In the early 1970s, bandleader Idris Ackamoor formed the Pyramids, blazing a trail that united psychedelia, soul, and jazz, and began to travel the world. The group started in Ohio, at Antioch College, where Ackamoor studied under the tutelage of Cecil Taylor, before relocating to San Francisco, visiting far off lands in between. As the band ended, he launched a campaign of musical activism, Cultural Odyssey, but more than three decades after disbanding, Ackamoor reactivated the combo, releasing a new album, Otherworldly in 2012 and following it up earlier this year with We Be All Africans, out via Strut Records.
If you’re a listener of Aquarium Drunkard’s Transmissions podcast, you heard our talk with Ackamoor, interspersed with fantastic sounds from his records. Presented here, an edited transcript of that conversation.
Aquarium Drunkard: Idris, it’s a real pleasure to speak with you. I want to start off by discussing the title of your new album with The Pyramids. It’s We Be All Africans. Can you tell me where that title came from?
Idris Ackamoor: We know some of the oldest skeletons or human remains have been found in Africa [and the title] relates to the fact that we are really all one human family. I was [writing] around the time when we, here in America, were going through a lot of situations and violence with the police. Police shootings of young black men. I was just so affected by everything that was happening in Ferguson and other locations [asking], “Why does this continue to happen?” It has something to do, a lot of times, with a racial issue that we have here in America, when, in reality, we are all one family. One part of the human family. So you know, that just was kind of a message of hope, a message of survival. That this is a very small planet we’re living on, and we have to share it.
AD: In the liner notes you write that the album is exactly what you said, “a message of survival,” and also of “renewal.” With the events of Ferguson, [it feels like awareness of longstanding civil injustices] has reached a fever pitch. Did that message feel particularly timely to you?
Idris Ackoamoor: Oh absolutely, and I also think that it really extends really beyond the U.S.A. I was also thinking a lot about the immigration crisis, in Europe. We know now that it’s an ongoing situation where many immigrants from Africa are trying to reach Europe to search for a better life. They’re fleeing war, they’re fleeing extreme poverty, but many times, they’re not welcome. There’s a tendency to look at them as “the other”. It’s the same situation with the Syrian refuge crisis. So yes, I think that it’s really very timely.
AD: The lyrics on the record are beautiful. The title track is a very uplifting anthem ; the lyrics have a great chanting quality to them. But when I listen to “Silent Days” and “Whispering Tenderness,” both of those songs are sort of heartbreaking. They seem to speak to distances between people. What were you thinking when you were writing those two songs?
Idris Ackamoor: Well, “Whispering Tenderness” was [written for] this dance company here in San Francisco. The dance company was called Push Dance Company, and we are both residents of the African American Art and Culture Complex. There was a black playwright and his name was Buriel Clay, who was very legendary in the mid-’70s. Buriel was a very big inspiration for many African American theater artists and performers, because he really worked to organize, in that time period, workshops and classes around theater. Long story short, he was actually killed in a car accident very close to where I’m living right now. Maybe four or five blocks. He was killed, as well as his girlfriend. It was a very tragic event, and so I was writing the music and the performance was based on Buriel Clay’s life. Right now we have a theater, we have a theater space in the cultural center, and it’s called The Buriel Clay Theatre. So, you know, the music was basically about lovers who actually died in this accident. It was inspired by true events, [about] whispering tenderness, memories, and [the idea that] you’re still here even though you’re gone…”Silent Days” was an actual love letter that was written to me many, many years ago, in the early ’80s when I was in Germany. I had a wonderful relationship with a woman in Germany. I think it was actually a letter that she wrote to me after I left and we kind of, time came in, and the relationship kind of stopped. Not for any particular reason, [and that song is] just a reflection of those times that we had that were in the sun. “Now it’s silent days in the rain drawing an attempt to remember. To try to remember the love between us.” It was definitely very personal.
AD: You mentioned that you knew her in Germany?
Idris Ackamoor: Yes. We’re still friends even as of now. She knows, I asked her permission in order to be able to use some of the lyrics. We’re still friends right now. She’s married, she has a family, and her son is a drummer. Her and her husband — they all come to my shows when I come to Germany. So, it’s a very good relationship.
AD: You recorded this one in Germany, right? As you did with the last one, Otherwordly?
Idris Ackamoor: We recorded it in Berlin. We recorded We Be All Africans at the Philophon recording studios in Berlin. Whereas Otherwordly was recorded in a studio in the southern part of Germany.
AD: Right. Faust’s studio, I understand?
Idris Ackomoor: Yes, Faust. They’re a little bit legendary for working with what I guess has been called “krautrock”…[known] as being kind of the originators of that scene. The studio’s located in a very small town in Southern Germany; Scheer, Germany. The studio is right by a river, and it was a very wonderful place to record.
AD: Prior to that record, the Pyramids hadn’t released an album since 1976, right? Birth/Speed/Merging?
Idris Ackamoor: That’s right.
AD: What inspired you to bring the group back after ending some 35 years prior?
Idris Ackamoor: It was just something that just kind of happened; it was an evolving process. All of a sudden I was getting all of these requests, coming out of nowhere, for articles, and books, and magazines. People were very interested in learning about The Pyramids from the three albums that we self-produced in the early to mid ’70s. This just started to escalate around, I guess around 2003-2005. All of a sudden, I was getting requests from some record companies to release some of this material. I had moved on, I was doing my own work. I was continuing with my own performance company: Cultural Odyssey, which I founded several years after the Pyramids broke up.
There was a gentleman who ran Ikef Records in Chicago, [he] called me and wanted to re-release all three of the albums. It was just something that was building and building. There was actually a record company in Japan that also wanted to release some of The Pyramid material. So, they decided to release a two-CD set on EM Records called The Music of Idris Ackamoor 1971-2004, and so I decided that I wanted to have a record release party. I called all of the old Pyramids — who I hadn’t really talked to in a long time, or I definitely haven’t played with. I brought them all out here to San Francisco to a big show at the San Francisco International Performance Festival. This was in 2007, our reunion concert.
AD: How long did it take to pick up where you left off? Did that process happen quickly and naturally for you? How did it come together?
Idris Ackamoor: It really came together because everybody was on their own kind of journeys. Some were more involved in music, some were less involved. But everybody seemed to [continue in music], in many instances, even if they were kind of semi-retired. Say for instance Kimathi Asante, who was a high school principal when I called him. [But] they had been playing music from a time when they were really young, even when they were eight-or-nine years old. So it was really in their bones, in their being. So once we got back together it was just like riding a bicycle, you don’t forget how to do it…as I said, several of the members had also been very much continued to be involved with music. Which included, Heshima Mark Williams, acoustic bass player, who’s playing with us now. Donald Robinson, the drummer, [who was] one of the original drummers. He’s very much involved in a lot of avant garde music, playing with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. He played a lot with Glen Spearmen. So yeah, different manners of involvement. And of course, excuse me, I can’t forget my ex-wife Margot, who went on and got her PHD in composition. Although she wasn’t performing, she had been teaching at universities [and is part of the Pyramids legacy].
AD: You guys formed while you were students at Antioch College in Ohio. What was it like when you first got started? When the Pyramids first started playing, what was in the air sort of? I know you studied under Cecil Taylor, and there’s obviously, a spiritual jazz element to what you do, but there’s also funk, and soul, and R&B. What were the thoughts as you guys started playing together?
Idris Ackamoor: Being students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, [we were] kind of isolated there and away from any major influences. Even though I’m from Chicago, the band didn’t really meet in Chicago or New York where you have a lot of other influential musicians. Like you had the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or you know, you had Sun Ra, you had other musicians. But Antioch was really kind of an incubator. I mean it really worked in our favor [in coming] up with our own originality. Even though prior to that, once again, we were all studying music. I’ve been studying music from the time I was seven or eight years old myself. I was definitely on a track before I came to Antioch. In fact I had found my master instructor, my guru, my saxophone master in Chicago, who’s name was Clifford King. He got me technically proficient on my instrument, which allowed me, once I got to Antioch, [to] really explore and really begin to create and originate. Then of course, Cecil came. It was all a combination of influences, not anyone specific. But, to answer your other question, I also came of age in the mid-to-latae ’60s. I graduated in ’68. Of course, that was a time of Motown. So I grew up dancing to The Miracles, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye, and so I had a very eclectic idea about music. Later on, of course, I became very much attracted to the music of John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, and Eric Dolphy, and Alice Coltrane, and that whole realm. But at the same time, Jimi Hendrix. I had a very wide range, and I could say that probably my fellow Pyramids that also weren’t in any one school.
AD: Did that stuff all feel connected to you in a way? Through your own music, were you able to draw connecting lines between Motown stuff to something like what the Coltranes were doing? Or from Jimi Hendrix to Albert Ayler? Did you hear a connecting thread in that stuff?
Idris Ackamoor: I definitely heard this connecting thread, and I think it was also somewhat verified working with Cecil. Cecil was so, in his classes, talked about the unity– particularly of the African American forms of music, whether it came from the field hollers, or the blues. And Cecil loved to dance. He loved R&B. He loved Michael Jackson. So that kind of continued to verify the fact that, you know, as Duke Ellington has said, “There’s only two kinds of music, good or bad”. That just helped to keep very open, have an open mind.
AD: So as the group matured you guys eventually moved to the bay area, right? To San Francisco, where you are now?
Idris Ackamoor: Yes, actually. After we did our year abroad, where we studied in Africa for almost nine months. We got back to Antioch and not too long after that, Margot and myself were married. I was teaching in the Antioch music department for six months, and then we came out to San Francisco. We just migrated out here.
AD: What drew you guys out West?
Idris Ackamoor: Although I had graduated, Margot and Kimathi and Donald had not. So, the idea was that we were gonna go on an Antioch education abroad [trip] to Japan, to study about Japanese music and Japanese culture. But by the time we made it out to San Francisco, where I had a brother –Margot and myself had decided that we really wanted just to kind of settle down, we wanted to start a family. We liked the Bay Area. So we just decided that we were just gonna put down some roots. Now Kimathi wasn’t of the same persuasion, so he ended doubling back to Antioch where he went on his own to Egypt to continue his studies. Me and Margot stayed out here, and that’s where we met Heshima Mark Williams. We began to perform with The Pyramids in the Bay Area.
AD: How did the city affect what you guys were doing? What was the energy like in San Francisco in those days?
Idris Ackamoor: It was wide open. We got out here in ’74, which isn’t that long after the whole psychedelic revolution and the Summer of Love. It seemed like that there was a lot going on in San Francisco as well as in the East Bay. There were a lot more venues. There was a UC Berkeley Jazz Festival, which I remember very well because they always had a very wide range of musicians. One time, I saw Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane on the same night.
Idris Ackamoor: Then of course there was Sly and the Family Stone, and all these others; San Francisco was very renowned and legendary musicians [were coming out of the] Bay Area. They had a very active avant-garde jazz scene.
AD: I want to double back just a little bit. Before you ended up settling in San Francisco, The Pyramids studied abroad in Africa for nine months. I believe that that’s where you coined the term “cultural odyssey.” What were you studying during that time in Africa?
Idris Ackamoor: Antioch was a very, and still is, a very revolutionary alternative university. It’s been around for a long time, and they had what was called the Antioch education abroad. Now, this program normally would have students from Antioch go over and study for a year at a university or a college, and do that kind of an exchange. But I proposed to the Antioch education abroad program that we wanted to go to Europe first, and form a band. Because I had been hearing about, in my studies, about how Europe was very much a welcoming place for African Americans performers, like Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker. I was really excited about the idea of what Europe might be like. So I proposed what’s called an “Own Plans”. Which meant that we designed the program and Antioch allowed us. All we had to do was to go the University of Beisonse in France four or five weeks of intensive French. Then, we were completely on our own from our own design that I made: We would form the band in Europe, we’d play around in Europe for three months, then we’d go to Africa for close to nine months. We had an around-the-world ticket where we could stop at any place, kind of in a circle, during this process. So The Pyramids were actually formed in France, in Beisonse , and Paris. We went to Amsterdam, where we began to work as professional musicians all over Holland. We did that for close to three months, playing all these really hip cultural centers, and jazz clubs, and performance venues. Then when we departed for Africa, where we were just… Basically we’d arrive some place, we would not know anyone, and it was just a blessed odyssey because we’ve always found someone that helped us. For that nine months we studied intensively in Ghana and in Kenya, then traveled to Senegal, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia. We got a chance to actually study and play with indigenous musicians, particularly myself and Margot. We took a trip up into northern Ghana, which is like really the heart of African music. We met and were adopted by this family of musicians in Tamale that represented the king’s orchestra. They were called the Prayer Drummers. We’d perform with the Prayer Drummers in Tamale, and then we also went to Bolgatanga, which is at the extreme north of Ghana, where we participated in ceremonies. We also performed with the frafra musicians.
AD: It sounds like everywhere you went you learned new things, cultivating new ideas. I feel like you can hear all that on We Be All Africans. There are European influences, Latin influences, and there’s all these African influences. So, it seems to me like you’ve always viewed music in a global sense.
Idris Ackamoor: Yes, absolutely. That’s definitely right. It’s not just Africa. It’s Africa, it’s Asia, it’s India. It’s very much a global sense. I was always fascinated by instruments from around the world. I loved different kind of instruments. I have a collection myself of extraordinary instruments. It’s always funny, because when The Pyramids first got together we just went crazy. When we first started to started to tour, out [reunited] European tour was in 2010. So of course, we’re all excited and we wanted to make sure that we really were received in the best way we could. Which meant that, particularly myself, I came with so many instruments. I became known in Europe — people would say, “How many instruments do you play?” or, “What don’t you play?” But over the time, it became a little more difficult traveling with as many, so you had to pair things down.
AD: I want to ask you about Cultural Odyssey, your organization there in San Francisco. Can you tell me about the mission is for Cultural Odyssey?
Idris Ackamoor: Even though The Pyramids disbanded in 1977, I was still on that same path with Cultural Odyssey. My music, my life, it all reflected [my ideology] — it was almost as if The Pyramids was just a name that went away at that time. But my concept, my feeling, my composition, just continued. Cultural Odyssey was mainly created due to what I found in Africa. The interdisciplinary, the multidisciplinary nature of African art and culture, where they normally combine the different art forms. It’s very rare that you would see a musician that all he did was play music. I mean a musician would play music, he’d be the storyteller, he’d be dancing, he’d be moving — you’ve got this ceremonial, ritualistic quality of art in Africa. That’s what I brought to Cultural Odyssey. I wanted to form a performing arts company that combined music with theatre and dance. That’s what I did, which was a direct connection with what my work and my studies were in Africa. I added a dancer and an actress to my quartet. At that time I was playing music with this quartet. So we expanded it to a six-piece ensemble with the dancer and the actress. That’s where Cultural Odyssey kind of had its beginnings. Then my long time partner Rhodessa Jones, who’s a fabulous vocalist and predominantly active storyteller, came and entered the company. We’ve been running Cultural Odyssey together as co-directors for close to 37, 38 years.
AD: Do you feel now that the work of The Pyramids and the work of Cultural Odyssey have dove-tailed? Are they two sides of the same coin for you now?
Idris Ackamoor: Absolutely, The Pyramids is an artistic project of Cultural Odyssey, because that’s how Cultural Odyssey worked. Cultural Odyssey is an umbrella, and the reason Cultural Odyssey exists is to support the work of Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones. She e does a project called the Medea Project Theatre for incarcerated women. She is one of the foremost artists working with disenfranchised populations arounds the world. I sometimes help her in her work. We do a lot of it in South Africa, where we go into prisons and a woman’s prison outside of Johannesburg. We’ve done that since 2005. Then of course, The Pyramids, is an artistic project of Cultural Odyssey. Then we still have the Idris Ackamoor-Rhodessa Jones duet, which is a flagship. We’ve become quite renowned for the kind of performance that we do as a duet around the world.
AD: It sounds like there’s just so much going on in your creative life. It’s quite inspiring.
Idris Ackamoor: Well thank you, thank you. I feel very blessed and just supported. I call myself an artistic being. I’m just surrounded by art. I’m fortunate enough to be a musician, a performing artist. I’ve never had a day job, I’ve always been able to support myself through the performing arts, and that’s a real blessing.
AD: And it seems like it’s important for you to repay that with people around you. It seems like the mission of Cultural Odyssey extends to giving people who don’t often have a creative voice an outlet to express themselves that way. I mean when you’re talking about imprisoned women…that’s somebody whose voice is so seldom heard. It seems like Cultural Odyssey wants to signal boost that voice.
Idris Ackamoor: Very much so. In San Francisco, we are one of the pinnacles of that kind of work. We really want to share, to be mentors, we want to be leaders in this field. I do have a project called Music is a Healing Force Community Orchestra, where I work with a lot of times- closet musicians are musicians that have never really had a platform. Then I use The Pyramids — some of the core Pyramids members — [as an] anchor, almost like a house band. We have this orchestra and we’ve received grants to do performances at parks, and alternative spaces. Spaces that are not your typical jazz spaces. So we perform at the United Nations Plaza, or different parks in the Mission, or at the Japan Plaza, Peace Plaza. So this orchestra [works with] the Medea Project, with women who are ex-offenders [and] women who are HIV positive. So it’s just an extraordinary organization, Cultural Odyssey is. It’s a leader in the form of art and social activism. words / j woodbury