Political Songs | Music in a climate of destruction

Message to my People, off the latest album by Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids, brilliantly brings one of humankind’s greatest threats to

Climate change denialism is one of society’s biggest threats. It’s something jazz veteran Idris Ackamoor, 67, is acutely aware of, and this awareness is reflected clearly on the brilliant cosmic jazz album, An Angel Fell, by Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids.

Including elements of rock, funk, dub and reggae, An Angel Fell is a soundtrack to resistance that provides universal political music in trying times. Released in May, the album is an Afrofuturist political concept album whose songs explore, as Ackamoor explained, “global themes that are important to me and to us all”. These themes, he added, include the rise of catastrophic climate change and our lack of concern for the planet, and a loss of innocence. “I wanted to use folklore, fantasy and drama as a warning bell,” he said.

The first few seconds of the album’s sixth track, Message to my People, is what a climatic meltdown may sound like: a metallic, desolate wind blowing over crashing, muted waves in the distance. Then, through the sonic smog of guitar effects, the drums and double bass lock into a mournful groove, followed immediately by the rest of the band (guitar, congas, violin, alto sax) sounding resigned, wistful and elegiac, but exquisitely beautiful.

Ackamoor wearily intones:

Sea began to rise
Winds began to roar

Rain filled the sky

Began to thunder and pour

Out of the sky

The violin weaves a lament so sad one wants to look away, as the vocals plead, mantra-like:

All I wanted was a chance
All I wanted was a chance
All I wanted was a chance
All I wanted was a chance

The saxophone becomes dominant after dancing a dejected dance with the guitar and violin. Then another sorrowful glance of acquiescence at the sea, the winds, the rain, the sky; at how we have a destroyed our planet.

Does the sound of this song constitute a resignation that this is the end of the world as we know it? Not if we protest against the forces of destruction. At the end, Message to my People fights back, as it suddenly crescendos with a brief, angry skronk of the sax, an explosion of drums and congas, interspersed with a discordant howl of guitar and violin. This is free jazz as political instrument – tempestuously railing against the ruling classes, the captains of late capitalism and the deniers of climate change.

Like any good concept album, An Angel Fell has bold and striking cover art, complementing and depicting the journey the band intends taking listeners on. Best savoured on the gatefold double vinyl, it features full, hand-painted artwork by revered artist Lewis Heriz depicting, in apocalyptic reds, oranges, greens and yellows, the album’s themes of climatic doom.

Ackamoor is a stalwart who has been exploring the outer limits of jazz since the 1970s. His band, The Pyramids, originally came together in 1972 at Antioch College in Ohio, where teachers included renowned pianist Cecil Taylor.

After forming in Paris, the group embarked on a “cultural odyssey” across Africa (including to Ghana, where Hugh Masekela was then playing with Hedzoleh Soundz). They recorded three albums: Lalibela (1973), King Of Kings (1974) and Birth / Speed / Merging (1976). The Pyramids became renowned for their striking live shows, mixing percussive, spiritual and space-age jazz with performance theatre and dance. They disbanded in 1977.

More than three decades later, the band reunited and released the freeform album Otherworldly in 2012 on the German label Disko B.

In 2016, they released the acclaimed We Be All Africans, their first on Strut Records. An Angel Fell, also on Strut, is one of my albums of the year. I hope it breaks through to a wider audience as it is too important a record of the time (in every sense of the word) to remain as just another “obscure” jazz album.

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