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Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Here is an important composer who has something to say, knows how to say it and has fused together jazz, blues, funk and classical elements with great skill. This is a major work and is totally compelling.

Colin Clarke
Fanfare, July 2010

The African-American jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe (b. 1948) wrote both music and libretto for this inspiring oratorio. Premiered in 2005 by the Detroit orchestra, his music is influenced by jazz (obviously, given Lokumbe’s background), gospel, blues, and African music. Lokumbe’s idea was to pay homage to Rosa Parks via imaginary letters to her.

The use of “extra” musics in oratorio is not new. Tippett’s Child of Our Time replaces the expected chorales with Negro spirituals, for example. The story behind Lokumbe’s own musical journey is an uplifting one. Diagnosed with antibiotic-resistant double pneumonia, he returned to his roots, to a village in Kenya, where he was cured by a tribal leader. The experience widened his horizons, and he became attracted to expressing himself via the medium of the orchestra. His work African Portraits (premiered in 1990) reflects his idea of depicting the plight of black Americans on orchestral canvas.

The music is immediately both appealing and powerful. The primal rhythms, for example, of “In Sacrifice” are involving (clearly very much so, as the audience reactions in this live recording reveal), while the medium of prayer leads an immediacy to the emotions on display. Most importantly, the piece contains a real, and eminently satisfying, dramatic trajectory through to the final moments.

Kevin Deas is a fine bass, whose delivery of the “First Letter to Mrs. Parks” (“Dear Mrs. Parks, I can hear the sun singing in praise of you”) reveals a firm sense of line and much vocal power. Even more impressive, though, is the delicious soprano of Janice Chandler-Eteme in the Second Letter (“for the spirit of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, in honor of her life”). This whole section, titled “Songs from Heaven Falling,” is pure held-breath magic and is, for this reviewer, the clear highlight of the piece. Lokumbe finds a new intimacy for the work’s final stages. Mezzo Jevetta Steele declaims the Third Letter (“I was just sitting there thinking of you”) with real zeal. Surely this should have been accorded a separate track number by Naxos, though?

Perhaps most poignant is the use of a boy soprano (Taylor Gardner) for the final “Prayer for the World.” His innocence serves as the perfect foil for the gargantuan, ritualistic choral gestures that follow.

The recording is clear and beautifully balanced. © 2010 Fanfare

Ralph V Lucano
American Record Guide, May 2010

Dear Mrs Parks was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony and had its premiere in 2005 under Thomas Wilkins. The recording followed four years later. Composer Hannibal Lokumbe describes the work as “a prayer in music and words in honor of Mrs Rosa Parks”. In form, it’s a series of imaginary letters recited or sung by four soloists (including child soprano) and chorus, accompanied by a full orchestra. Lokumbe cites blues, jazz, African music, and gospel music as his influences; but I also discern more than a whiff of Gregorian Chant, especially in the choruses, which are the best part of the work. The child soprano, in the third ‘Prayer for the World’ (this text is repeated four times), might be reciting the old Litany of the Saints. ‘For We Have Walked the Streets of Babylon’ begins monotonously and repetitively, though the last word of each line is suddenly brightened by the choral sopranos. About half way through, the music bursts into a frenzy of percussion and powerful rhythms— rather thrillingly. The next chorus, ‘In Sacrifice’, develops likewise from a foursquare drone to a tumult of pounding cadences. The solo writing, freer and more declamatory, is less interesting, but we seldom have to wait long for one of those rousing choruses. A few spoken passages are not quite so effective, especially the first ‘Prayer for the World’, which is almost unintelligible in this performance, and the first part of the mezzo’s ‘Dear Rosa’.

The mezzo here, Jevetta Steele, has a voice more suited to pop and jazz than opera, and Lokumbe adjusts his music accordingly; but the sweet soprano Janice Chandler-Eterne and the robust bass Kevin Deas could easily step into a Messiah performance. Taylor Gardner, the girl soprano, conveys the intended childlike poignancy. Chorus and orchestra perform with real commitment and make a grand, exuberant noise when necessary. I suspect Dear Mrs Parks would be more gripping in the concert hall, but its vigor and intensity are amply conveyed by my speakers at home. Rosa Parks herself might have been nonplussed by such an elaborate, affirmative response to her simple act of defiance, but Lokumbe avoids strident sermonizing, and his music is interesting enough to transcend politics.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, April 2010

This is a major release no matter what the colour, creed, nationality, race or gender of the composer. I repeat: this is a major release.

Born in Texas, Lokumbe is a composer and a jazz trumpeter who has worked with Gil Evans, Roland Kirk and the Jazz Composers Orchestra amongst others. Dear Mrs Parks was premièred in February 2005, by many of the performers here. That performance was broadcast nationwide and on the net. I recorded it and thus have heard the work several times prior to receiving this new CD.

The story of Rosa Parks is well enough known, I think, but for anyone who doesn’t know it, briefly: on 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger. This action sparked the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott. Because of her actions, Rosa Parks became an important figure in the modern Civil Rights movement. She has been called “The Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement”. She died a few months after the première of this work, which she attended.

What we have here is a celebration of Rosa Parks, using jazz, blues, funk and classical elements all fused together with great skill. Nowhere is one conscious of the change from one style to the other simply because the work is written in only one style—that of Hannibal Lokumbe. This is the work of an obviously very talented, and gifted, composer which makes it all the more confusing that it’s the only work of his I have ever heard.

As a composition it has arias, choruses, orchestral movements; everything you’d expect from an oratorio—drama, release, praise. This is a very fine piece indeed. It is full of good things. The orchestration is brilliantly colourful. Lashings of percussion drive the dance music, which is truly joyous. The arias are ecstatic, declamatory, utterances and the choruses are full-blooded.

The performance is totally committed, but be warned both Janice Chandler-Eteme and Kevin Deas employ a very fast vibrato which becomes tiring on the ear. Otherwise I have no worries about this disk whatsoever.

As a new look at oratorio it is vibrant and totally compelling. I hope that this piece will make many friends. Here is an important composer who has something to say and knows how to say it. Good notes and a full text are included in the booklet. Perhaps I should point out that the language is easily understood: it’s tonal and approachable.

Don’t miss this. It’s as important a choral work as Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast or David Blake’s Lumina.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010

A massive outpouring of prayer for the future of humanity expressed in a series of imaginary letters to Rosa Parks, an American civil rights leader. Hannibal Lokumbe enjoyed a career as a trumpeter on the New York jazz scene for twenty-three years before he suffered a major illness. A return to Kenya, the land of his heritage, brought an unexpected recovery, and set the scene for Lokumbe to put his skills to use in creating music that would communicate the message of human suffering. Here he has written both words and music, expressing in letters the feelings of suffering when you are born with a black skin. Those letters are interspersed with prayers to God to help bring peace and freedom to the world. It is offered in a musical language that moves through many styles including classical oratorio, blues, jazz and with a strong Gospel presence. He is in his most persuasive mood when highly active, In Sacrifice and Like Luminous Rain Upon the Daughters of Isis, the type of show stopping numbers that have roots in Gershwin and Bernstein. There is no doubting his sincerity in the quiet and more contemplative moments, and here he has two good soloists in the mezzo, Jevetta Steele, and bass, Kevin Deas. Big powerful choral moments, and the playing of the Detroit Symphony has all the impact needed for a ‘pop’ classic. The audience in this ‘live’ recordings often show an appreciation that is discreetly faded so the recording can move on. The sound is suitably high powered.

Uncle Dave Lewis, February 2010

Hannibal Lokumbe is a classical composer and jazz trumpeter also known by his first name only: Hannibal. In his classical compositions, Hannibal composes music that celebrates the African-American experience on its own terms, and in a wholly serious manner; it is not jazz-derived so much as it is Pan-African-American in spirit. Hannibal’s previous effort, African Portraits (1995), was released by Nonesuch with much fanfare, but was ultimately criticized for eclecticism and over ambitiousness. Dear Mrs. Parks was a 2005 commission from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and, if anything, the eclecticism is held in check; although the instrumental forces are still very large, with four soloists, two choruses, and an expanded orchestra with an added battery of percussion, Dear Mrs. Parks (2009) has a very singular purpose in mind. It is a cantata in 10 movements on Hannibal’s own text in the form of letters addressed to Rosa Parks from four different characters, portrayed by soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Deas, and child soprano Taylor Gardner. The chorus fulfills numerous functions; interacting with soloists, hovering as angels in the background, or assuming the foreground role of the vox populi. The music is often very still and focuses on supporting Hannibal’s text, though it comes alive with rich and riotous percussion in movements such as “For We Have Walked the Streets of Babylon” and “Like Luminous Rain.” Overall, the character of the music has a strong African flavor, based in modes, utilizing drones, and employing an underlying rhythmic funkiness, yet opting for a modified, Western-styled recitative in some sections. Parks is celebrated as an icon rather than a person; this is in keeping with the Western tradition of honorific cantata texts written for ancient gods or noblemen, and combined with the African sound of Hannibal’s music such treatment is effective and moving.

Dilettante, February 2010

While the work was written five years ago, the timing of the Naxos release Dear Mrs Parks by Hannibal Lokumbe, is significant. Recorded live in 2009 when it was performed as part of the Detroit Symphony’s Classical Roots series which features the music of African-American composers, the release of the oratorio coincides with the one-year anniversary of the presidency of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president.

By its very nature, though, the work already packed huge political and emotional punch. ‘Mrs Parks’ is, of course, Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist whose refusal in December 1955 to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus sparked a bus boycott that lasted more than a year. Eventually,  the US Supreme Court ruled racial segregation laws unconstitutional, but not before local civic leaders had deployed a range of strategies aimed at breaking the boycott, including trying to destroy the boycotters’ carpools by pressuring insurers to deny them coverage.

Although she’s now revered alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others as a hero of the civil rights struggle, at the time her celebrated gesture cost Parks her job as a department store seamstress. She later moved to Detroit where she lived and worked until her death in October 2005.

Originally commissioned by the Detroit Symphony in 2005, Dear Mrs Parks marked both the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott and—as it happened—the year of Parks’s death. While she didn’t live to hear it performed, says Lokumbe, he sang some of the libretto to Mrs Parks who ‘just gave me a smile.’

Although less explicitly religious than they might have been a couple of centuries ago, the themes of oratorios tend to be more serious than some operas. As such, the form of Dear Mrs Parks seems especially well-suited to its subject matter, but Lokumbe says he doesn’t think in these formal musical terms. ‘That’s only a problem for people who do marketing,’ he chuckles. In fact, Lokumbe recalls that when he wrote African Portraits, a 1990 opera recorded by the Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim, he was unfamiliar with the term ‘oratorio’ and its differences from opera.

But it’s precisely this looseness with form that means Lokumbe can allow what engages him emotionally and what works best to guide the creative process. For instance, the track ‘For We have Walked the Streets of Babylon, Forty Thousand Strong’ on Dear Mrs Parks uses call and response, ‘a pervasive pattern of democratic participation’ brought from African cultures to some Christian congregations. ‘I’ve always wanted to use that in one of my works,’ he says.

For Lokumbe, it’s less a question of knowledge than a sensibility. ‘Ninety percent of my music comes to me in dreams,’ he explains. ‘Music is the one place where I refuse to have people to put borders around it, institutionalise it, davalue it spiritually,” he says. To illustrate the point, he recounts an exchange he once had with a producer who wanted to know the genre of one of his works. “Do you have a category called ‘music’?” Lokumbe asked. “Put it in the ‘music’ category,” he recalls saying with a smile in his voice.

How to describe Dear Mrs Parks, then? “It’s a prayer,” says Lokumbe. “It’s a cry out to people to rethink their lives and to rethink the destructive concept of the world being your oyster. To be able to say no to our own weaknesses...”

But surely change has already come, lives have been re-thought? After all, America has an African-American president, an idea that was surely unthinkable back in 1955. On the contrary, says Lokumbe, “there’s more to do now than when Dr King and Mrs Parks were active”, citing a range of alarming statistics such as the more than 50% of black men aged 19-24 who are unemployed, not to mention their staggering rates of mortality and incarceration.

Those numbers are one reason why Lokumbe ‘dropped out of the orbit’ of the clubbing musicians who zig-zag the country playing a different city each night. Formerly a trumpeter who spent his youth backing up icons like Otis Redding and Etta James, Lokumbe went on the live in New York for more than two decades where he played and recorded with jazz stars like Gil Evans and McCoy Tyner.
These days, though, Lokumbe spends much of his time composing works for ensembles big and small, from the Kronos Quartet to the Cleveland Orchestra, and teaching young people.

“I wanted to do something with more longevity in terms of its impact,’ he says. “Now, by the time I do a concert I’ve been in that city for two months, spending time in homeless shelters and schools,’ says Lokumbe. ‘I play a great deal in churches and prisons, too. It’s about restoration, inspiration, showing the truth of it all.”

The Smithville Times, January 2010

…Lokumbe saw the release of his new work dedicated to 1959s civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, titled, “Dear Mrs. Parks. The work was commissioned and premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Previously, Lokumbe also wrote a musical piece dedicated to slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and performed by several symphonies., January 2010

ADAMO, M.: Late Victorians / Alcott Music / Regina Coeli (Pulley, Sullivan, Levalier, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, Alimena) 8.559258
LOKUMBE, H.: Dear Mrs. Parks (Chandler-Eteme, Steele, Deas, Rackham Symphony Choir, Brazeal Dennard Chorale, Detroit Symphony, Wilkins) 8.559668

It is possible to admire and like the impulse behind creation of a piece of music without necessary admiring or liking the result. It is also possible to admire and like both the intention and the work, without necessarily wanting to live with the piece over time. That is the situation with Mark Adamo’s Late Victorians and Hannibal Lokumbe’s Dear Mrs. Parks. Adamo’s half-hour work is a tribute to AIDS victims, written in 1994 and revised in 2007. There continues to be much hand-wringing about AIDS and many acknowledgments of those it has affected, especially in the artistic and homosexual communities that have been hit hardest by the disease. But after a while—with ways to prevent transmission of AIDS now well known and the unending drumbeat of requests (if not demands) for sympathy (and money)—the whole “tribute” field starts to seem a little overdone. Adamo’s work is well crafted and cleverly titled: the name refers to Victorian houses in San Francisco, whose large gay community was hit especially hard by AIDS; the title was originally that of a magazine article that partly inspired Adamo’s work. Other inspirations for Late Victorians were the poetry of Emily Dickinson as reinterpreted by Camille Paglia, and the device from Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony in which orchestra members walked offstage in the finale. Adamo, best known as an opera composer, weaves these influences together skillfully: words from the magazine piece are spoken; four Dickinson poems are sung; and the works’ four movements are tied to each other with solo cadenzas by musicians who then leave the stage (an effect missing in the recording, of course). But does the work…well, work? Certainly the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under Sylvia Alimena plays it well—this is an outstanding group in any music. But the cleverness of the concept tends to overwhelm the emotions underlying it, drawing attention more to structure and form than to the “tribute” elements that Adamo says are his main point. Furthermore, there is nothing really new in noting—however thoughtfully—that AIDS has claimed many young and worthwhile (and potentially worthwhile) lives. Listeners may not have heard Late Victorians before—this is its first recording—but they have heard its sentiments before, often, and that fact tends to vitiate the effectiveness of the piece.

The shorter works on the Adamo CD are less fraught and more effective in their own ways. Regina Coeli is the slow movement from Adamo’s 2007 harp concerto, “Four Angels,” here rescored for strings alone. It is a piece of subtlety and grace. Overture to “Lysistrata” (2006) is short, bright, bouncy and very much in the spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture, which Adamo cites as a source. Alcott Music, from the opera Little Women, is Adamo’s revision of his Alcott Portraits of 1999, which he composed for the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. Although it is imbued with themes from the opera, the three-movement suite stands on its own as a character piece whose emotions range from dreamy and wistful to excited and exuberant.

Hannibal Lokumbe’s Dear Mrs. Parks is a “tribute” piece in the same line as Adamo’s Late Victorians, but in even more extended form: it runs an hour and features large orchestra plus solo and choral voices. In 10 movements whose length varies from one minute to 13, the work—essentially an oratorio—pays tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks through imaginary letters written to her. This 2005 undertaking, for which Lokumbe (born Marvin Peterson) wrote both words and music, is as well-meaning as can be. The imaginary letters come from a black civil-rights activist, a white civil-rights pioneer killed by the Ku Klux Klan, and a young black man whose generation has received the benefits of the struggle. There is also a child soprano who represents innocence and hope, an obvious bit of typecasting that points to one of the work’s weaknesses. Obviousness abounds here—in the words of the tributes; the musical mixture of blues, jazz, gospel and African music; and the tremendous adulation heaped on Rosa Parks. Such adulation, although unsurprising, is singularly inappropriate for a woman who has led for decades by her modesty and self-effacement—she has always said she refused to give up her bus seat when told to do so simply because she was tired, not because she was acting in the service of a grand cause. The cause was grand, and it was perhaps inevitable that it would adopt her as one of its leading symbols; but year after year, it has been Parks’ quiet fortitude that has been most impressive—more so than this extended piece of hagiography. The music here is mostly well crafted…and the performers bring enthusiasm and skill to the project…

Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press, December 2009

In 2005 the Detroit Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Hannibal Lokumbe’s “Dear Mrs. Parks,” a sprawling, hour-long oratorio based on fictional letters of gratitude to the civil rights hero. The orchestra revived the work in March for its Classical Roots concerts led by former resident conductor Thomas Wilkins, who also led the 2005 premiere. The recent performances have now begat a CD…scored for orchestra, choir and vocal soloists, “Dear Mrs. Parks” had a galvanizing impact in the concert hall. There was a compelling sense of ritual at the world premiere. The pulsating percussion connected the dots between Mother Africa and jazz, the plaintive choral melodies tapped into a wellspring of emotion and the sheer exuberance of the performance seemed to lift the stage.

But recordings are different animals, and while some passages retain their power, the overall sweep of the piece doesn’t make the same impression on CD. The episodic nature of the writing, the opening spoken prayer by the audience and even the applause between movements all leave a disjointed feeling that was covered up by the ecstatic nature of the live performance.

Lokumbe (born Marvin Peterson in 1948) made his reputation as a trumpeter in progressive jazz circles in the ’70s, but since 1990 he’s become known as a composer of large orchestral works on African-American themes. “Dear Mrs. Parks” is steeped in African and African-American idioms, from the prayerful melodic contours of spirituals and work songs to call-and-response strategies drawn from blues and jazz and an extended timpani solo—brilliantly improvised by Brian Jones—and played over a half-dozen other drums that suggest a tribal ceremony.

The work unfolds in cresting choral passages, simple but effective orchestration and vocal soloists who adopt various personas. Lokumbe’s text is bathed in mysticism and hope. Wilkins leads a strong, enthusiastic performance and the soloists and chorus—soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo-soprano Jevetta Steele, bass Kevin Deas, children soprano Taylor Gardner and the combined Rackham Symphony Choir and Brazeal Dennard Chorale—all sing with distinction.

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