Hidden from small

Music Saved Me: Hannibal and One Land, One River, One People, a Philadelphia Orchestra World Premiere

October 16, 2015

How did Hannibal Lokumbe get from the cotton fields of segregated 1950s Texas to the concert halls of the world? (Including, on November 13-15, Verizon Hall, for the world premiere of his new “spiritatorio” as he has named it, One Land, One River, One People, commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra.)

“Music saved me,” Hannibal says. “Society said that I and all the people who look like me were illegitimate. But when I was in the fields with my grandparents, and heard them start singing at one o’clock, when the heat was unbearable, then I knew they were legitimate. I knew I was legitimate. I saw a transformation in them physically and mentally. I began to realize there was something very special about that music. It saved their lives; it saved my life. It keeps you from madness, from hatred … it’s liberating.”

Fast-forward a few years, when Hannibal saw a remarkable filmed performance from 1956. Leonard Bernstein was leading the New York Philharmonic in a performance of the “Saint Louis Blues.” The soloist? Louis Armstrong.

“I would liken it to going on a pilgrimage or something. For me it was a visual pilgrimage, because I saw this great conductor and his love and respect for a form of music [the blues] many people attributed to being evil. And then to have the good sense to have the great Louis Armstrong there … and to say these truthful glorious words about him [Bernstein hailed Armstrong’s music as “real, and true, and honest, and simple, and even noble.”]. … That film footage put an imprint in my mind. I mean, this is the mind of a 16-year-old young man, who lived in a place where it was nothing to be routinely stopped and have a gun put to your head by a policeman. That was commonplace. I saw the white/black-only water fountains; I lived all of that. So for me to see that [film], it countered that, it challenged that madness, it challenged that ignorance that plagued the world I grew up in. And I saw that, and I thought, ‘Now that’s truth!’ I keep thinking about it. Now I can do that for someone else.”

Listen to Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin talk about Hannibal’s work.

Hannibal’s latest work, One Land, One River, One People, is an oratorio for vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra. The Philadelphia Orchestra previewed the first part (or “veil” as Hannibal calls the different acts) last January on its Martin Luther King Tribute Concert at Girard College, but this will be the first performance of the full work.

While some composers have a muse, Hannibal says he has an ancestral guiding spirit: his great-great grandmother, a Cherokee shaman. It was through her, he says, that he realized the meaning of this piece: One Land is about the physicality of humanity; One River has to do with the blood of humanity; One People refers to the spirituality of humanity.

“She explained the true meaning of the work,” he says. “It’s a work of liberation. The main purpose of it is to speak to the divinity of humanity, and to remind people that it’s very important to look to that part of themselves which is divine.

“Any form of beauty we are required to share. That’s why I’m so honored to be a musician, because I can share with people what I have experienced. It’s a beautiful thing. Then to share that with other great musicians, every day I pinch myself just to make sure it’s real!”

Which brings us to working with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Hannibal says he knew this piece was in good hands when Yannick Nézet-Séguin saw an early version of the score, then said he’d take it home and “meditate on it. He didn’t say ‘go over it.’ He didn’t say ‘take a look at it’ ... you know? I don’t think it could be any clearer than that; that means that the stars are aligned!

“To hear the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians playing it is a gift. If there isn’t a heaven, then it’s OK with me, because when I hear great musicians play, for me there can be no greater place, no greater state of mind.”

Hannibal’s One Land, One River, One People has its world premiere November 13-15 in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center. The Orchestra will be joined by soprano Laquita Mitchell, tenor Rodrick Dixon, and combined choirs featuring Delaware State University Choir, Lincoln University Choir, and Morgan State University Choir, all under the direction of Donald Dumpson. Those performances are made possible in part by the generous support of the Presser Foundation. Please click here for more information.