Review: Idris Ackamoor And The Pyramids – We All Be Africans
The story of The Pyramids that has led to their brand new LP – 44 years after the their chance formation – is one of discovery, disappointment and eventual triumph. Despite their talent, history has seen them ghost behind major musical movements until now. The quality, depth and vibrancy of ‘We All Be Africans’ shines a light on why labels like Strutt are now bringing the world’s forgotten musical zeitgeists tumbling through time and into the modern musical consciousness.
The London based, K7 subsidiary label began to explore the spiritual jazz leaning, afro centric work of the Pyramids in 2012, releasing the full length Otherworldly which put the group back on the map. The Chicago band had reformed and began gigging again in 2010 after their members reunited on Facebook, the last official shows having been in 1979. It was the start of a second phase for the revitalised musicians and ‘We All Be Africans’ continues to add new dimensions to a sound incepted as a crew of jazz musicians in their early 20s first experiencing powerful influences from Africa.
Chicago born and a multi instrumentalist since the age of 7, Idriss Ackamoor formed the nucleus of the Pyramids while performing as The Collective at Antioch College, Ohio. He along with flutist Margo Simmons, whom Ackamoor later married and bass man, Kimathi Asante, won scholarships and decided to travel to Europe and eventually Africa together in 1972.
Drummer, Donald Robinson, they met in Paris and after playing their way through France and Holland the band hit the continent that would change their lives. They eventually spent 9 months fusing western jazz ideas with native instruments and rhythms. This may seem commonplace now, with everyone from Bambatta to Damon Albarn finding inspiration from the sub continent but back in the 70s it was a radical move. Travelling through Morocco, Senegal and Ghana, Ackamoor and his troop became immersed not only in the musical but the spiritual life and culture he could tap into through playing with local musicians. Most profound was Ghana, a country with rich musical heritage and seen as the “real” Africa at the time. As well as dabbling with the more mystical side of the culture with a traditional healer in the Bush of Bolgatanga they explored the rock churches of Lalibela that would be the inspiration for their 1973 debut album, Lalibela.
Before leaving for his travels Ackaboor said that after having seen John Coltrane; “Play like he wanted to leave his body,” he realised the spiritual power of music. Combining with his experiences in Africa he began to be attracted by the totemic aspect of music performance as an inclusive experience created by drama, processions and atmosphere. He felt that connecting with a higher power through intense shamanic ritual and the energy that spread from his band to his audience pushed his and the band’s playing to another level. In hindsight It is reaching these heights that has assured the longevity of the band, however this devotion to an ideal would prove their commercial undoing when they most needed it.
Absorbing a myriad of worldly influences and laying them over the foundations of jazz while adding the extra dimension of ritualised performance, the band felt they had pushed their sound, their minds and their talents to the next level and were ready to return to the US as leading figures of a new movement. Unfortunately though the music industry had other ideas.
Idriss tells of returning from his 9 month spell in Africa to find that the entire black music scene had moved on. Expecting to come back ruling the airwaves with their rough, ready and radical new sound, it turned out they no longer fitted with the slick, radio friendly, super fly soul music of the likes of Curtis Mayfield that had exploded at in their absence. Although the band would record 2 more albums they never reached the heights they expected. By this time Ackamoor and Simmons’ marriage was straining and their eventual break up began to tell on the band. The story of The Pyramids was seemingly over in 1979.
The same winds of change blow through the music industry that had led to the Pyramids being over looked during their time had seemingly blown themselves out by the late 00s. With music at an interstadial, attention began to turn to the dearth of quality music that had been overlooked in its time due to the sheer weight of new music and trends that had circulated since the 50s and rock ‘n’ roll.
The reissue game is almost a movement in itself with so many reissue labels scouring through the endless cult hits and local heroics churned out by regional music industries across the world looking for nugget of gold, rummaging through the nearlys, near misses and never weres.
Strutt stands apart not only by managing to keep the quality high but now getting to play a part in the next evolution of overlooked bands like The Pyramids by releasing fresh material such as We All Be Africans from Ackamoor and co. As Idris says on the bands Fireside Chat with Redbull; “We were starting to blend the combination of jazz rhythms and African instruments that was very much ahead of its time, now we’re in our 60s were finally getting caught up to it.”
The LP was recorded at Max Weissenfeldt’s analogue Philophon studio in Berlin. Plunging in headlong with the title track, the album starts with floating kettledrum beats, which provide a base for Ackaboor’s energetic sax work, a flitting violin and anthemic vocals. Loopy, staccato rhythms quickly build energy and tension that is masterfully dissipated by the reclining, luxurious Epiphany. When much of the afro centric jazz and afrobeat can sound sonically one dimensional, on tracks like Epiphany, modern analogue techniques add depth and texture to push the sound forward for the ear tuned to modern sounds but without losing the authenticity of the music’s original message.
Silent Days loops in jaunty Sun Ra-esque fashion, all breezy, repetition of hazy vocals, calling to mind the band that has spearheaded the spiritual sound. Rhapsody in Berlin is probably the LP’s highlight, percussion and funk guitars played out over a rigid afro groove. Sounding like an elongated jam you can almost feel the joy the band have playing together as each instrument plays off against the ever present drumming. Ackamoor’s saxophone drives the percussion to its most feverent, creating a rapport between his playing and the percussion that squeezes ever more from each section.
The LP doesn’t reach the intensity of its predecessor, missing the extended rhythmic odyssey of tracks such as My Africa or Lalibela. It is however a tight and dynamic LP set across a diverse range of tracks, showing a band comfortable with coming back to ideas they thought would never be realised having shelved their sound for so long. There is almost an assurity in their sound that future generations would enjoy it when the time is right which comes from a devotion to the power of music.
In 2012 Ackamoor was given the Life Time Acheivement gong at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards, a recognition of not only his talents but to his work in the community with music he has been devotion to for 30 years. His music was far ahead of its time, left of field from even the psychedelic chaos of Parliament. Having stuck to his principles, he is now deservedly being heard by new fresh and eager audiences.
Its not just in 70s psychedelia and jazz or world music where distribution patterns and the spread of genres would mean sounds could remain dormant for years. In electronic music the digging collectives such as Berlin based Slow Life are springing up with a seemingly unnatural obsession for finding obscure releases. These urges likely come from such devotion to a sound that they feel they can take ownership of it and wish to elevate it to where they believe it truly belongs, not where the market dictates. It is through the long-standing quality and innovation of music like The Pyramids that they can finally outlast record company manoeuvrings or industry driven trends to gain the recognition they deserve and in doing so open up more people to new worlds of sound.
Buy the release HERE.