Four hundred years ago this year, the first African people were taken from their homelands and brought to colonial America – thus instituting slavery in what would become the United States and inflicting profound wounds on individuals and American society that still have not healed.
In a 12-album cycle of musical works inspired by the history of black America, Columbus composer Mark Lomax pays tribute to the last 400 years of African-American history and, he says, aims to help heal the wounds brought about by slavery.
This month marks the official release of Lomax's 400: An Afrikan Epic, a dozen musical works ranging in style and genre from improvisational jazz pieces to classical chamber music, ballets and symphonies.
Together the works give voice to pivotal moments and key individuals in the last 400 years of black history and offer a vision for moving forward into a healthier future.
Columbus cello quartet UCelli performs one of the cycle's works, Four Women, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16 in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, as part of the New Music at Short North Stage series. Admission is free. The Lincoln Theatre hosts the world premiere of 400: An African Epic at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26.
Recordings of the entire cycle are set to be available for purchase through iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Lomax's website on Wednesday, Jan. 23.
Lomax, who completed 400: An Afrikan Epic under the auspices of an artist residency award from the Wexner Center for the Arts, says his cycle marks a historical milestone that others in his sphere in the arts community had not noted.
“A few years ago, it just occurred to me that 2019 is the 400th anniversary of the first Africans being brought to North America as slaves,” Lomax said in an interview. “And I made some phone calls, sent some emails and text messages, just asking other composers, musicians, artists what they were doing. Because we only had a few years and it's, I thought, a historic occasion that should be marked in some special kind of way. And it really wasn’t on anybody's radar.”
“The Beginning of Us”
Putting this historical moment on the radar was the impetus for Lomax's cycle, in which 12 musical works unfold in three large sections representing the past, the present and the future, respectively, of African-American history.
Lomax begins the cycle's first section, Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us, not at the beginning of slavery in America, but long before it.
“I figured the best place to start was when people of African descent were healthy, happy and whole, in as much as any civilization can be healthy, happy and whole,” Lomax said.
The four musical works of Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us call forth aspects of ancient African legends – including those of the scientifically advanced Dogon people and the Yoruban deities called orishas – giving voice to these legends through music that pays tribute to Africa's primal ancestor, the drum.
“In researching African cosmology across the continent,” Lomax said, “I learned, or rediscovered, that in many of those narratives the first ancestor, as it were, is the drum. The voice of the drum gave birth to everything else.”
“So it made sense to start there,” he continued, “and record me as a drummer or a drum set artist with African drummers and make that connection between the African drum and the drum set, which is a uniquely black American invention.”
Inspired by Clark Atlanta University professor Daniel Black's novel The Coming, the eponymous fourth and final work of the cycle’s opening section is a musical depiction of The Middle Passage, the journey made by countless stolen Africans in filthy, overcrowded ships across the Atlantic to North America.
A slave ship is also the setting of Lomax’s ballet Ma’afa – “Great Tragedy” – which begins the second section of 400: An Afrikan Epic and extends the view of African-American history to the present day.
“I really loved that dichotomy of, in my mind’s eye, seeing people dance within the spiritual context of confinement,” Lomax said.
The ballet leads to Up South, an improvised chamber work for tenor saxophone, bass and drums, which Lomax says explores “the notion that the North, while not necessarily slave-holding states, benefited from and facilitated financially and otherwise the slave-holding of the South.”
The section’s third work, "Four Women," is a cello quartet piece that honors four African or African-American women of repute, including the 17th-century Mbundu Queen Nzinga, present-day political activist Angela Davis and feminist Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Ma’afa’s final work, "Blues in August," is a piece for smaller improvising ensemble and pays tribute to black men of yore and of today.
“A Return to Freedom”
All of 400: An Afrikan Epic leads to Lomax's vision of what the future could look like for African-Americans. The cycle’s final section, Afro-Futurism: The Return to Uhuru, begins with a symphonic work called Uhuru, Swahili for “freedom.”
The section proceeds with musical works that reflect on ancient Egyptian concepts of truth and honor, on the importance of ancestors and on Africa’s spiritual, cultural and political return to self. Eventually, the cycle’s final section returns to what Lomax calls “the voice of the drum” in a work for solo drum set.
“It’s an artistic depiction of what happens when we as humanity – not just black Americans or descendants of Africa in the United States – heal,” Lomax said. “Because I don’t believe that the tragedy of slavery is just a black issue. I think it’s an American issue, and in order for us to truly be great, we have to recognize our collective humanity.”
Columbus cello quartet UCelli performs Four Women from Mark Lomax’s 400: An Afrikan Epic at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16 in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, as part of the New Music at Short North Stage series. Admission is free.