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The Fascinating Hannibal Lokumbe: Believing in the Healing Power of Music

Hannibal Lokumbe
Hannibal Lokumbe

Jazz trumpeter, composer, poet, and community activist Hannibal Lokumbe noticed early in life that music had the power to change people's lives. He took up trumpet, and after college, moved to New York City, where he played with jazz greats Gil Evans, Roy Haynes, and Cecil Taylor, among others.

In Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of his "spiritatorio" - One Land, One River, One People, Hannibal is also taking music and conversation into different parts of the community.

His week-long schedule of visits include a Philadelphia Prison System's detention center in Northeast Philadelphia, the St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia, and Christ Church Neighborhood House in connection with the African-American Museum's Outcry exhibition at the Annual First Person Arts Festival.  More information here.

Q and A with Hannibal Lokumbe

Susan Lewis: Hannibal Lokumbe, so glad to have you in Philadelphia again.

Hannibal: Thank you. Thank you so much.

It’s exciting to have you here with your new work, One Land, One River, One People.  You’re doing a whole host of things in the community. For you, why is music so connected to the community?

Because it is the community, and the music is for the people – it’s theirs. It’s like trying to say you own the land, you don’t own the land. You just get to experience it for a while. We don’t own anything, really, except the miracle of experiencing life, being alive.  The other is a misnomer, it’s like fool’s gold to think you own something.  All you own is a chance to fellowship with people with humanity, that’s all.

But speaking of excitement, I’ve gone through three sticks of deodorant in the past 4 days. I’m so excited, I wake up in the middle of the night just sweating, you know, so I have to take a shower, and use more deodorant, you know, it’s unbelievable.   Maybe I’ll have to get some stronger, like my 16-17 year old son’s Axe deodorant, but it smells too bad, you know. But I’m excited; I’ve never used so much deodorant in such a short period of time.

I wake up in the middle of the night just smiling when I think of what is to come, and what has already transpired with this work. It’s the answer to my prayer. It’s the answer that I had sent out to the universe, to allow me to say to the people that “You are not who society say you are. You are very remarkable. Think twice about killing each other. Think twice about hurting each other. Think twice about trying to destroy each other, because we might have another shot at it, we might not. So you should act as though this is your last shot. It’s wonderful to be alive.

And music has been so integral to your life since you were very young. Can you talk a little about how music helped you on your journey?

Well, I grew up in a community of people of Jonah. I say people of Jonah, I mean as what people call African Americans. But I grew up in a community of Jonah people, and it was a very closed, very warm, very nurturing community.

It’s that village everyone always speaks of when they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, I’m a product of that. I was raised by a village. I had many mothers, many fathers, many sisters, cousins, everything. But I noticed that the suffering of the people in the community was relieved when they, believe it or not, began to pick cotton, and sing, and when they  were in church. And we would have great speakers. But the wigs wouldn’t start to jump until the music started.

So I realized, “Yeah that’s the thing that music, right? The music is it;  something about the music - the power of it.” Fortunately, I realized at 13, that music was my path. And whether I had one chicken in the pot or only one red bean in the pot, I was still at peace. Duke Ellington told me, once,  “You know Hannibal, 95% of life is knowing what you’re to do in life. That’s 95% of living – knowing what you want to do. And I was fortunate very early to know why I was born, and what my purpose was.

And you started playing trumpet?

Oooh oooh. I should be practicing now, but I mean you know, it’s an unending love affair. Dizzy Gillespie told me one time, I think he was about 64, he said, “Hannibal, I never played greater music. I never heard greater music to play than now.”

I said, “Diz, how can you say that?”

He said, “It’s true! Only way you’ll come to understand is that you live awhile.”

So that gave me more incentive to run my miles every day, and set up, and do sit ups, and not drink sodas. Things like that. So I’m insanely amazed by the miracle of just being, of life, and more and more.

And each day I say, “How could I fall even more in love with life? How could it be possible?” And then it happens; generally around a good meal, being with children, or music.

Where there any pivotal moments for you, that changed the direction of your life, or changed the direction of your music?  

Well, I think the death of Medgar Evers really had a profound impact on me. That’s when I began looking at how I can apply music to address social issues that are of great importance.   Actually, my first work wasn’t for full orchestra, but just strings, was “Children of the Fire,” and it was my commentary on war, and the Vietnam War, in particular.   Powerful piece of music.

And do you have any stories about encounters with children, or inmates, or anyone who responded to you in a way that helped you go forward?

Quite a few, and quite frequently, I’m happy to say. My work in the prisons has been the most rewarding work of my life, because I love transformation. And often the inmates, they say they’ve never had anyone explain certain things that we talk about it, when we sit in a circle. And so when many of them get out of prison, they never go back.

Some elect to live in the forest for a while, rather than resort to committing a crime to get money to try to find a shelter, or to find food. So they’ll call and they say – one brother in particular, he said, he was working in this chicken factory, and his boss called him a word that you never call a man that’s in prison, and that’s “a bitch.”  He called him that.

And he said, instinctively, he thought to just really try to destroy the guy physically, but then he recalled  the first Principle of Music Liberation Orchestra, the music organization I created. 

And the first principle of the Music Liberation Orchestra is to renounce violence, secondly, to acknowledge the presence of the divine, third to keep a journal for yourself and your children, and fourth, to fall in love with forgiveness.

So he said he folded his smock, and put it in the hands of his supervisor, and said, “Thank you for everything.” Two weeks later, he got a job, installing telephone poles in the ground. And now he’s the supervisor. But he said that clicked in his mind --  “renounce violence ” -- because he was about to physically attack this guy.

And he was part of the Music Liberation Orchestra? What is that?

Yes, “Hallelujah.” The Music Liberation Orchestra is the name of the organization I found, where I go into prisons around the country, and teach restoration – offer restoration to inmates.

We have a chapter here at Holmesburg Prison that I’ve been going to for some years now. And we’re going to perform a string quartet I wrote on Tuesday there, Fannie Lou Hamer.    And we’re going to do Mendelssohn  as well. And I have two chapters in Texas, a chapter in New Orleans at the New Orleans Parish Prison, and one in Minneapolis.

So moments before I take my last breath, my wish is that I have them all over the country.

That’s wonderful. Do the inmates - are they playing music, or just listening to music, or both?

Some do, it’s not mandatory that you’re a musician to be in the MLO, many are not. Some are physicians. It doesn’t matter. But I just use music, because that’s what saved me. That’s the metaphor I use to help them.

Because if I didn’t have the music, I can very well be in a cage too, like them. Because it helped me to deal with the violence that this society really was pushing me towards. Every time I look around, policemen  are stopping me. Every time I go in a store, I get followed. It’s a lot. The layers of that kind of treatment as a human being to another human being can create a monster.

And is it possible to describe how music soothes, or channels that into something positive, all those feelings?

Absolutely, look at the blues. The blues didn’t come from people living in a penthouse, or having their bills paid. Nor did the spirituals – didn’t come from that. It came from struggle, it came from suffering. So always the music has been sacred to me because I’m a witness to what it can do for people, and what it can do for me, certainly.

So this piece, “One Land, One River, One People” is kind of a culmination of what you’ve been working on?

It’s a culmination of my life, yes, absolutely. Because after dealing with the physicality of my existence, I wanted to get to the kernel of what I feel life is about, and that’s our spirituality. People don’t kill in the name of spirituality. They do kill in the name of religion.

And spirituality reaches across all religions?

Absolutely. It’s that tone that’s four miles above the Earth.

That’s terrific. Is there anything else you want to explain about this piece? I want to hear it so much!

Me, too! I only heard it in my head. I’ve been to a few choir rehearsals, and found myself really not needed at all. And so I start to pace, and then you have to use more deodorant, you know. At this point I’m just a flower on the wall. I’m second hand, and that’s okay.

There are 3 choirs, and how many musicians?

Three choirs. A full orchestra, a soprano singing the part of Amma, and a tenor singing the part of Nommo.

I had a female sing the part of Amma, which is God, for a number of reasons. And I wanted to pay homage to the phenomenon called  woman.    I wanted to pay homage to that. Once my daughter told me, which shocked me, she said in her school, they said to her, that there were no women angels.

And it terrified me, and I said, “Well, do you believe that?”

She said, “No, Dad”, she said, “But a lot of kids, I think they do.”

I said, “Well, Okay, I’ll see what I can do to work on that.”

And so in my last piece, Ku Na Na Mui -   which is the name of God in my great grandfather’s language, Pele, I had  Ku Na Na Mui  be  a woman. I had God play a part of woman. And in my piece, God Mississippi and a Man Called Evers I did the same.

So that was like contrived. That was a very distinct decision to do that. I’d like for children, for girls especially, to see that God is in the image of a woman. It’s beautiful.

It sounds as if there are many, many ways this piece will challenge expectations, and challenge things that we think we know.

I hope so, because it does it to me. Initially, I thought “one land” meant Africa. But then, my great, great grandmother taught me it meant the physicality of humanity.

I thought “one river” meant the Nile, and she said, “No, that’s the blood of humanity.” And “one people” meant the Africans, and she said, “No, that’s the spirituality of humanity.” So it’s important to know how to get out of the way of what you think you know.

Has she commented on your work recently?

She smiles. When it’s okay, she comes and stands and she smiles, you know. It’s a powerful thing. And always I feel in spirit when the music comes. That’s the affirmation.

Thank you so much, Hannibal Lokumbe.

Yeah, thank you. Thank you, take care. Alright.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.