The origins of the continent's name are not clear, but in the language of most of its inhabitants, the spelling is Afrika
. The colonizers from Portugal, Britain and France adulterated the spelling for uniformity to their own phonics beginning in the fifteenth century, as they launched the cultural marginalizing of tens of millions. Dr. Mark Lomax II chronicles the four-hundred-year history of Afrikan black people in America from the beginning of Jamestown slavery in 1619 to the current state of affairs in 2019, with the 12-CD digital box-set 400: An Afrikan Epic
. The composer/drummer/educator takes on this ambitious project over the course of three original extended suites that tell this story through a variety of musical styles and group formations reflecting the diversity of the continent that gave us the essence of jazz. In his extensive liner notes, Lomax also calls the project "an opportunity to celebrate the resilience, brilliance, strength, genius, and creativity of a people who continue to endure."
Lomax should be better-known in the creative music world but his commitment to local communitiesphysical and ancestralhave limited his exposure to a larger market. The native of Columbus, Ohio remains a fixture in that geographic area but not without significant achievements inside and outside the immediate area. Lomax earned his Doctorate in Music Arts at Ohio State University and is an Artist Residency Award recipient at the Wexner Center for the Arts. He has performed on stages from New Orleans to Prague and worked with Azar Lawrence
, Bennie Maupin
, Billy Harper
, and Delfeayo Marsalis
, arranged for symphonies and gospel choirs, and composed for string quartet. Much of Lomax's past work has served a prologue to 400: An Afrikan Epic
. Tales of the Black Experience: A Suite In 10 Parts
(BMR, 2001) is less sweeping in scope but across eleven tracks it takes listeners from the days of slave raids, to eventual emancipation. His 2010 The State of Black America
(Inarhyme Records) moves further along in exploring the impact of a vanishing Civil Rights Movement.
Each of the three themed suites that comprise 400: An Afrikan Epic
, consists of four albums. The first, Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us
portrays the relevance of the drums, a West Afrikan spiritual culture, and the journey to the west. Ma'afa is a Kiswahili term ("great disaster") that here refers to the millions of slaves who died during that the journeyknown as the Middle Passageand in captivity, and it is the central focus of the second suite Ma'afa: Great Tragedy
. The last two albums in this suite Four Women
and Blues In August
acknowledge the women and men instrumental in the post-slavery healing process. The final suite, Afro-Futurism: The Return to Uhuru
is a look toward the future of blacks in America, reveling in the endurance, power and imagination that allowed for survival.
While much of the background for 400: An Afrikan Epic
is rooted in some of the bleakest events in human history, the music is more often exhilarating. The twelve albums begin with The First Ankhcestor
, an all-percussion set that opens with the ten-minute "Ngoma Lungundu" performed by Lomax and Afrikan percussionists Baba Mehib and Baba Barago. Like each of the six tracks in this movement, the trio applies grooves, patterns and harmony to brings an extraordinary musicality to drumming. The first album concludes with "Talking Drums," bridging early drumming traditions from Afrika to the Afrikans in America. Up South
introduces Lomax's namesake trio with Edwin Bayard on saxophone and Dean Hulett on bass. The two tracks, "First Conversation" and "Second Conversation" are extended improvisations running about thirty-minutes each. Lomax explains these "conversations" address a largely ignored fact of the American slave trade, writing that this particular movement "focuses on dispelling the myth that the North and South were distinct in their treatment of Afrikans in America and on the topic of slavery. The North was just as complicit as the South in that northern bankers financed southern slave owners, Afrikans were bought and sold on Wall St..." Four Women
and Blues in August
paint portraits of pioneering personalities in the struggle for black rights. Past and present figures from Afrika and America are honored for their contributions to self-determination and equality; Lomax does not shy away from controversy with his inclusion of Angela Davis, the activist/educator/writer who had been a member of the Black Panthers, and the Communist Party for a time. Lomax pays tribute to the Queen of the Mbundu people (now Angola) who led her people in a decades-long war against Portuguese colonization, and Ida B. Wells whopost slaverybecame a journalist and educator. Seventy years before Rosa Parks, Wells successfully sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for forcing her to give up her seat on a train. The compositions on Four Women
are performed by UCelli, The Columbus Cello Quartet and while neoclassic, they draw upon spirituals and blues, and often have an avant-garde feel. Blues in August
is a tribute to August Wilson's efforts to give voices to those people that few listened to. Lomax plays here with the Urban Art Ensemblehis trio and strings, perfectly incorporated when they perform together. Each piece in this movement, however, is different. "Ma' Rainey" is a percussion solo, "Fences," a terrific bluesy post-bop piece, and "Gem of the Ocean" is strings with some bass improvising from Hulett. The ensemble comes together brilliantly on the swinging "Joe Turner's New Money," reminiscent of Charlie Haden
's Quartet West album Now Is the Hour
(Polygram Records, 1996). This album ends with title track, a wonderful six-minute bass solo from Hulett.
The concluding suite in 400: An Afrikan Epic
, Afro-Futurism: The Return to Uhuru
begins with the album Tales of the Black Experience
, a collection composed by Lomax two decades ago. Pianist William Menefield expands the trio to a quartet but Lomax begins by revisiting the ancestral drum, his solo is deep and moving on "Afrika." The quartet takes over with a great hard bop "The Coast of Afrika" followed by a frenetic free improvisation of "The Middle Passage." This album closes with "Rapture," a mainstream ballad featuring fine piano work from Meneﬁeld. The second and third albums in this suite, Ankh & The Tree of Life
and Spirits of the Egungun
have themes that tie back to ancient spirituality and tradition. The first of the two albums is divided into two extended improvisations, "Ankh," and "The Tree of Life," both played by the trio and the latter being a free improvisation. Spirits of the Egungun
is performed by The Ogún Meji Duo of Lomax and saxophonist Bayard. The last of the albums, Afrika United
, is again a solo percussion outing. With these pieces Lomax channels the messages of Martin Luther King Jr, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) in a cycle that stresses community as the centerpiece of the future.
There is no hyperbole in the title 400: An Afrikan Epic
; it is work of significant importance, a spiritual fact-finding mission that plays out as an impressive, multilayered historical soundtrack. As a percussionist, Lomax is striking, carrying out solos and all-percussion tracks in a style that is primal yet intricately sophisticated. His duo, trio and quartet are long-time associatesoutstanding musicians, well-aligned with the leader. As a composer, Lomax is a visionary who incorporates all the key benchmarks of jazz, from West Afrikan roots, to gradations of bop and on to progressive jazz extensions. The degree to which a listener absorbs the social message at the heart of this music is a matter of choice but the music on its own is full of history and looming possibilities. The vast majority of compositions and improvisations that makes up 400: An Afrikan Epic
are essential listening and highly recommended.
Suite 1: Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us (Album 1: The First Ankhcestor) Ngoma Lungundu; Tiriba; Wolosodon; Gombé; Talking Drums; Casá; (Album 2: Song of the Dogon) Po Tolo; Amma; The Pale Fox; Blessing of the Agon; (Album 3: Dance of the Orishas) Obatalá; Ogún; Oshoshi; Elegguá; Oyá; Oshün; Yemayá; LEB; Nommo; (Album 4: The Coming) Jua: Sunshine; Matumwa: Bondage; Uponyaji Mababu; Sigui: The Festival of Renewal. Suite 2: Ma’afa: Great Tragedy: (Album 5: Ma’afa) Captured; Day 1; Day 45: Rebellion; Day 60; Day 90; (Album6: Up South) First Conversation; Second Conversation; (Album 7: Four Women) Portrait of Queen Nzinga; Portrait of Ida B. Wells; Portrait of Angela Davis; Portrait of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; (Album 8: Blues In August) Ma' Rainey; Fences; Gem of the Ocean; Joe Turner’s New Money; Blues in August; Suite 3: Afro-Futurism: The Return to Uhuru (Album 9: Tales of the Black Experience) Afrika; The Coast of Afrika; The Middle Passage; Slavery In The New World; Visions of Freedom; Emancipation; The Hunt; Transcendence; Rapture; (Album 10: Ankh & The Tree of Life) Ankh; The Tree of Life; (Album 11: Spirits of the Egungun) Spirits I; Spirits II; Spirits III; Spirits IV; (Album 12: Afrika United) Ma'at; Trust; United; Power.
Mark Lomax, II: drum set, percussion (albums 1-6, 8-12), Baba Mehib (Larry Holmes): Afrikan percussion (album 1), Baba Barago (Johnny Hayes): Afrikan percussion (album 1), Freddie Kelley: Afrikan percussion (album 1), Edwin Bayard: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone (albums 2-6, 8-12), William Menefield: pianist, conductor (albums 2-4, 5 ,7, 8), Dean Hulett: bass (albums 2-6, 8-10), William Manley: violin (albums 5, 8), Erin Gilliland: violin (albums 5, 8), Norman Cardwell-Murri: viola (albums 5, 8), Mary Davis: cello (albums 5, 7, 8), Cora Kuyvenhoven: cello (album 7), Pei-An Chao: cello (album 7), Wendy Morton: cello (album 7).