San Francisco Jazz Maverick Idris Ackamoor: “Community Is Everything”

Handmade collage by B.

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!

What?! Really?

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.

That connection!

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!

Please check out: IDRIS ACKAMOOR & THE PYRAMIDS on bandcamp and Cultural Odyssey.

Pray For Party Dozen is on the way: “Party Dozen is a band that no one asked for, so I think it’s funny, the idea of praying for us”

Handmade mixed-media + still life collage by B.

Sydney’s Party Dozen is the dynamite combo of Jonathan Boulet and Kirsty Tickle. They’re one of the most interesting and exciting bands around with an experimental musical fusion of saxophone, drums and electronics to create a unique, fierce sound. They’re getting set to release their highly anticipated sophomore LP Pray For Party Dozen. We interviewed them, getting to know them a little better and hearing more about the awaited release, out May 22 on their own label Grupo Records. Get on your knees and start to pray, the second coming is almost upon us!

Party Dozen is a project loosely based around improvisation; what appealed to you about taking this approach?

JONO: I think all live forms of music conjure some kind of energy, sometimes it’s a familiar energy and sometimes it’s not. Audiences aren’t stupid and they can sense when you’re checked in to your performance. For us, keeping our performances unhinged and untethered not only keeps shows fun for us but I think it brings a sense of danger and if we want to project more energy we simply play harder and faster. And even though there’s a lot of songs we now generally play structurally the same, there’s always room for spontaneity and expression if we’re feeling it.

You’ve known each other for over a decade; how does that familiarity help when playing music and writing songs together?

JONO: Obviously knowing each other’s tendencies and even subtle physical cues can help immensely when it comes to performing as a unit. I guess at the same time we’re always developing as players and not being too familiar with someone’s playing style can lead to surprises and new paths. Sometimes I think we’re dead on the same page but it’ll turn out we are on opposite ends of the book! A welcome surprise as there are no mistakes when you’re “making it up”.

How did each of you first get into music?

JONO: It started for me when I was 10. I tended to be a little on the hyperactive side but instead of opting for drugs, my folks bought an old drum kit from a country town that used to belong to a Jazz guy that was in the war but never came back.

KIRSTY: My start in music was pretty run of the mill. Bullied my parents for piano lessons age 4, because I was the youngest and my siblings were all having them already. Music was the only thing that ever really held my interest for a long period of time.

All photos courtesy of @partydozen Instagram.

How did you first come to creating music yourself?

JONO: When I hit high school my parents got me a keyboard. It had this looping arranger function on it where I could layer up 5 or 6 instruments. I would get home from school and play it every day, recording loops that I liked on to floppy disks.

KIRSTY: I started writing songs when I was around 13, just keyboard and vocal kind of stuff. But I didn’t get into experimenting until I met Jonathan. He really pushed me to think about music differently and follow my own path with creating it.

I understand that Party Dozen started while you were overseas and that you started out playing the reverse – with Jono on saxophone and Kirsty on drums – of what the band formation is now; firstly what inspired you to be a two-piece with these instruments? Why did you first experiment by switching instruments?

KIRSTY: Yeah, we did one jam like that. I think Jono really wanted to play sax and I’ve always wanted to play drums. But it was dogshit, so we went back to the ones we’re good at. My memory is that we spoke about making a band in Berlin, but recorded our first song while living in London. We started taking it seriously when we moved back to Sydney. Coming back to Australia was this real lightbulb moment for both of us – we love living here, we love creating here and we love the community here.

Party Dozen’s music has quite an aggressive vibe and has an edge to it that can push the parameters of what makes people feel comfortable both as a listener and as a live experience; was that an intentional goal when crafting your sound?

KIRSTY: For sure. We always want to push the boundaries of how much sound two people can produce, and then extend on that. For me Party Dozen is also an experiment in how to utilise our instruments in more interesting ways, and appreciating that that sometimes isn’t going to be “nice” or “pretty”. There’s a real strength in that for me.

You’ve previously mentioned that with Party Dozen you wanted to “form a band that could help us grow as musicians”; in what ways do you feel you’ve grown since starting PD?

KIRSTY: When we started this band I couldn’t really use effects pedals. So I’ve really grown in that department. I also feel like we’ve both gotten so much better at playing our instruments in a live setting – still plenty of room for improvement though.

JONO: Yeah with the current format of this band, the better we get on our instruments the more options we have for exploration. This band has forced me to play harder better faster stronger.

Where did the title of your forthcoming sophomore LP, Pray For Party Dozen, come from?

KIRSTY: I think it sort of started as a bit of a joke…

JONO: Party Dozen is a band that no one asked for, so I think it’s funny, the idea of praying for us.

What inspired the new record?

KIRSTY: Film Noir, cults, 1960’s rock, conversations about dead friends.

How did you record it? Jono you record, mix and master Party Dozen’s songs, right?

JONO: We recorded it in our little 15sqm box in Marrickville, Sydney. Generally we’ll improvise to a loop a couple times and pick the best one. We run the sax through an amp with a DI and generally use 4-6 mics on the kit. We mix and master in house because we’re possessive and greedy.

I know when writing songs that you like to experiment and that you like to play a few different takes over loops to find what sounds best; how important are feeling and intuition in your process?

KIRSTY: The writing process is very improvisational, so I’d say feeling and intuition makes up about 90% of it. If it feels good, we’ll explore. If we like the vibe, it’ll normally make the record.

JONO: You can tell pretty quick if a song is coming together and whether it’s worth pursuing. Once we’ve made a loop, you can envision the song and if that sounds good in your mind, it’s likely to sound good in reality. There’s only ever been a couple of jams that got to the jam phase and didn’t make it.

Were there any risks you feel you took while making the album? Or any happy accidents from the process that made it on to the album?

KIRSTY: There’s a song with no loops! Which is the first time we’ve done that, and we didn’t go into the recording aiming for that either – so I guess that’s a happy accident!

JONO: Nothing too risky. We were more focused on expanding our sonic palate. More colours to play with in the Party Dozen world. There was definitely an intentional focus on aesthetic and vibe this time around.

What gear really helped shape the sound of, Pray For Party Dozen?

KIRSTY: On my set up, I got some new pedals. A wah, a new fuzz and a couple of new delays.

JONO: I run all my loops off of a Roland SP-404, I use one crash, tighten the fuck out of my snare and try to hit everything as hard and consistent as possible.

What was one of your favourite moments of recording the new record?

KIRSTY: The opening track “World Prayer” is probably the most challenging track to listen to on the record. It was also the most fun, rule-free, throwing-shit-at-a-wall noisey tracks I’ve ever recorded.

JONO: Some songs you know just don’t feel right while you’re playing them, so it takes a few goes to get it right. But there are some songs, eg. “The Great Ape”, that feel right every time you play it. When it feels right the first time, you get this rush of excitement or a hit of some highly addictive drug.

What keeps music exciting for you?

KIRSTY: I get excited to just keep making. And trying different things. It’s not hard to keep excited with a band like PD… we can do whatever we want next.

JONO: Touring is what keeps it exciting for me. When there’s heat in the room and you can feel people’s energy on stage, nothing beats that.

As artists what are the things that you value most?

KIRSTY: I value time. Time to tour, practise, make records, hangout with friends who give me tonnes of inspiration. The more time we have as Party Dozen, the better.

JONO: I value a sense of humour, originality, and people with a sense of vision.

Please check out: PARTY DOZEN. Pray For Party Dozen out May 22 on Grupo pre-order here. PD on Instagram. PD on Facebook.