Hannibal Lokumbe: An aural historian

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2012 - 7:30 PM

The composer relates a colorful life in music that morphed into one that is also dedicated to community service.

Over the past four decades, composer, trumpeter and humanitarian Hannibal Lokumbe has used his colorful life as both teaching text and testimony. Even as he has played and recorded with such jazz legends as Gil Evans, Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, Lokumbe, 63, has kept his feet anchored in community. At the height of his jazz career he quit playing in clubs in order to focus on working with at-risk young people.

During his recent spell in the Twin Cities for the premiere of a composition about his spiritual journey, Lokumbe spoke at Ujamaa Place, a St. Paul center dedicated to transforming the lives of disadvantaged young black men. He encouraged program participants to research their own family trees and to connect with their ancestors.

When we know our history, we know ourselves, Lokumbe said.

Lokumbe's community work melds with his composition "In the Spirit of Being," a VocalEssence commission that will be premiered Sunday at St. Paul's Ordway Center. Lokumbe will play trumpet in a concert that also features vocal soloist Tonia Hughes, pianist Sanford Moore, the Ramsey School Performing Arts Magnet Children's Choir, the Macalester College African Music Ensemble and the VocalEssence Chorus conducted by Philip Brunelle.

We recently talked with Lokumbe about his work.

I was born in Smithville, Texas [just east of Austin] and spent the first five years of my life on my grandmother's farm. I didn't wear shoes until I was 6.

As a child, my best friend wasn't a computer. It was the sky and the Colorado River, which was behind us. The ground of my family's farm told me that I was sacred. So when I encountered society and all of the labels it wanted to put on a little black boy, I had something solid to look back on.

Music began to be important to me very early on, maybe when I was 4 or 5. I was working in the cotton fields when I first noticed my mother singing. My grandfather and grandmother sang also, and they sang for survival, not for pleasure. You see, to pick cotton, which is what we did, we would always go into the fields before sunup. By the time it hit 1 o'clock, it would be unbearably hot. When that happened, my grandparents and everybody would have these waves of heat coming off their bodies. They just looked like apparitions. Without fail, once it got that hot, they began to sing. They sang to cool themselves. Their songs were more like prayers. Many times when I play the trumpet now, I hear things from those experiences, and that's what I play.

• • •

I got my first trumpet at 13. By 14, I had a band called the Soul Masters, and we were backing up Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, T-Bone Walker, Etta James, Lightnin' Hopkins, everybody who came to the biggest place in Galveston. I will never forget playing with Etta James. She asked for a B-flat arpeggio but in fact she started in C. We never said anything. We looked at each other. We were very serious students of music who, for the most part, couldn't stand singers because their egos were so inflated. And many were self-taught, and didn't know music technically like we did. My mother gave me her blessing. She only required that I didn't get high, didn't use drugs, and that I kept my grades up. To this day, I've kept that promise, insofar as the drugs are concerned. She gave me everything.

• • •

I'm an avid student of music and people. I graduated from Texas City High School, then thought I'd take a shot at college at North Texas State University. I actually went to about three classes. My composition teacher asked me, "Well, what do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I want to write large works for orchestra." He laughed at me. He said, "Why don't you be more practical?" Shortly after that, I sold my books, bought a sleeping bag and spent that summer and spring in the forest, fasting and praying. I then sold everything I had, and collected all that was due me. I had a total of $50 and a 1964 Mustang.

I headed to New York in 1970. It was one of the coldest winters in the city. I first camped out in the parking lot of the White Castle in front of the Village Vanguard. That's where my hero, John Coltrane, made all those great records. I slept in my car there. One day, I got the courage to go into the place. I sat at a table. I was so tired and hungry, I fell asleep on the table. I was awakened by the smell of hamburgers and French fries. There was a man, who had never seen me before in his life, who made me this amazing meal. He tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hey, wake up and eat." His name is Elton. We all live by the prayers of our ancestors. That's why I have to get these babies back in touch with theirs. Without the prayers of your ancestors, you can't make it.

• • •

The work I do now, the pieces I create, are all in answer to a prayer. In 1979, I was playing at Sweet Basil jazz club [in New York] at the pinnacle of my jazz career. I looked out into the audience and the words of my grandfather began to haunt me. He was a great planter and I would always go into the fields with him. When we went out, he would say, "Now, baby, make sure you plant the seeds at least 6 inches deep. If you don't plant seeds that deep, the crows will come and eat them or the wind will blow them away." I realized then I wasn't doing what I was called to do.

• • •

I gave up the jazz life to work on souls. I work in prisons now, creating orchestras with whoever is there. I was just over with some of the young brothers at Ujamaa Place, trying to help them connect to something deep and nourishing and sacred. I wanted to remind them that they're not dogs or thieves or killers, that they come from a legacy. I asked them, if they were to pass, what would be their legacy. You could see from their faces that the answer was nothing. You also saw in their hurt that they wanted their answers to be something.

I reminded them that each moment we take a breath, we have a chance to begin our legacy. Today, many began their legacies, not as some far-fetched idea, but by recommitting themselves to their divine selves.

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  • Hannibal Lokumbe prepared for his Sunday concert at the Ordway.

  • IN THE SPIRIT OF BEING

    Who: Composed by Hannibal Lokumbe under the aegis of VocalEssence.

    When: 4 p.m. Sun. 2/19

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St Paul

    Tickets: $10-$40. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.

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