave’s Pawn Shop.” One day he was reaching for a book to give me and I noticed numbers on his arm, and I asked him about those numbers and he explained to me, of course, that he was in a concentration camp and what all of that meant. At age 13, I was much too young to transfer that into music on this level (gestures toward stage where string quartet was playing). I was playing blues at  the time and I often thought about that when I played. . . I got my trumpet when I was 13. That story that Mr. Dave shared with me stayed with me. And when I got old enough and mature enough to write down what I was feeling and what I learned from that story, that’s when I wrote “A Star for Anne.”

Fannie Lou Hamer has always been one of my angels. One day, again when I was 14, I had this dream that this woman was coming towards me on my back porch and she had a wheelbarrow, and in the wheelbarrow, was all of the notes to that piece for her that I wrote (“Fannie Lou Hamer”). And I remembered them, I retained them until I later wrote them. I see everything visually, all my music is visual, every piece I’ve ever written. All these notes started coming out of this wheelbarrow and I didn’t know what to do with them until I was skillfully able to write them.

Can you tell me a story about when you knew that you wanted to be a composer?

I was in the eighth grade, and I saw this beautiful young lady, her name was Linda Love, and I was too shy to approach her. So I wrote her a song called “Five Foot Even” because she was five feet tall, and I sneaked it to her. It was my first composition. And I was still too embarrassed to say anything. After she got married I saw her and she said “Why didn’t you ever talk to me? I loved the song.” I said “Well I didn’t know, you never said anything to me.” She said “I love it, I sing it to my husband everyday!” So I realized that music was a very powerful force, and a very powerful tool. It can have an impact.

What do you most look forward to in your collaboration with the Philadelphia orchestra?

To go to places where kids would never ever think they could be a composer or would never ever have enough money to have a private lesson from a professional musician.

We’re going into Holmesburg Prison; the other night we played at the Broad Street Ministry, an organization that feeds 7,000 homeless people everyday. That’s where I wanna take the music, I wanna take the music to where it can really help people, where people have no sense of hope. Because that’s what music was for me. In a cotton field, you can’t see the end of a cotton field once you’re in it. It goes straight up to Heaven. So my aunts, my uncles, my mother, my grandparents, when they would get too hot to cool themselves off, literally, they began to sing. So I saw the effect of music, to the degree that it could cool people down, so I knew there was something powerful about it.

From the talks that you gave, it sounds as if you really struggled trying to make a professional career out of creating music due to social stigma and society’s prejudices. If this is true, how did you overcome it?

I had an extraordinary mother, and my grandparents owned land. My great-grandfather, an escaped slave. . . He bought 101 acres of land, some of the most beautiful land you could ever imagine, he never worked for anyone else again in his life. His daughter, my grandmother, bought another 92 acres of land on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, which is where I grew up. So I was around people who were very powerful. Once I left the farm and went into town, I realized that society did not see me with the same love and respect as my family did. And so, from then on, I had conflict.

Do you still struggle with that conflict?

Oh of course, it never ends. My son is 18 years old, when he went to his prom I was up all night worrying if he would get killed or shot. I had to teach him how to survive a police encounter, my grandfather taught me, that’s why I was able to survive so many. An American shouldn’t have to teach their child how to survive a police stop.

Does it ever affect your writing?

Absolutely. It made me realize, first of all, what a privilege it is to be able to do that [music] because basically, I’m addressing my trauma. And it’s important as a human being to have a way to address your trauma, because if you don’t it will overcome you. It’ll make you violent and there’s a certain level of violence we can’t recover from. When a lot of my friends had football or basketball, there’s a limitation to that, but there’s no limitation to music. I am an eternal student of the craft. I’m always learning… I had to understand why people hate me because of the way I look. I had to deal with that or go insane. . . I was able to do that and I am able to do that, through music.

Is there a specific reason why you chose to compose for a string quartet?

Well, I love the sound. I love the Bach string quartet pieces and I love the sound of the strings. It’s wonderful. Isn’t it extraordinary the way they played? They became the music. There’s a difference between when you play the music and when you become the music. When you become what you’re playing then the people can be healed and be restored and that’s important.

What do you marinate your turkey legs in?

Spike, lemon powder, garlic powder. I cut up onions and garlic. First, I wash my wings really well, put vinegar on them, clean them. I put onions, garlic and celery in a pan with grapeseed oil, and sauté them real good. Then I get that mixture of spices that I told you about and I spice all the onions and garlic and celery in the pan. I warm it up, don’t cook it, just warm it a little. Then, I get a bag, put the turkey wings in the bag, from the pan, pour that over it and tie it, let it sit for about three days. Then, I put it in a pan, put foil over it and bake it at 350 for about an hour, and just let it cook internally, then I take the foil off and just crisp it up. That’s something I came up with.

Hannibal added laughing:

Yeah, this music thing, it’s alright. But in truth, I’m a cook.

img_2035Myself posing with Hannibal Lokumbe / Photo by Zeth Marra



One thought on “Hannibal Lokumbe: how history inspires musical influence

  1. Pingback: Thank you for your readership, more to come! | Philly Curated

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