Hannibal Lokumbe: Dear Mrs. Parks
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Dear Mrs. Parks features a massive ensemble comprised of full orchestra plus choir and four vocal soloists. Influenced by blues, jazz, African music and Gospel music, it pays homage to Rosa Parks in the form of imaginary letters to the civil rights heroine. Hannibal Lokumbe's career in music spans over four decades. He is the recipient of numerous awards including a Bessie award, the NEA, and a Lifetime Achievement
Award from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He has composed works for the Kronos Quartet, the
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Houston symphonies.
...Lokumbe (born Marvin Peterson in 1948) made his reputation as a trumpeter in progressive jazz circles in the '70s, but since 1990 he's become known as a composer of large orchestral works on African-American themes. "Dear Mrs. Parks" is steeped in African and African-American idioms, from the prayerful melodic contours of spirituals and work songs to call-and-response strategies drawn from blues and jazz and an extended timpani solo -- brilliantly improvised by Brian Jones -- and played over a half-dozen other drums that suggest a tribal ceremony.
The work unfolds in cresting choral passages, simple but effective orchestration and vocal soloists who adopt various personas. Lokumbe's text is bathed in mysticism and hope. Wilkins leads a strong, enthusiastic performance and the soloists and chorus -- soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo-soprano Jevetta Steele, bass Kevin Deas, children soprano Taylor Gardner and the combined Rackham Symphony Choir and Brazeal Dennard Chorale -- all sing with distinction. -- Detroit Free Press, Mark Stryker, December 6, 2009
America's civil rights struggle has long proved a fertile source for artistic expression, as this stirring and ambitious endeavor will attest. Acclaimed trumpeter/composer Lokumbe was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to write an homage to heroine Rosa Parks. Recorded live last year in the Motor City, it's largely a classical piece but bears the overt influences of gospel, blues, jazz, and African music. As early as 1974, Lokumbe was a venerated mainstay of the NYC jazz community and began experimenting with large ensembles, employing the Harlem Boys Choir on his highly regarded 1981 LP, The Angels of Atlanta. Likewise, his decadelong tenure with the incomparable composer/arranger Gil Evans informed the colors, textures, and jazz sensibilities on display here. Lokumbe's orchestral masterpiece, African Portraits, which debuted in 1990 at Carnegie Hall and has since been performed more than 200 times, is the logical precursor to this spiritually uplifting project. From the reverential opening to the thunderous finale, replete with two choirs and four solo vocalists, dear Mrs. Parks would be most proud. -- The Austin Chronicle, Jay Trachtenberg, February 12, 2010
Hannibal Lokumbe is a classical composer and jazz trumpeter also known by his first name only: Hannibal. In his classical compositions, Hannibal composes music that celebrates the African-American experience on its own terms, and in a wholly serious manner; it is not jazz-derived so much as it is Pan-African-American in spirit. Hannibal's previous effort, African Portraits (1995), was released by Nonesuch with much fanfare, but was ultimately criticized for eclecticism and over ambitiousness. Dear Mrs. Parks was a 2005 commission from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and, if anything, the eclecticism is held in check; although the instrumental forces are still very large, with four soloists, two choruses, and an expanded orchestra with an added battery of percussion, Dear Mrs. Parks (2009) has a very singular purpose in mind. It is a cantata in 10 movements on Hannibal's own text in the form of letters addressed to Rosa Parks from four different characters, portrayed by soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Deas, and child soprano Taylor Gardner. The chorus fulfills numerous functions; interacting with soloists, hovering as angels in the background, or assuming the foreground role of the vox populi. The music is often very still and focuses on supporting Hannibal's text, though it comes alive with rich and riotous percussion in movements such as "For We Have Walked the Streets of Babylon" and "Like Luminous Rain." Overall, the character of the music has a strong African flavor, based in modes, utilizing drones, and employing an underlying rhythmic funkiness, yet opting for a modified, Western-styled recitative in some sections. Parks is celebrated as an icon rather than a person; this is in keeping with the Western tradition of honorific cantata texts written for ancient gods or noblemen, and combined with the African sound of Hannibal's music such treatment is effective and moving. -- Allmusic.com, Uncle Dave Lewis, February 2010
It is possible to admire and like the impulse behind creation of a piece of music without necessary admiring or liking the result. It is also possible to admire and like both the intention and the work, without necessarily wanting to live with the piece over time. That is the situation with Mark Adamo's Late Victorians and Hannibal Lokumbe's Dear Mrs. Parks...
Hannibal Lokumbe's Dear Mrs. Parks is a "tribute" piece in the same line as Adamo's Late Victorians, but in even more extended form: it runs an hour and features large orchestra plus solo and choral voices. In 10 movements whose length varies from one minute to 13, the work - essentially an oratorio - pays tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks through imaginary letters written to her. This 2005 undertaking, for which Lokumbe (born Marvin Peterson) wrote both words and music, is as well-meaning as can be. The imaginary letters come from a black civil-rights activist, a white civil-rights pioneer killed by the Ku Klux Klan, and a young black man whose generation has received the benefits of the struggle. There is also a child soprano who represents innocence and hope, an obvious bit of typecasting that points to one of the work's weaknesses. Obviousness abounds here - in the words of the tributes; the musical mixture of blues, jazz, gospel and African music; and the tremendous adulation heaped on Rosa Parks. Such adulation, although unsurprising, is singularly inappropriate for a woman who has led for decades by her modesty and self-effacement - she has always said she refused to give up her bus seat when told to do so simply because she was tired, not because she was acting in the service of a grand cause. The cause was grand, and it was perhaps inevitable that it would adopt her as one of its leading symbols; but year after year, it has been Parks' quiet fortitude that has been most impressive - more so than this extended piece of hagiography. The music here is mostly well crafted (although quite derivative - intentionally so), and the performers bring enthusiasm and skill to the project. But it feels like a project, a carefully constructed piece designed to tug at such-and-such heartstrings in such-and-such a way. For limited audiences, Dear Mrs. Parks may have ongoing appeal, but it is hard to see the work as having staying power in purely musical terms. -- Infodad.com, January 7, 2010
Rating: 4.5 stars
Créé en 2005 à la demande de l'Orchestre symphonique de Détroit, Dear Mrs. Parks est un vibrant hommage à une grande combattante. Ce petit bout de femme afro-américaine refusa, le 1 décembre 1955, de céder sa place à un passager blanc dans l'autobus. Une bataille s'engagea jusqu'en Cour Suprême qui jugea les lois ségrégationnistes anticonstitutionnelles. À travers l'oratorio du compositeur Hannibal Lokumbe, nous revivons une partie de cette épopée en chants et poèmes. Une oeuvre touchante et mesurée, utile pour toutes les générations. -- Le Journal, January 2010
While the work was written five years ago, the timing of the Naxos release Dear Mrs Parks by Hannibal Lokumbe, is significant. Recorded live in 2009 when it was performed as part of the Detroit Symphony's Classical Roots series which features the music of African-American composers, the release of the oratorio coincides with the one-year anniversary of the presidency of Barack Obama, America's first African-American president.
By its very nature, though, the work already packed huge political and emotional punch. `Mrs Parks' is, of course, Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist whose refusal in December 1955 to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus sparked a bus boycott that lasted more than a year. Eventually, the US Supreme Court ruled racial segregation laws unconstitutional, but not before local civic leaders had deployed a range of strategies aimed at breaking the boycott, including trying to destroy the boycotters' carpools by pressuring insurers to deny them coverage.
Although she's now revered alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others as a hero of the civil rights struggle, at the time her celebrated gesture cost Parks her job as a department store seamstress. She later moved to Detroit where she lived and worked until her death in October 2005.
Originally commissioned by the Detroit Symphony in 2005, Dear Mrs Parks marked both the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott and - as it happened - the year of Parks's death. While she didn't live to hear it performed, says Lokumbe, he sang some of the libretto to Mrs Parks who `just gave me a smile.'
Although less explicitly religious than they might have been a couple of centuries ago, the themes of oratorios tend to be more serious than some operas. As such, the form of Dear Mrs Parks seems especially well-suited to its subject matter, but Lokumbe says he doesn't think in these formal musical terms. `That's only a problem for people who do marketing,' he chuckles. In fact, Lokumbe recalls that when he wrote African Portraits, a 1990 opera recorded by the Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim, he was unfamiliar with the term `oratorio' and its differences from opera.
But it's precisely this looseness with form that means Lokumbe can allow what engages him emotionally and what works best to guide the creative process. For instance, the track 'For We have Walked the Streets of Babylon, Forty Thousand Strong' on Dear Mrs Parks uses call and response, 'a pervasive pattern of democratic participation' brought from African cultures to some Christian congregations. 'I've always wanted to use that in one of my works,' he says.
For Lokumbe, it's less a question of knowledge than a sensibility. `Ninety percent of my music comes to me in dreams,' he explains. `Music is the one place where I refuse to have people to put borders around it, institutionalise it, davalue it spiritually," he says. To illustrate the point, he recounts an exchange he once had with a producer who wanted to know the genre of one of his works. "Do you have a category called `music'?" Lokumbe asked. "Put it in the `music' category," he recalls saying with a smile in his voice.
How to describe Dear Mrs Parks, then? "It's a prayer," says Lokumbe. "It's a cry out to people to rethink their lives and to rethink the destructive concept of the world being your oyster. To be able to say no to our own weaknesses..."
But surely change has already come, lives have been re-thought? After all, America has an African-American president, an idea that was surely unthinkable back in 1955. On the contrary, says Lokumbe, "there's more to do now than when Dr King and Mrs Parks were active", citing a range of alarming statistics such as the more than 50% of black men aged 19-24 who are unemployed, not to mention their staggering rates of mortality and incarceration.
Those numbers are one reason why Lokumbe `dropped out of the orbit' of the clubbing musicians who zig-zag the country playing a different city each night. Formerly a trumpeter who spent his youth backing up icons like Otis Redding and Etta James, Lokumbe went on the live in New York for more than two decades where he played and recorded with jazz stars like Gil Evans and McCoy Tyner.
These days, though, Lokumbe spends much of his time composing works for ensembles big and small, from the Kronos Quartet to the Cleveland Orchestra, and teaching young people.
"I wanted to do something with more longevity in terms of its impact,' he says. "Now, by the time I do a concert I've been in that city for two months, spending time in homeless shelters and schools,' says Lokumbe. `I play a great deal in churches and prisons, too. It's about restoration, inspiration, showing the truth of it all." -- Dilettante, February 2010
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It is this great but very common woman and her act that the African-American composer Hannibal Lokumbe celebrates in his 2005 oratorio "Dear Mrs. Parks", a ten-movement work that combines a large symphonic orchestra with elements of blues, jazz, and original African music that Mr. Lokumbe was extremely familiar with. Lasting an hour in length, but with no lethargy even remotely present, "Dear Mrs. Parks" is performed on this Naxos recording, made before a live audience in March 2009, by vocal soloists Janice Chandler-Etene, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Deas, and Taylor Gardner, the Rackham Symphony Choir, and the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra led by their resident guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, who also holds that same position with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra here in Los Angeles. Wilkins is one of the few African-American conductors to have attained a high position in an American orchestra (another one being James DePreist), and so this particular recording should certainly make African Americans throughout the United States feel an extreme sense of pride. But it is the very performance itself that is to be marveled, and it is that sense of marvel that crosses all racial and ethnic barriers.
Far from being a mere civics and history lesson set to music, "Dear Mrs. Parks" is a great work of our nation's great musical heritage, and this recording from the Motor City is to be cherished.
50 years ago "Missa Luba" combined the Latin Mass with traditional Congolese spirituals. The transformation from solemnity to celebratory was a revelation.
Hannible Lokumbe's "Dear Mrs. Parks" is a very American parallel to it; American in both its musics and its historical struggle of conscience. Like "Missa Luba" it merges classical formality with African dynamics, but extends them into jazz, gospel, and blues. The Civil Rights Movement was fueled by spirituals and biblical poetry, unifying every beaten loner into a redemptive revolution. Lokumbe's tribute oratorio mirrors this in psalmic letters and choral chants which reflect the one and everyone. 'The personal is political' and, as ever, very powerful.
"A Prayer" is a march of faith one step at a time. Its deliberate tonal steps, repeated with pause and concentration, suggest struggle but unwavering discipline. This almost martial formality in chordal and choral structure is unity in action, literally. "For We Have Walked..." takes this marching tension and releases it with a swinging polyrhythmic interlude that builds into stacked chorals so powerful that the audience leaps to cheer at its end! "In Sacrifice" reinforces chant as a rhythm, a kindred confession and resolution, that backbones the work, before the rhythm multiples into intensely propulsive drums and ecstatic horns. Often there is a blur between Catholic chorals and the sway of Southern gospel. For me the truest strengths of the work came when the harmonies and melodies locked together into fevered forward motion, such as the exhilerating "Like Luminous Rains..." The oratorio is bracketed by a poem where each line is a concentrated step, building to a final lifing release. This is a liberating work, in every sense. Rosa would be honored.
Beyond modern classical admirers, this might also thrill fans of Paul Robeson, the Gershwins, Leonard Bernstein, Gil Evans, James Brown, Fela, John Coltrane, P-Funk, Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads, The Slits, Joe Strummer, Public Enemy, and Peter Gabriel.
"Mrs. Parks" is Rosa Parks, of course. The four vocal soloists--Kevin Deas, bass; Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano; Jevetta Steele, mezzo-soprano; and Taylor Gardner, child soprano--read out four "letters" written to the civil rights legend. These letters address the horror of slavery and racism ("a history so cruel as to be never forgotten or forgiven"), sanctification of "our good sister Rosa," the power of the black woman in history both foreign and domestic, and fnally the opening prayer declaimed once more by the child. In the first three cases, the choir and chorale respond and underline the messages. After the child's rendition, a final repetition of the prayer ends the piece.
Stark packaging completes the effect. On the back of the CD booklet we see a photo portrait of an "Enslaved Woman." She's looking to the left. Rosa Parks, on the slipcase cover, sits on a bus; she's looking to the right, back at her.--OffBeat Magazine, April 2010 issue