On a late September afternoon in his Smithville studio, composer and jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe knelt over a large canvas as he drew dark pink figures. "These figures are a symbol of humanity by the Dogon people of Mali in West Africa," Lokumbe said. His drawings are part of a mural that is a visual and inspirational anchor for "The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph" – a full-scale opera Lokumbe is composing, commissioned by the Nashville Symphony.


"This one I’m particularly excited about because I get to speak about the untold stories of people of color in this hemisphere, including the Antilles, South America and Mexico. Many people have no idea that slaves were also dropped off in Mexico and the rest of the Americas," Lokumbe said. "The Jonah People" encompasses "the legacy of slaves, which is one of struggle and triumph highlighting the very important contributions that people of color made to the establishment of the United States of America – without those contributions there would be no United States of America as we know it today," Lokumbe said.


One of those legacies is that of his great-grandfather, Silas Burgess, a kidnapped African auctioned as a slave in Charleston, S.C., after surviving the often deadly voyage across the Atlantic. His great-grandfather would eventually escape to Texas and the Upton community near Smithville, where he worked on the railroad, bought land and helped raise 22 children from his two wives.


Spiritual encounter


Lokumbe said the moniker Jonah People arose from a powerful spiritual encounter he had in Rosanky while he was working on a previous oratorio — "Can You Hear God Crying?" — that premiered in Philadelphia in 2012.


"I was in the dark woods of Rosanky, in a little tent, had a little lantern and water – that’s all I had there. I was awakened, and I stood up and I stretched my hands to the universe above my head," Lokumbe said. "The Milky Way was so close that I could seemingly touch it with my hands — of course I touched it with my soul. I asked the Creator, ‘Who do you say that we are?’ — those stolen from Africa and shipped to all parts of the world for the express purpose of infinite enslavement. The Spirit said to me, ‘You are like Jonah, and like Jonah in the bottom of a boat you had to wrestle with both your faith and your fate. The only difference between Jonah’s boat and your boat is, his boat was followed by seagulls and yours by sharks.’ This is what the Creator gave me. I could never come up with something so profound. You have to ask for such things."


Opera’s progress


Lokumbe recently completed the text for "The Jonah People"; the music composition is well underway.


"Before I start on a work, I hear it in its totality — every note," Lokumbe said while seated at a piano to play the powerful central motif of "The Jonah People" for a reporter. "The motif is the spinal cord of this piece."


"The Jonah People" is scheduled for a spring 2022 performance by the Nashville Symphony with a choir, 10 solo singers and an African dance troupe.


"Jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, gospel, classical — all those are part of my cultural lexicon," Lokumbe said.


"The Jonah People" encompasses the periods of 15th-century West Africa to the present era, spanning that continent and the Americas. One of the main cast members is Griot, the moniker for a West African storyteller/poet — the keeper of the oral tradition for a tribe or nation. He is played by renowned opera singer Rodrick Dixon. The cast also includes the parts of "President Richard Nixon" and "H.R. Haldeman," Nixon’s chief of staff. Lokumbe said the inclusion of Nixon’s White House addresses "the demise of Black neighborhoods and gentrification."


A dynamic career


"The Jonah People" augments a nearly four-decade catalog of work by Lokumbe addressing the experiences of people of color. This, in addition to a brilliant jazz career that saw Lokumbe play and record in the 1970s and 1980s with top-tier musicians such as saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, drummer Roy Haynes and pianist and orchestrator Gil Evans.


Examples of Lokumbe’s work debuted by world-renowned orchestras include "African Portraits," which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1990 with conductor Paul Lustig Dunkel and the American Composers Orchestra. "Portraits" has been performed more than 100 times by orchestras across the U.S. and was recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Lokumbe’s "One Heart Beating" (1999) was among the Philadelphia Orchestra's 100th-anniversary commissions. Two other Lokumbe works were also commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra — "One Land, One River, One People" in 2015 and "Healing Tones" in 2019.


Working with incarcerated people


Lokumbe is also deeply involved in working with imprisoned people through the Music Liberation Orchestra, which he founded and directs. He has worked with the incarcerated in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bastrop County, teaching them about music, genealogy and writing.


"Lokumbe’s deep commitment to incarcerated individuals began in the 1970s and has guided a music and storytelling process in prisons that is rooted in vulnerability, openness, spiritualism and forgiveness," reads a tribute from the Americans for the Arts. Lokumbe said he feels it’s his duty to work with incarcerated populations as well as educate students. "That’s required of me, required of what I’ve inherited to share with people, especially the students."


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