Idris Ackamoor is an inspiration. He has created and played music since the ‘70s, a veteran of pioneering free jazz musician Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble and founder of Afro-jazz outfit The Pyramids. Idris was one of the first musicians of his generation to travel to, and live and study in Africa in the early ‘70s.
Today he is still playing music and doing more than ever under the umbrella of Cultural Odyssey, a not-for-profit that believes in art as social activism and creating original work that builds artistic, cultural and political bridges across continents, fostering community and change.
Gimmie interviewed Idris from his home in San Francisco and chatted about his latest album Shaman! as well as his journey and what he learned during his life changing time in Africa. His positivity, enthusiasm and zest for creation, community and life is infectious.
IDRIS ACKAMOOR: I’m doing good today, the sun is shining, it’s a sunny day so that’s good!
Good to hear, Idris. Where did your name Idris Ackamoor come from?
IA: I was born with the name Bruce Baker, but my family’s true name, our ancestral name, is Ackamoor. It goes back in to the 18th century but was changed to Baker in inter-marriage. I was the first to reclaim my great-great-grandfather’s name; his name was Dick Ackamoor. Our family reunions are now called Baker-Ackamoor reunions.
The name Idris, I was in high school in the last part of the ‘60s, from ’64 to ’68. ’68 was of course around the time of Black Power and the return to the understandings of our ancestors in Africa, Black Pride, afro haircuts and dashikis—it was a back to Africa vibe happening for a lot of African-Americans. That was around the time a lot of young people were changing at least a part of their name to more reflect what they were feeling. So, I choose the name Idris.
The meaning of the name Idris means interpreter, righteous and to learn.
IA: Yes. There are several different meanings in different languages, sometimes a name goes across ethnicities and groups. It’s even known in Egypt and there’s a derivative of it in Ireland. When I choose it from where I selected it, Idris was ‘messenger of the moon’.
Why is music important to you?
IA: Music is life. I’ve been playing music since I was seven years old. I consider myself an artistic being, meaning if there was a planet out in space for artist types, I’d be on that planet and I’d be an artistic being because I am surrounded by art. I love art and I have been surrounded by and known music for most of my life. Music is everything to me, it’s also very much a part of my spiritual beliefs. It occupies a lot of my life, even in how I celebrate, how I worship; I worship with music. I conduct rituals on stage with my band, with community, with audience members. Music is about my life.
Through listening to your music, seeing live performance videos and knowing the work you do through Cultural Odyssey, things like spirituality and community seem like they are very important to you.
IA: Absolutely. They are the motivation. The foundation of my work is community, family and healing.
In what way healing?
IA: Music is one of my influences. Albert Ayler, the great tenor saxophone player, he coined the phrase: ‘music is a healing force of the universe’. I think it can be seen; it’s even been documented, music goes back as far as humankind. The music of the breeze going through the trees, the music of different animals and birds. It’s been used in many ancient cultures as a healing, it’s been used in many ceremonies to help with things like childbirth or to help console when a family member has died—music is played a lot like that in Africa and in many different ancient cultures. I know Africa, so I’m speaking from Africa. I’m speaking also here in America with the Indigenous Peoples; they use music for healing and ceremony. Even if you take it to the present day with yourself and myself, a good song can make you feel so much better during the day, it can soothe you, bring back memories. Music is an art form that is really magical. It has many, many different uses. For me it’s one of the most influential artistic disciplines.
IA: Music is also something that is intangible. Music is invisible, we hear it… you can see it written on paper but it’s an invisible medium in a sense, it’s in the air. I have vinyl records that I play over and over and over again like John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and every time you play it, it means something to you but if you look at film… maybe there’s some real filmheads that could see a movie over and over, for me it’s hard to even see a movie two times let alone ten or twenty or thirty… music though is infinite, you can listen to your favourite album or a piece of music you like over and over and you can’t even count the times you’ve listened to it, and you don’t get tired of it.
I do that all the time. I just get obsessed with pieces of music and play them over and over and over and often each time I hear something new. Or they’ll be a little part that I love and I just keep rewinding and listen to it over and over.
IA: [Laughs] You do what I do sometimes. Music affects each of us so differently. That’s the funny thing about music, something that can be your favourite song might not be someone else’s; what determines what is your most loving piece of music? It’s so individual.
In the early ‘70s you went to Africa. I understand that this really changed you; in what way?
IA: Sometimes something happens in life and it can affect your whole life—my trip to Africa was one of those. It still influences me to this day. It was one of those magical trips because I was there close to nine months. I studied music. I experienced community and how African culture worships with music. I learnt how they combine the different art forms, music is combined with dance which is combined with ritual, theatre, masquerade; it’s very rare in Africa that there is only one art form that is displayed for an audience. If a musician is playing then he is probably also reciting poetry or singing or conducting somewhat of a theatre piece. I was just loving the depth of the culture in Africa, the colours of the costumes, the innumerable amount of instruments that I could see and sometimes brought back and collected.
I also underwent ceremonies, healing ceremonies, with traditional African priests or Medicine Men, they call them Juju men or shaman. Shaman! is the name of my new album. Shamans in Africa are very, very essential. They might be called a traditional healer—they are a religious being.
What type of ceremonies were they?
IA: I didn’t know a lot about Africa before I went, I had a very elemental knowledge from when I was in college; I was a college student when I travelled. I knew a little from my reading, I knew the word Juju. Juju is a religion in some parts of Africa. I knew that I wanted to undergo a ceremony by a Juju priest. When I was in northern Ghana, in Bolgatanga I asked a resident, I told them that I wanted to undergo a ceremony. The resident guided me way out into the bush and that’s where I met my Juju man who put me through a ceremony. The ceremony was called ‘The Washing of the Legs’. He sung and played instruments, he washed my legs in Juju, in the magic, which would then allow me to walk anywhere in the world unmolested, no one would mess with me and I wouldn’t have any problems. He was giving me a spiritual shield to my body. It sounds pretty far out [laughs] but I experienced it!
What is the significance of Shaman! for your new record title?
IA: It’s basically a lot to do with what I just mentioned. ‘Shaman!’ is a title track. It set up my musical theatre piece. The album was composed as a four-act music suite. ‘Shaman!’ begins act one. I put a very contemporary spin on it because… it was basically about a love affair that was broken up, this was a girlfriend I had many years ago. When we were about to break up, I wrote a poem to her. The idea was that… a lot of times men are the ones that do a lot of the heartbreaking but in reality, it goes both ways—basically I got my heart broke. I wrote a poem:
If I was a Shaman I’d run my hands together and I’d reach down into your soul
If I was a Shaman, if I was magical, I’d clap three times, spit in the air
I’d create a whole new world
I’d reach down into your heart and find that buried spark
I’d massage it until it started back up again
I used the concept of a ceremony to reclaim our love we had as a couple.
That’s really beautiful.
IA: I think so too. The poem was inspired by this South African historian who wrote a book about Zulu mythology of the Zulu people. In his book he talks about the ‘fire rites’, the fire rites of penance. A part of my poem talks about how I’m telling you the truth that I really love you.
I’ll grab a white-hot axe and grab onto that axe and burn my flesh to tell you that I love you, I won’t let go.
[Laughs] So, it got pretty deep!
I love that there are so many layers to your music. It always gives me chills.
IA: I’m glad. I really want it to mean something different to each person, I want everyone to take away something that is unique to them. I don’t believe in shoving anything down anyone’s throat, into someone’s ears, I want them to interpret it almost like when you’re looking at an abstract painting; everyone will have a different description of what they’re looking at.
One of the songs on the record that really resonated with me was ‘When Will I See You Again?’ I think partly for me, both my parents have passed away now and when I heard the line from the tracks title it made me think of that. It brought me some comfort and reminded me that I will see them again.
IA: Well, you really picked up on the song exactly as… it’s very interesting that you say that because when I was thinking of composing the song, I was visiting my sister. We were having a conversation of; do I believe in the afterlife? Do I believe in Heaven? She’s quite religious herself, more from the Christian element. She said, “Idris, don’t you want to believe in Heaven? Don’t you want to believe that we will see Mommy again?” There was no argument, of course. Just the way she said it… even though I might not believe in “Heaven” but I do believe in the spirit. I do believe that you meet your parents again in some form or fashion, some spiritual fashion. She was of the same idea that you just mentioned, the idea that we would see some of our loved ones again.
I know there’s no way we can know until we do transition into whatever is next for us from here but it’s nice to think there is something.
IA: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s for sure! Absolutely! It can relate on a lot of different levels because ‘When Will I See You Again?’ I composed it actually before the pandemic… it was almost like forecasting this terrible pandemic. So far, here in America, we have lost close to 200,000 people, they’ve died. There’s particularly resonance to that song now with that’s what we’re facing right now.
The song starts with me talking about mass shootings. I was naming certain cities where mass shootings took place, where they were in schools… a parent can think their child is just leaving the house to go to school… I say in the song: and too soon a loved one parts, sometimes it’s just a blink of an eye. I know when my girlfriend heard it, she had tears in her eyes. Once she listened to it over and over again, she also understood it was about like you said, very positive with the idea that we see loved ones again or that you want to be more appreciative of your loved ones now. It’s a pretty heavy piece.
The whole album goes through so many emotions and moods, everything is really in there. Soul-searching, self-healing, mortality, salvation, love, loss and so much more. It’s very powerful.
IA: Thank you. I’ve spent a lot of years in the theatre. I’ve done a lot of plays and a lot of musical theatre so I brought a lot of that experience, that inspiration and put it into the album. That’s why when you look at it and you look at the album cover it all becomes a piece of art.
Are there ways that songs come to you most often?
IA: It’s another one of those things that are so magical. Obviously, a lot of the music just comes from living my daily life, what I’m experiencing. I’ve been writing, I’ve written enough compositions for my next album. It’s very exciting! A lot of it is coloured by what we are experiencing now, not just the bad parts but also the good. There’s a song that I’m really excited about called ‘Heroes (or Heroines)’, it’s all about the heroes that have played a part in this pandemic. It’s a homage to the nurses and the doctors and the farm workers, everyone that’s put their life at risk helping other people. I find that very, very amazing. I am so appreciative that people would put their life at risk to help other people—that is the height of humanity. It’s a very uplifting piece, it’s almost like angels singing.
There’s another song called ‘Police Dem’. I sit here in my apartment, I’m sheltering in place like a lot of people are, we’re all watching a lot of news, what’s been happening with the police and George Floyd and what just happened in Wisconsin where police shoot a Black man seven times in the back… I have a very afrobeat piece that’s inspired by Fela Ransome-Kuti’s song ‘Zombie’. It’s about soldiers and how they’re automated, you tell ‘em what to do and they do. My song is basically about dealing with the police.
What’s kept you positive this year through everything?
IA: Music. Music and family go hand-in-hand because you can’t move forward without the support of your loved ones, it’s very hard, it’s very difficult, because that’s what you’re living for in some ways. My father is going to be ninety-nine years old in May… obviously this is a time when we’re not able to be with family much so, music is one thing I don’t have to worry about the virus touching [laughs]. Music is keeping me moving forward; composing new music, playing every day—it’s hard to know what I would do without it.
Is there anything that you like to do to challenge yourself creatively?
IA: Yeah, I go back to the beginning when I was just starting out. What I’m doing right now is that I’m going back to a time… I had a teacher that used to play with Charlie Parker, he’s dead now because I know he was old back then… he told me one thing long ago that I’m rediscovering right now, I’m going way back when I began to learn and prove myself now. I found it very interesting because someone can tell you something thirty, forty or fifty years ago and that one thing can be with you your whole life. I’m going back to things that were revealed to me over fifty years ago and getting new meaning out of it. It’s so exciting for me that feeling of beginning all over again. [Laughs] It can be hard but mostly it’s exciting.
You’re a band leader; how do you get such great performances out of everyone?
IA: I think it’s mostly because I am a great band leader. I am a great judge of character. I have a really good understanding; I can hear someone immediately… I think a lot of it transcends music, it goes beyond music, because you can find exceptional, technical musicians, musicians that have studied all of their life but they may be lousy band members. I’ve gone through that a lot, very talented musicians but terrible band members; they’re not good on the road, they’re not good travelling, they don’t know how to support you. I’m much more interested in getting the best performance out of their unique character, sometimes they are incredibly technical and great human beings! I’m not interested in someone who is great technically but not a great human being.
Same! I like having good people around me, it’s important.
IA: Yeah, I think that’s almost the most important thing. This album I am so happy because quite frankly, I love having two women in my band, they are incredible improvisers and great performers but more than anything they’re so supportive, supportive in ways that most men could never be. Women have that motherly instinct in some ways or another kind of instinct that is soft. Sandy and Margaux have made a huge difference. We were on the road for two months before we did the album, being on the road can be very difficult, you’ve got to have a good group of people to live on the road.
We talked about how your trip to Africa changed your life; have you had other life changing moments you could share with us?
IA: In many ways travelling through Europe and performing and this new rebirth of The Pyramids. We were initially only together for 1972 to 1977 and then we broke up and didn’t get back together again for over thirty years. What’s been life changing for me is to be able to play my music all over the world, every place. I was scheduled to come to Australia!
IA: I was supposed to play a big festival in Melbourne. It was pretty obvious then though that things were getting very bad and they ended up cancelling it. I was so looking forward to coming to Australia. I’ve traveled all my life, as we talked abut going to Africa when I was twenty-one, all the travelling I’ve done particularly the last ten years has been amazingly profound in my life. The audiences that I’ve met and performed for, the people that have booked me have become my friends, it’s been extraordinary for me and mind-blowing epiphany in my life that at this age I can be so regarded and celebrated around the world with my music for what I’m doing.
IA: Yeah, it’s hard to think when we were finishing up… we recorded Shaman! in early November 2019, maybe the 4th to the 10th, we were playing a lot of those songs on tour right before the virus hit Italy. We were in Italy, one of the places where the virus impacted people hard, we were there in July and August, then in Spain. I got back to America around November 21st and a couple months later that’s when all hell broke loose. The tour was magical where we were playing though, the people we’d meet. We played in Turkey; I went to Istanbul for the first time! I’m looking forward to coming to Australia, I love playing the didgeridoo, it’s one of my favourite instruments. I have a portable one that’s about six and a half feet long but it folds down to maybe a foot and a half. For several years that’s been one of the signatures of the band, I come on playing this huge long didgeridoo.
Why do you like to start with that?
IA: Firstly, it’s the visual, because a lot of people in Europe don’t know what a digeridoo is. Secondly, it’s got this deep, deep sound [makes noise] baaaarooooooo! Wooooo! Whooooo! We walk in through the audience. It’s also consistent with the whole idea of community; we start the concert in the audience amongst the people! It’s rare that we begin onstage.
I can’t wait to see you play live.
IA: We sometimes leave through the audience too. We like creating a real community feel.
I know with your organization Cultural Odyssey you have a philosophy of art as social activism; can you please tell us about this? You also spearhead the African American Theatre Alliance For Independence.
IA: When The Pyramids broke up in 1977 I kept playing my own music and growing and in 1979 I founded a non-profit performing arts company – in America there’s a big non-profit community where we have philanthropy, foundations and government funding for the Arts… I founded Cultural Odyssey and it’s sustained me for over forty years as an artist. During that time, I’ve never had a day job. I have a salary, healthcare, a retirement fund, all the things you often think you can only have if you work for a corporation. We’re like a mini opera or a theatre. It’s my myself and my partner, Rhodessa Jones. Our model is: art as social activism.
Her main project is called The Medea Project which is theatre for incarcerated women. For thirty years underneath Cultural Odyssey she’s gone into prisons all over the world, particularly here in San Francisco, she works with incarcerated inmates and ex-inmates to create theatre based on their lives. It’s all original theatre that they write themselves and then they perform it in a major theatre around the world. We even took it to South Africa. We’ve taken it to Italy, performing in Italian prisons.
Another of the projects we do is my Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids, which is the resurrected band. We’ve been touring again for the last ten years.
It’s wonderful that you can do work that you love and help other people doing it.
IA: Community is everything. We had an orchestra out here that was made up of closet musicians, people that weren’t really performers but maybe practiced in their closest or they just like to play. I combined amateur musicians with professional musicians and created the Music Is A Healing Force Community Orchestra. We got funding from a foundation that wanted to have art in non-traditional places, places that don’t usually have live music. We played in United Nations Plaza.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
IA: I’m always thinking of what’s next! I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I’m always thinking of continuing to make music and art and collaborations. I want to make every album I release to be something special and it’s something to bring forth the transforming and the healing that brings meaning to people. For me it’s about quality not quantity. Looking forward!