IDRIS ACKAMOOR AND THE PYRAMIDS-WE BE ALL AFRICANS.
IDRIS ACKAMOOR AND THE PYRAMIDS-WE BE ALL AFRICANS.
By the time The Pyramids arrived at the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival in 1977, they had established a reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative live bands on the international circuit. The Pyramids shows were unique, and were a mixture of percussive, spiritual and space-age jazz, which also featured performance, theatre, and dance. This was quite unlike what other bands were doing in 1977. However, by then, The Pyramids were familiar faces on the live circuit. Despite this, tickets to see The Pyramids at the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival were one of the hottest tickets in town.
For The Pyramids, it was a case they came and they conquered, and in the process, won friends and influenced people with their unique and groundbreaking stage-show. Alas, The Pyramids concert at the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival proved to be their swan-song, and after five years and three albums, the adventure was over. Not long after the show at UC Berkeley Jazz Festival, The Pyramids disbanded.
Nothing more was heard of The Pyramids until 2011, when the group reunited. Some of the original members of The Pyramids were augmented by new names. This mixture of the old and new, recorded and released The Pyramids’ album Otherworldly. It was released in 2011, to critical acclaim. Since then, The Pyramids have embarked on seven tours, but have yet to release a new album. That’s until now. The Pyramids new album The Pyramids We Be All Africans will be released on Strut Records on 27th May 2016. That’s forty-four years after The Pyramids’ story began.
Alto saxophonist Bruce Baker was born in Chicago in 1951. However, by the time Bruce founded The Pyramids in Paris in 1972 he had adopted the name Idris Ackamoor.
By then, Idris Ackamoor had graduated from Antioch College, Yellow Springs, in Ohio. That was where he met flautist Margo Simmons and bassist Kimathi Asante. They would become members of the globe-trotting band The Pyramids.
At first, The Pyramids played in Europe. Holland was where The Pyramids played one of their earliest shows. Soon, though, The Pyramids were travelling further afield. They criss-crossed Africa, on a Homeric musical Odyssey. Leading this musical caravan was multi-instrumentalist Idris Ackamoor.
With Idris Ackamoor at the helm, the musical caravan took music to far flung corners of Africa. It was what “Idris Ackamoor” later described as a cultural odyssey, where The Pyramids discovered new instruments and musical genres. They influenced the evolution of The Pyramids’ sound. Especially, Idris Ackamoor and Kimathi Asante.
Originally, Idris Ackamoor was an alto saxophonist. However, as he journeyed across Africa, he discovered native instruments like the Balafon, Masenqo and Moroccan talking drum. Similarly, bassist Kimathi Asante discovered various native instruments; including the Ugandan harp, Ethiopian drum and bamboo flute. Just like Idris, Kimathi learnt how to play these instruments and incorporated them into their live show. These instruments would also feature on The Pyramids’ debut album, Lalibela.
Recording an album was a way of The Pyramids’ music reaching a much wider audience. So they headed to Schumacher’s Studios and began to record the three tracks that became Lalibela. The two parts of Lalibela had been written by Idris Ackamoor and his new wife Margo Simmons. The other alumni of Antioch College, Kwame Kimathi Asante wrote Indigo. These three tracks were recorded by the six members of The Pyramids.
At Schumacher’s Studios band leader and multi-instrumentalist Idris Ackamoor was joined by flautist Margo Ackamoor and bassist Kwame Kimathi Asante. He was also a multi-instrumentalist, who could play a myriad of percussion instruments. Along with drummer and percussionist Marcel Lytle; percussionist Hekartah; and Masa who switched between soprano saxophone, flute and percusion the six members of The Pyramids recorded the three tracks that became Lalibela.
When Lalibela was mixed at Schumacher’s Studios, The Pyramids decided to release the album privately. So in 1973, Lalibela was released on the group’s own label Pyramid Records. However, just like so many small labels, Pyramid Records lacked the budget to promote Lalibela. As a result, Lalibela was an underground album that passed the majority of record buyers by. That was a great shame, as they missed out on what was a groundbreaking fusion of avant-garde, free jazz, free funk, improv and soul. For The Pyramids, this must have been disappointing. Despite this, The Pyramids continued to tour, and in 1974, recorded their sophomore album King Of Kings.
King Of Kings.
For King Of Kings, Idris Ackamoor wrote four new songs. They were recorded in rural surroundings of Appalachia Sound Studios. By then, The Pyramids original lineup had changed.
Two members of The Pyramids were absent when recording of King Of Kings began. There was neither of Marcel Lytle nor Masa. However, new names included bassist Thomas Williams; percussionist, drummer and bongo player Donald Robinson and percussionist and conga player Bradie Speller. Guest artists included cellist Chris Chafe and pianist and percussionist Jerome Saunders. This new and extended lineup recorded King Of Kings, which was released in 1974.
Just like their debut album King Of Kings, was a fusion of musical genres. Elements of avant-garde, free jazz, free funk, improv, soul and space-age jazz melted into one on King Of Kings. It was released independently in 1974, on the band’s own Pyramid Records.
Copies of King Of Kings were sold in local record shops and after The Pyramids’ live shows. Alas, the album didn’t sell in vast quantities. Instead, King Of Kings become something a cult album that today, is a prized possession among record collectors. They’ll pay £200 or $300 for a copy of King Of Kings. Somewhat belatedly, King Of Kings and The Pyramids other seventies albums are finding the audience they deserve. This includes their third album Birth/Speed/Merging.
It wasn’t until November 1975, that The Pyramids began work on their third album Birth/Speed/Merging. By then, The Pyramids were a quite different band. The new recruits that played on King Of Kings had left The Pyramids. Only the core of Idris Ackamoor, Margo Ackamoor and bassist Kimathi Asante remained for the recording of Birth/Speed/Merging.
The three members of The Pyramids were augmented by bassist Mark Anthony Williams; percussionists Kenneth Nash and Augusta Lee Collins on Birth/Speed/Merging. The six members of The Pyramids headed to His Master’s Wheels Studio in November, 1975.
At His Master’s Wheels Studio, The Pyramids recorded five new songs. Four had been penned by Idris Ackamoor, while Jamaican Carnival was credited to The Pyramids. These five songs became Birth/Speed/Merging, which would prove to be The Pyramids’ swan-song.
Just like their first two albums, Birth/Speed/Merging was a fusion of disparate musical genres. Elements of avant-garde, free jazz, free funk, free improv, soul, space-age jazz and spiritual jazz became part of a musical potpourri. It was released independently in 1976, on the band’s own Pyramid Records.
Birth/Speed/Merging followed in the footsteps of The Pyramids’ previous albums, and was an underground album. Lacking the financial muscle to promote and distribute Birth/Speed/Merging, The Pyramids continued to sell albums locally and after their live shows. These live shows were a spectacle.
When The Pyramids played live, their shows were a mixture of music, performance, theatre, and dance. It was totally different to what other bands were dong at the time. Maybe that’s why The Pyramids were booked to play at the 1977 UC Berkeley Jazz Festival?
By the time of the 1977 UC Berkeley Jazz Festival, little did anyone realise that the end was neigh for The Pyramids. They played a barnstorming performance, that won friends and influenced people among the jazz community. This could’ve introduced The Pyramids’ music to a much wider and appreciative audience. Alas, The Pyramids had decided to disband the band. After five years, and three albums The Pyramids called time on their career. That looked like the end of the story.
Over thirty years later, and The Pyramids reunited. By then, a new audience had been introduced to their music. So a new lineup of The Pyramids embarked upon what was the first of numerous European tours. This new lineup featured original members and some new names. A familiar face was percussionist Kenneth Nash, who had played on Birth/Speed/Merging. With The Pyramids back together, and touring, everything seemed right with the world. However, there was a problem.
With the increased interest in The Pyramids music, the demand for their albums outstripped supply. The Pyramids three seventies albums were changing hands for ever increasing sums of money. Vinyl aficionados were driving the prices of the albums up. Copies of Lalibela were almost impossible to find, and when one came up, a bidding frenzy ensued. Similarly, copies of King Of Kings were changing hands for £200 or $300. Birth/Speed/Merging was also a prized catch among vinyl collectors. So a decision was made to reissue The Pyramids’ three albums. As an added and welcome bonus, The Pyramids released a new album Otherworldly.
When Otherworldly was released in 2011, it was to widespread critical acclaim. Still The Pyramids were creating groundbreaking, genre-melting music. By then, Idris Ackamoor had received a Lifetime Achievement Award at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards. This introduced The Pyramids’ music to an even wider audience.
So when The Pyramids next headed out on tour, they were welcomed by a new fans who had only discovered their music. Suddenly, The Pyramids had a fan-base they could only have dreamed of in the seventies. They attended concerts every time The Pyramids toured Europe. However, many of The Pyramids’ fans wondered when the group would release a new album?
We Be All Africans.
Little did they realise that The Pyramids had already recorded seven new songs that would become their fifth album, We Be All Africans. The recording sessions for We Be All Africans took place during 2015, at Max Weissenfeldt’s Philophon studio, in Berlin.
Unlike many modern recording studios, Max Weissenfeldt’s Philophon studio is a fully analogue setup. There were neither DAWs nor soft synths in Max Weissenfeldt’s Philophon studio. This old school setup was a reminder of the studios where The Pyramids had recorded their trilogy of seventies albums. For The Pyramids, Max Weissenfeldt’s Philophon studio was the perfect place to record We Be All Africans.
Having recorded the seven songs that became We Be All Africans, The Pyramids decided to release a single later in 2015. By then, The Pyramids were billed as Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids. The song chosen for their new forty-five was Rhapsody In Berlin. It gave Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids’ fans a tantalising taste of We Be All Africans. With their fans licking their lips at an album of Afro- jazz-funk, Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids began the search for a record company to release their fifth album.
Eventually, Strut Records agreed to release We Be All Africans. The release date was scheduled for 27th May 2016, when Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids’ first album in five years hits the shops. We Be All Africans is a welcome return to form from a band that was founded in 1972.
Opening We Be All Africans, is the title track. An urgently plucked bass joins drums and a myriad of exotic, bustling, chiming, ringing percussion, in driving the arrangement along. They create an irresistibly catchy arrangement that stays true to The Pyramids’ original sound. Partly, that is the decision to using analogue equipment; and partly the type of instruments deployed. Soon, though, a chant of: “We Be All Africans” enters. Before long, female vocalists deliver the lead vocal, and harmonies respond to their call. By then, the percussion is panned hard left, while the vocal dominated the rest of the arrangement. That’s until the vocals drop out, and a bass ushers in braying, scorching horns are added. Just as one thinks the track can’t get any better, it does. In full, flight Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids unleash a glorious mixture of percussion, horns and rhythm section. The vocals add the finishing touch to what’s akin to a truly irresistible call to dance.
There’s a thoughtful, mesmeric sound to Epiphany, as the arrangement gradually unfolds, and meanders along. A melancholy, jazz-tinged horn plays, sounding as if it belongs in a late night jazz club in Dakar, Brazzaville or Kinshasa. That’s until the tempo rises, and the sultry sound becomes celebratory. Percussion and the rhythm section combine, as the track takes on a much more contemporary Nu-Jazz sound. Sometimes, the arrangement almost explodes, and dances along before briefly teasing the listener into thinking that a journey into jazz is about to ensue. That doesn’t happen. However, there’s an almost downtempo influences to this genre-melting track that veers between celebratory, smooth, sultry, ruminative and mellow. In doing so, it proves that Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids are still relevant.
Bursts of horn punctuate the arrangement to Silent Days, before an array of percussive delights unite with Bajka’s vocal. It’s rueful, and tinged with sadness and regret. Just below her vocal, the backing vocals sit. They augment her reflective vocal, while drums crash and clamber across the arrangement. Meanwhile, the subtle, sultry sound of the alto saxophone briefly replaces the vocal, and takes centre-stage. This happens several times, before the horns enjoy their moment in the sun. They bobs and weaves across the arrangement, adding to the wistful, heart wrenching sound of what’s a beautiful track.
As Rhapsody In Berlin unfolds, Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids provide a funky backdrop. The rhythm section, clunky guitar and wailing Hammond organ combine with percussion. Yelps punctuate the dusty sounding arrangement. It ’s a fusion of funk and Afrobeat that could easily have been recorded forty years ago. Braying, growling, rasping horns are added, filling the sound out, while whoops, hollers and yelps punctuate this slice of joyous good time music.
From the opening bars of Clarion Call, there’s a sombre, mournful sound. It comes courtesy of the horns. Soon, though, flourishes of horns build, and join with percussion and drums in creating a dramatic, jazzy backdrop. Scorching horns threaten to kick loose. Instead, they encircle, creating a mesmeric backdrop. At one point, the horns head in the direction of free jazz as they create their own Clarion Call. Then cymbals crash, drums roll, a horn coos and the pitter patter of percussion punctuates the arrangement. The result is an inventive and dramatic track that reaches a ruminative crescendo.
Idris sings unaccompanied on Traponga, before thunderous drums beat out a rhythm. They’re soon join by an array of percussion, as drums are pound and cymbals crash. Maybe playing with such power and passion is cathartic? However, after just over two minutes, the arrangement dissipates. It’s as if the musician are exhausted by their efforts, and Traponga is some sort of alternative to Primal Scream Therapy. For the listener it’s certainly impressive and impassioned performance from Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids.
Closing We Be All Africans is Whispering Tenderness, where the bass, glistening, ringing percussion and drums propel the arrangement along. Soon, they’re joined by the horns. They wander off, ploughing their own furrow, rather than play as one. Still, this works, with the sultry horn playing a starring, as it supports Bajka’s vocal. It veers between rueful to hopeful, as the horns weave above and below her vocal. Sometimes, they respond to the vocal, punctuating the arrangement. Later, when the vocal drops out, the horns join with keyboards, percussion and the rhythm section. However, it’s the sultry, rasping horn that steals the show. That’s until the tender, thoughtful vocal returns. It’s accompanied by tender, cooing, sympathetic harmonies. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a vocal that’s rueful, needy and full of hurt. Especially as it sings the final line: “you’re still here, in my life.” The result is a quite beautiful, cinematic ballad. Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids it seems, have kept the best until last.
Having said that, We All Be Africans is an album that literally oozes quality. That’s not surprising. Idris Ackamoor is a musical veteran, whose spent his adult life involved with music and the arts. Similarly, the original and new members of The Pyramids have dedicated their lives to music. This shows throughout We All Be Africans, which is an old school album from Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids.
There’s just seven tracks lasting just thirty-eight minutes on We All Be Africans. This is similar to the trio of albums that The Pyramids recorded between 1973 and 1974. So is the studio that We All Be Africans was recorded in. It was recorded in a fully analogue studio, which makes a huge difference. Many albums that have been recorded in a digital studio sound almost soulless in comparison. That’s definitely not the case with We All Be Africans.
From the opening bars of We All Be Africans, which is a truly irresistible and joyous track, Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids have the listener spellbound. Over the next six tracks, they combine elements of Afrobeat, avant-garde, free jazz, funk, fusion, jazz and soul. This genre-melting album features music that’s celebratory, melancholy, mesmeric, reflective and uplifting. Other times, the music is beautiful, cinematic, heart-wrenching and sombre. Always, the music on We All Be Africans provokes an emotion, and is guaranteed to makes the listener think. Not many albums do that.
We All Be Africans is unlike most albums, and is reminder of the comeback kings Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids. They’ve spent the last five years constantly touring, but still, have found the time to record a new album, We All Be Africans. Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids’ much-anticipated and long awaited fifth album, We All Be Africans marks a welcome return to form from one of the hardest working bands in music.
IDRIS ACKAMOOR AND THE PYRAMIDS-WE BE ALL AFRICANS.