Hannibal Lokumbe’s spiritual journey to The Jonah People in his own words
The sound of tumbling leaves upon the dark, dense pine-needled forest floor of Rosanky, Texas, awakened me to the spectacle of the Milky Way, singing and dancing above my head. I sat up from my cedar table and wept with uncontrollable joy at the miracle of it all. As is often the case, I was alone in the forest, fasting and praying for guidance and direction in composing “Can You Hear God Crying,” a work in honor of my Great-Grandfather, Silas Burgess, who, as a child, along with his mother and younger brother, was forced aboard a slave ship off the coast of Bunce Island, Liberia.
Among the myriad of questions I began to ask The Creator, one was most dominant: Who do you, The Creator of all, say we are? Those and the descendants of those taken from Africa, forced aboard ships in chains and shipped to all parts of the world for the express purpose of enslavement. My soul exploded as this reply poured into it. “You are like Jonah. In the belly of a fish he wrestled with both his faith and his fate. In the holds of a ship, you wrestled with yours as well. The light burning in him was the same light burning in you. In the darkness of the ship, in a space where your people fought to stay alive; where many perished in the suffering that it was and is and will forever be, a new mind was formed. A mind from which would come a spiritual food that would feed the world.”
The creation of The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph is meant to be part of that food.
– Hannibal Lokumbe
Costume illustrations forThe Jonah People. Courtesy of Christelle Matou, costume designer.
An enlightening encounter
Speaking with Hannibal Lokumbe is akin to a spiritual experience. His way of conveying the healing power of music has the quality of enlightenment. But as is often the case with true joyousness grounded in temporal reality, the path began with an auspicious reaction to a brutal encounter.
“My mother bought me a trumpet for 265 dollars, which was a lot of money for her,” says Lokumbe during a phone conversation from his Texas studio. He was in high school at the time. In Texas City, Texas, to be exact, and through the middle of the town ran Texas Avenue.
“You didn’t cross Texas Avenue back then if you were Black,” he says of Texas Avenue’s dual role as a thoroughfare and the city’s line of segregation. Grateful for his new trumpet, Lokumbe made a promise to himself – he’d learn how to play “Tenderly” with vibrato. Lost in the moment, he mistakenly crossed Texas Avenue and soon found himself confronted by an angry gang of white men.
“When they attacked me, I thought about what my grandfather told me: ‘Go for the alpha wolf,'” he remembers. As he received blows from the attack, Lokumbe says, “All I could think about was I had to learn how to play ‘Tenderly’ with vibrato.” Two Black men happened upon the scene and broke up the attack, which left Lokumbe with contusions and a broken collar bone. The trumpet survived, and he learned to play “Tenderly” with vibrato for his mother.
Listening to Hannibal Lokumbe (né Marvin Peterson) describe this encounter, one is struck by his lack of antipathy towards the aggressors. If anything, he feels empathy for them. Indeed, his life’s work has been to use the healing power of music to alleviate suffering.
“The longer we refuse to acknowledge each other’s humanity, we will continue to suffer,” he says. This is no platitude from a meme. Lokumbe has traveled the globe and recorded with Gil Evans, Pharoah Sanders, and McCoy Tyner, among many others. He’s been seen on the stages of celebrated venues worldwide, including Carnegie Hall, where his oratorio African Portraits debuted. He’s experienced humanity up close and understands that it isn’t just the oppressed who suffer from oppression; the oppressor suffers as mightily.
“I’ve been in very deep prayer for those babies killed in the school shooting,” he says. “And I’ve been praying for the killer, as well. They must have been suffering unimaginable pain.” Having empathy for the person who killed six people, including three children, with an assault weapon at Covenant School isn’t a prevalent stance. But Lokumbe experiences it through the lens of suffering.
Empathy doesn’t lend itself well to the time in which, as a society, we find ourselves. We forget that “It rains on all of us. It rains on you.” But it’s how Lokumbe uses simplicity to communicate ideas overlooked by their obviousness and drowned out by the noise.
The ‘rain’ metaphor leads us to the true meaning of empathy; not only the ability to understand the feelings of others but a willingness to explore the nature of their suffering.
For Hannibal Lokumbe, this is where the rubber meets the road.
Hannibal Lokumbe plays his trumpet before the burial landmark of Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis (c. 1841 – July 17, 1935), the third to last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1860, Lewis and 115 other enslaved members of the Yoruba tribe made the Middle Passage from Africa aboard the Clotilda, a two-masted schooner thought to be the last slave ship to land on America’s shores. Plateau Cemetery in Africatown; Mobile, Alabama. Photograph by Eric Waters/Courtesy Nashville Symphony
The Jonah People finds a home
The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph, for which Lokumbe was commissioned to write by the Nashville Symphony, began with a chance meeting of kindred spirits. The League of American Orchestras held its annual conference in 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. Alan Valentine, the President and CEO of the Nashville Symphony, was in attendance, as was Lokumbe. They’d been familiar with one another’s work but had never met.
They sat beside each other during a dinner at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Surrounded by the exquisite Detroit Industry cycle of frescoes by Diego Rivera, the two forged a bond that would lay the groundwork for their subsequent encounter.
In 2019, Valentine attended the performance of Crucifixion Resurrection – a requiem composed by Hannibal Lokumbe – at Fisk University’s Fisk Memorial Chapel. The work honored the nine mass shooting victims at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After the show, he invited Lokumbe to join him at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center during rehearsals for Carmina Burana.
The production posed significant challenges, with the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Ballet performing in tandem, along with the Nashville Symphony Chorus and the Blair Children’s Chorus. It meant working within the restrictions of the Schermerhorn, which is notably not a multi-purpose hall. The team ultimately decided to remove some of the hall’s floor seats to make room for a makeshift orchestra pit, freeing the stage for dancers. But they had yet to hear what the arrangement would sound like.
It was an eye-opening experience for everyone, including Lokumbe, who immediately saw the possibility of expanding upon a project percolating in his mind’s eye. The next day Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony, joined them for breakfast. “It had pooled inside of me,” reflects Lokumbe on The Jonah People, “waiting for the perfect place. …”
From that moment, it was full speed ahead,” says Valentine. He doesn’t even pause to reflect when considering the work set in motion over a breakfast three years ago: “It’s one of the biggest things we’ve ever done; the most important work we’ve ever mounted.”
But going from lunch to full speed ahead with such an ambitious project is not for the faint of heart. The production calls for vocal soloists, a full orchestra, costumes, set design, and film – all working in concert to breathe life into Lokumbe’s tale of struggle and redemption.
Committed to the idea that we must reckon with the past in order to move toward a redemptive vision of the future, Lokumbe references the parable of Jonah and the Whale. He finds a commonality between those who traveled the Middle Passage and Jonah’s own journey inside the great sea creature.
Unfolding in four movements, or “veils,” the work opens in Africa at the gateway to the ships that transported kidnapped people across the Atlantic into slavery. Audiences will experience the journey to captivity, oppression, and servitude, the loss of all freedoms, and the struggle to maintain hope for a way forward.
The work celebrates the spirit of those who endured, those ancestors whose gifts of hope, perseverance, and resilience have produced successive generations of black visionaries and world-changers.
“He’s a very rare human being,” says Valentine of Lokumbe.
The anguish of enslavement continues to ripple through time and manifests in our present-day suffering. It’s like a dark family secret. Lokumbe knows that transcendence and transformation are possible through music, because, as he put it, “Music saved my life.”
The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph brings its multi-night, world premiere event to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on April 13 – 16. Click here for tickets.