Idris Ackamoor is a spiritual and cultural bearer of artistic expression sent from the sky, or ‘messenger from the moon’, which is an actual cool connotation of his name. He is also an American multi-instrumentalist, composer, actor, tap dancer, producer, administrator, and director. You have most probably heard of Idris Ackamoor, as the artistic director of the world music, outer limits Jazz ensemble ‘The Pyramids’.
‘Everything! You never stop achieving, learning, moving forward. As Billy Strayhorn said, “Onwards and Upwards”!’
Ackamoor grew up in Chicago, and founded ‘The Pyramids’ in the early 1970s at Antioch College, Ohio, as part of the brilliant, Cecil Taylor’s ‘Black Music Ensemble’. They toured Africa in the 1970s, adding musicians and new instruments, before returning to the US and settling in San Francisco. The original group split up in 1977, but Ackamoor has reformed the Pyramids on several occasions with different members.
Delving deep into a world of Pan-African rhythms and melodies, they combined them in novel ways with the psychedelic modal jazz simmering in America at the time. The group released three private-press records in the US throughout the seventies, highly regarded now by collectors consistently fetched incredibly large sums of money.
‘Antioch College was a bastion of liberalism in a sea of conservatism. It was a hotbed of anti government, pro communist, political agitators, black separatist, and a drug center for the entire Midwest!’
It’s strange that Ackamoor’s name is largely unfamiliar in Western jazz, although he left America to play across Africa, inspired by Ghana and Ghanian music: Fully respected and admired in Tamale, he played with the Tamalian king’s own musicians. In America though, his name would not be as familiar as Taylor’s or other musicians who played in bigger jazz bands where a reputation could more easily emerge as a result.
Thirty plus years later, Idris is back in the spotlight thanks to the renewed interest in his 1970’s band The Pyramids, which he re-united and since 2010 has conducted seven whirlwind European tours throughout the continent. In the last three years 12 albums have been released of Ackamoor’s music, including the first Pyramids album in over 35 years entitled Otherworldly, followed up last year with the flower fresh, ‘We be all Africans’
‘I always credit my mother and father with being the most influential people in my life as a musician/performer’
‘We Be All Africans’ is an interesting and loaded title. Like Sun Ra, Ackamoor buoys a serious message atop his playful melodies: Humanity originated in Africa, and so Ackamoor believes that this shared heritage unifies humanity; he thinks that divisions between race would be detrimental to the survival of humanity as a whole. His music then may be presented, in an ideal world, as something that can be respectfully appreciated by all. That is, as a joyous, cultural boundary crossing flip-side to racial aggressions and violence.
Synthesiser might have been found on Herbie Hancock records or Sun Ra, but the phaser sound used here sounds more modern, despite having been recorded in Max Weissenfeldt’s analogue studio in Berlin.
‘Ghana was a musicians dream!! Music was everywhere. I had never been so moved and inspired’
Away from music amongst many other eclectic endeavours, which Idris explains to me during the interview, Idris has found success with the visionary ‘Cultural Odyssey’, alongside, Rhodessa Jones. ‘Odyssey’ is a leading San Francisco touring ensemble committed to the creation of original work by artists of all cultures. Such productions of Idris and Rhodessa have successfully toured the world, building artistic, cultural, and political bridges on four continents
Interviewing Idris was a huge and beautiful honour. I offered enthusiastic questions covering issues mostly away from his musical career, as i felt most of that story had been covered already. I wanted to know more about Idris’ role as an art ambassador, what prompted him to create, ‘Cultural Odyssey’ and the background to his inspiring life. We also did a number upon ‘The Pyramids’ rebirth, amongst his personal take of how ‘Black identity’ within the United States has evolved during his lifetime.
Does your jazz have a message?
I believe that musicians are spiritual and cultural messengers to convey observations, commentaries, aspirations, and ancestral time line patterns. Whether the overt political messages and comments of a Fela, or the political and Afro Centric music of Bob Marley, or the more sublime and spiritual music of John Coltrane. At the same time the aforementioned artist can also comment like Bob Marley’s “No Women, No Cry”, or Fela’s “Lady”, or John’s “My Favorite Things” playing music of emotion and beauty. So the feelings and messages I express in my music are far ranging and not defined to any one category or concept.
Who or what influenced your aspirations towards a creative life and ultimate goal?
I always credit my mother and father with being the most influential people in my life as a musician/performer and allowing me to reach the promise of my ultimate goal of being a world class performing artist. It was their influence and efforts that guided me throughout my younger years making sure that I was taking music lessons from the time I was seven years old. They were dedicated to providing a cultural education for their children and they worked tirelessly to help achieve this.
How does your Jazz hold a spiritual message?
As the great late poet Ted Joans said, “JAZZ is my Religion!” If one considers a spiritual message as one that conveys love in all its forms, peace, understanding, embracing community, and human empowerment then I guess my music holds a spiritual message. However, I don’t walk out on stage thinking, “Let me spiritually educate the audience and take them to my church”. No, I don’t perform like that. I think deep down inside my being to create music magic on stage that is a result of my decades of experiences in this life and on planet earth.
Why did you decide to reform the pyramids after breaking up in the seventies the decade you were spawned?
In the beginning of the 21st Century I noticed an incredible increase in inquiries regarding the music of The Pyramids from record collectors, music writers, and online publications. The albums that we recorded in the 70s were going for incredibly high prices on eBay and other online selling stores. As well, record companies were also calling me about reissuing these early recordings. So I thought if there was this much interest regarding a band that had broken up, what would be the interest in the band if it got back together? So I reformed the band in 2007 for a reunion concert and it just took off from there.
‘We be all Africans’ is the emblazed title of your latest album. What is the significance and connotations behind it?
As I wrote for the liner note of the album, “We Be All Africans is a message of survival. A message that we be all Africans. A message of the beginnings of the human race. Not the black, the white, the red or the yellow race…The Human Race! A message that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all family…the human family and we need one another in order to survive on this planet that we all share. Africa is the beginning! Africa may be the ending! Africa is…Africa was…and Africa will be….”
Footage of The Pyramids’ 1970s concerts is even more transfixing than the studio recordings. The gigs were a raucous, rhythmic merger of theatre, dance and music. Did performing mean as much to you, as recording in a studio?
Performing onstage and recording are two completely different concepts and experiences. My primarily reason for “being” is performing onstage! I am a theatrical performer and love creating ritual and ceremony on stage. The recording studio can be a great way to document and disseminate my compositions and music throughout the world and for this reason it is incredibly important. I try to take my concept of “live” performance into the recording studio, but the best way to approach it is to think of them as two separate concepts.
May I ask what inspired the change behind your name Bruce Baker to, Idris Ackamoor?
I am a child of the civil rights movement and the transformative decade of the 60s! This was a time that African Americans were seeking new directions and connections with their ancestors and beginnings in Africa. A part of this was as they said in the 60s, “Casting off the names of the slave owners”. As you may know many African slaves were not allowed to keep their true African names but required to accept the name of their slave owner. The name “Baker” was probably initially the name of some white immigrant who possibly became a slave owner. However, I traced the name of “ACKAMOOR” back to one of the oldest common ancestor in my family which may be derivative of “BLACKAMOOR” which is the name Africans were once identified as. My great great grandfather was named Ackamoor and my great grandmother married a “Baker”. My family reunion now goes by the name “Baker/Ackamoor” family reunion. The name “Idris” I chose for myself and it has many meanings. One that I like is “messenger of the moon”.
The Pyramids were founded in the early 1970s at Antioch College, Ohio as part of Cecil Taylor’s, Black Music Ensemble. How did the band meet, and In what ways did Cecil influence your work?
How does music reflect the times we live in directly or indirectly? They say “Music is a healing force”. Well, the music of my first professional band, The Collective, had a lot to heal for the world of 1971. The times were a’changing! The Vietnam War was raging and on May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students (down the road from Antioch College and the home base of The Collective) were killed and nine injured when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. It was barely 3 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton were gunned down in Chicago on December 4, 1969. All this was happening when I thought to form The Collective in collaboration with Antioch music professor Lester Knibbs and my future wife Margaux Simmons. The Collective reflected those turbulent times playing music of beauty and healing as well as chaos and intensity.
Antioch College was a bastion of liberalism in a sea of conservatism. It was a hotbed of anti government, pro communist, political agitators, black separatist, and a drug centre for the entire Midwest! What a place to make music in 1971! The Collective preceded my legendary band, The Pyramids, by one year…a year that was as turbulent in the country as it was in my personal life. The extraordinary event that separated the two bands included a tragic personal accident as well as arrival at Antioch of the famous pianist/composer Cecil Taylor and his whole entourage of altoist Jimmy Lyons, percussionist Andrew Cyrille and Clifford Sykes, Dancer Ken Miller, and poet James Thompson. The Cecil Taylor group would be in residency at Antioch for two years!
Through all of 1971 music reigned down like an unending shower that drenched all who were experiencing this magical time with a never to be forgotten creativity and spiritual memory. You might say that The Collective gave birth to The Pyramids. After the dissolution of The Collective, Margaux and myself became devotees of the Cecil Taylor Black Music Ensemble composed of Antioch College music students and others. After being baptized in the fire of Cecil’s remarkable brilliance several months later I went on to submit a proposal to the Antioch College Abroad Program. The proposal’s goal was for Margaux, myself, and a young, crazy electric bass player named Kimathi Asante to travel to Europe, form a band, and then travel throughout Africa. Hence, The Pyramids was born!
It’s strange that you are somewhat largely unfamiliar in Western jazz, although you studied under the famous jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Do you think it was down to your neglect of America due to your long term involvement with Africa, in particular, Ghana?
I have heard this quite a lot regarding me being unfamiliar in Western jazz. Quite frankly I have no problems with this. I think it is because of this that my current amazing visibility and European and American tours is possibly due to the fact that I was never “over exposed” to Western jazz, consequently my present artistic incarnation seems “fresh” and revelatory. In addition, for many years I concentrated on performing in the theater bringing my compositions and talents to the global world theatre touring theater festivals, conducting international theatrical exchanges and supporting myself through my interdisciplinary performance company, Cultural Odyssey, which is a non – profit organisation much like the symphony or opera, although on a smaller scale.
Can you tell our readers about your journeys across Africa to the bands spell in the fertile Bay Area scene of the mid-70s?
ROAD TRIP to AFRICA
After incredible performances and experiences during the fall of 1972 Margo, Kimathi and myself left Amsterdam on our way to Africa in December 1973. Donald wanted to join us. He did not have a plane ticker like we did, so he decided to drive his van to Africa. However, his van broke down and he was unable to follow us.
We flew to Malaga, Spain and then to Tangier, Morocco. We were almost turned away from touching the ground of Africa by a bellicose customs official who thought we were “hippies”. Fortunately, we got pass the official and entered the mystical legendary Casbah. The smells, and colors of the Casbah were just more musical fodder for later compositions.
We traveled to Rabat, Casablanca, and then to Dakar, Senegal. We finally landed in Accra, Ghana where we made our home. A young Ghanaian named Kojo befriended us and his family led by the “Diamond Queen”, Aunti B. We stayed with the family of Aunti B at her compound entitled, “Weekend in Havana”. From this base Margo, Kimathi and myself became immersed in the color, fascination, and incredible musical life and culture of Ghana. Ghana was a musicians dream!! Music was everywhere. I had never been so moved and inspired. We were musicians, college students, seekers, and acolytes in Africa.
After several months in West Africa we traveled to East Africa staying outside Nairobi, Kenya in the town of Kiambu in the countryside. A young Kenyan businessman allowed us to stay with him on his coffee estate. On the weekends he would bring Masai and Kikuyu Tribesmen to his estate to perform for tourists. It was a marvel to listen to fifty percussion clad Kikuyu dancers as they marched in formation creating a sound like rolling thunder!
Margo and myself left Kenya for Ethiopia where we explored the wonders of Lalibela. The rock churches of Lalibela were the source of my compositional inspiration for the album by The Pyramids entitled, Lalibela.
After nine months The Pyramids returned to our home in Yellow Springs, Ohio and began to coalesce all of the knowledge that we had acquired from our journey. We had also collected quite a lot of African musical instruments. We reconnected with Antioch student and percussionist, Brady Speller, who joined the band and was the rhythmical link to Africa that we needed. Tall soprano sax playing Tony Owens who I nicknamed “Masai” also joined the band along with a drummer named Marcel Lytle.
The California Story
After I graduated from Antioch College, Margo and myself headed to the San Francisco Bay Area to begin our lives after school. The initial intention was that we would set up a base in Oakland across the bridge from San Francisco for The Pyramids and then go on to Japan to conduct another Antioch Education Abroad in the name of Margo and Kimathi who were still students. It did not work out that way. Margo and myself wanted to put down roots and begin working as The Pyramids around the Bay Area. Kimathi joined us in Oakland after several months but decided to return to Antioch so that he could go to Egypt on an Antioch program. This meant that we were without a bass player. Donald also made the trip out to Oakland along with his new girl friend Kim who was also pregnant. Very quickly we met other musicians in the thriving San Francisco Bay Area music scene. We were fortunate to meet a very talented acoustic bass player named Heshima Mark Williams. Heshima joined the band along with a new conga player named Mcheza Ngoma. We began working extensively around the area. Within the next year Kimathi returned from his travels and rejoined the band. We now had two bass players. After several other personnel shifts we were ready to record our third album, Birth/Speed/Merging. My brother Ernest W. Baker helped us produce it and the record was the most ambitious to date in terms of finances and resources.
Your legacy has been honored with two Lifetime Achievement Awards for extraordinary musical and theatrical contributions. What do you think are your undying musical and theatrical contributions?
I think that some of my major musical and theatrical contributions stem from me being one of the first musicians of my generation to travel, study, and live in Africa for an extended time. My early experiences there laid the foundation of my later studies and spiritual and psychological developments. Equally important were my later studies in the business of surviving as a performing artist in a country that is not always friendly to the musician. I am a living example that a musician can have a prosperous life in America free from poverty, healthcare issues, retirement concerns, and community benefits to pay for funeral services due to not being prepared financially for the inevitable.
How did your upbringing in Chicago influence your creativity?
I came of musical age 35 years ago in the small village of Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was there that I began my musical metamorphosis as an undergraduate student at Antioch College in the fall of 1970. My life before Antioch can be characterized in two words: Chicago Southside.
Growing up in Chicago my principle influences were my parents. My mother, Dorris Alexzenia Baker was an incredibly intelligent woman and a fighter for civil rights. Some of my early memories involved attending civil rights protests with her. In 1960 she organized a one day “stay at home” for students at Cornell Elementary School to protest the racist “double shift” policy implemented to solve overcrowding in the segregated black schools in Chicago. This protest caused the Superintendent of the Public Schools to fire my mother. Her firing led to one of the longest strikes in the history of Chicago schools.
My father, Ernest William Baker was the rock upon which myself, my siblings and my mother all depended. He made us all feel safe and loved! Both parents were instrumental in my early years of music lessons from the time I was eight years old.
Growing up in Chicago I met and studied with my most influential teacher. I was a protégé of Chicago legendary master clarinetist Clifford King who had played with Jelly Roll Morton and Freddie Keppard in the 1920s.
Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders are referenced to in nods across your new album, ‘We Be All Africans’. In what way have these artists inspired you and earned such reference?
I was always impressed by the theatricality of Sun Ra and his Arkestra! I loved the costumes they wore, the ceremonial processions through the audiences, the simple chants, and their amazing ability to straddle the cosmic with the classical jazz repertoire. I have always loved the sound Pharoah gets from the tenor sax. He has such an impassioned and “out” concept that has always appealed to me. In addition, his spiritual essence that he brings to his music is extraordinary!
What is your opinion upon the ‘Black Lives Matter Campaign’ and how has ‘race’ improved during your lifetime.
My album, “We Be All Africans” is related to the ‘Black Lives Matter campaign’. In the midst of composing the music for the album America exploded with protests and riots due to the police shooting of young black African American males in Ferguson, Missouri and many other places. I thought, “How can fellow human beings all descended from a common ancestor do such horrible and violent things to each other!
Fully respected and admired in Tamale, playing with the Tamalian King’s own musicians. Can you please tell me more about such a cool experience?
Margo and myself took an amazing musical spiritual journey up into Northern Ghana. The land of the Fra Fra of Bolgatanga, and the Islam influenced Dagomba in Tamale. We had our instruments and a tape recorder in hand. It was as if we had stepped back five hundred years into an ancient Africa complete with court musicians and colourful pageantry. We played with the King’s musicians in Tamale. We also played at a ceremony entitled “Second Burial of a Fra Fra King” in Bolgatanga. I also went through a healing ceremony in the bush of Bolgatanga with a Fra Fra traditional healer (Juju Man). He performed the ceremony of the “washing of the legs” cleansing my spirit so that I could walk anywhere without concern. I wrote the following poem about the experience.
Tendana crocked stick in hand
Metal striking stone of the land
Chant of the spirits echoing within
Calabash Shaking rhythms ascend
Metal with hole fell from the sky
Vocal sound sent soar on to high
Coated with the suns rays
As a shield
Legs washed with the Bagre stick
Voice in communion with the spirits
Talking through metal hole jumping, jumping
To the time of the calabash rattle
Chanting, chanting, blowing
To the spirits
Journey ancient journey
Take the cowries and the kola to give
To the first blind man in the market
And all will be made well
You visited Africa very early on in your career. Why and how has your relationship been and has your opinion changed upon Africa, in your lifetime?
I continue to visit Africa. Since 2005 myself and my theatrical partner, Rhodessa Jones, were selected by The U.S. Department of State, Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau as an Arts Envoy. In my role as arts ambassador I journeyed to Johannesburg, South Africa conducting residency activities inside the Naturena Women’s Prison from 2005 – 2012 creating music and theater with the female inmates with Rhodessa. Seeing the transformation of South African society “up close and personal” was equally inspiring and life changing. It was barely 10 years since the dismantling of Apartheid and the process is an ongoing development. However, I fell in love with South Africa and its people!
I read your significant quote, ‘Humanity originated in Africa’- a shared heritage which unifies humanity. divisions between race would be detrimental to the survival of humanity as a whole. How so?
If race continues to divide us causing suffering, pain, death, and violence it will continue to distract us from the other more important issues like war, poverty, and the destruction of planet earth brought about by climate change and the depletion of the ozone layer. Race should only be “just a colour”. The varied colors should only unify us in their variety at the same time keeping the uniqueness of the separate parts.
The Pyramids were known to wear colourful handmade costumes and elaborate make up, with a revolving cast of dancers on stage. What inspired such stage wear?
‘The Synthesizer might have been found on Herbie Hancock records or Sun Ra, but the phaser sound used on the album sounds more modern, despite having been recorded in Max Weissenfeldt’s analogue studio in Berlin. What influenced the use of the Synthesiser, which does not dully encapsulate what is familiar to previous jazz and Afropoprecords?
One of the instruments that I studied when I was young was the piano. I have always loved playing piano and I use it a lot when I compose. I was drawn to the Kytar synthesizer because to expanded my compositional palette and performance style on stage. I loved playing it and being able to move around the stage providing additional “cosmic” sounds and colors and the rhythmical pulse of the groove!
What is left for you to achieve after such an eventful and inspiring life?
Everything! You never stop achieving, learning, moving forward. As Billy Strayhorn said, “Onwards and Upwards”!