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Mark Lomax Addresses 400 Years Of African History Through Music


Mark Lomaxis a professor at the Ohio State University as well as a composer and drummer. After finishing a major musical work about the Dogon people of West Africa, Lomax was thinking about his next project and realized the anniversary of a major historical event was approaching: the 400th anniversary of the first slaves brought from Africa to what would eventually become the United States.

“It just struck me 400 years, 1619 to 2019. I called everybody I knew, all the creative folks and said, ‘What are you doing?’ It wasn't on anybody's radar, so I figured I would write a symphony. This ended being a 12-album cycle,” Lomax said.

Lomax titled this massive musical undertaking “400: An Afrikan Epic.” The composer drew on a variety of musical styles for the work, ranging from jazz to blues to classical as well as the gospel music of his youth.

“I wanted to make sure musically that we captured as many distinct styles and approaches to music making as have been created or thought of in the course of African existence, particularly in the diaspora,” Lomax said.

Lomax wanted to expand the scope of the work beyond the specific time of the arrival of the slaves in 1619 to the present.

“Stokely Carmichael says that ‘if you begin a story with slavery, you cannot heal past the trauma of slavery.’ The first section really establishes the culture, spiritual traditions that existed prior to slavery. The middle section deals with the ‘Ma’afa,’ slavery and its aftermath. The final section is a representation of returning to a time consciously and spiritually where we as human beings, all of humanity, were healthy, happy and whole,” Lomax said.

Performing the entire 12-album cycle takes more than eight hours, so Lomax and his ensemble will play a condensed version of “400: An Afrikan Epic” at Severance Hall as part of the Cleveland Orchestra’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. open house of free music on Monday.

“What we did was take the major themes and put them together in a hour-long concert, which kind of drops the needle on some of the major themes of the larger works,” Lomax said

“400: An Afrikan Epic” is deeply rooted in an African tradition that music is to serve a functional purpose, as opposed to solely being performed for its own sake, as is often the case in European classical music.

[Mark Lomax]

“There is not a time prior to colonialization where you could find music across the continent of Africa that was just observer performance in a concert context, ,” Lomax said. “It was always communal and it was always an accompaniment to some action or a function of the life cycle.”

Lomax’s wish is that “400: An Afrikan Epic” will serve as an agent for social change.

“I hope it's a way that brings multiple factions, regardless of ethnic background, together in a way that says art can bring issues to the fore that other things cannot. The hope is that the ‘400’ project itself is a place that interested people will hear the music and find somebody to talk to and grow in community together so we can solve these problems together,” Lomax said.

[Mark Lomax]

Mark Lomax and his ensemble perform a suite based on “400: An Afrikan Epic” Monday at 1:30 p.m. at Severance Hall, followed by a post-concert conversation

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