As much as Hannibal Lokumbe is a composer, one might define him more as a translator. He probes into the human experience and shares profound truths through his music and poetry. He searches into the past, specifically that of the African-American experience, and brings the stories he finds into the present. He serves as the conduit for personal stories and brings healing in places with little hope.
So it’s not at all surprising to find The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Music Alive Composer-in-Residence in the classrooms of Morgan Village Creative Arts Academy, an oasis of peace and creativity across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Camden, NJ. There he delivers a profound speech for enraptured students.
One might also find him in a quiet circle at the Philadelphia Detention Center, poring over the newest pages of a score-in-progress with inmates. Their shared curiosity and desire for understanding, their life stories, and the tears they collectively shed pave the way for the next burst of creativity in Hannibal’s writing.
Where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find Hannibal is in the choir loft of Verizon Hall. Yet that’s where he was on September 28, 2017, for the world premiere of his “Hymn for the World” with The Philadelphia Orchestra, during the ensemble’s first-ever Sensory-Friendly Concert.
Inspired by his community work throughout Philadelphia, Hannibal’s text for the hymn speaks of worldly suffering and the salve of brotherly love:
From the swaying bridge of human divide
I stretch my hand to you.
No longer to fear the river of truth,
What you are made to suffer, I will too.
But for grace we live, from hour to hour
And at mercy's gate we lay our cause.
To your fate, my thread is woven,
And to your cry, I shall give pause.
Chorus: From the deep well of our sacred lives,
From the fields of our songs and bread,
Let us pour life into each other,
And in the pouring so be fed.
The living soul no wall can contain,
True wealth in hate cannot lie.
The earth is the mother of us all,
Our father the endless sky.
Let ring the bells of freedom,
In each of our hands they rest.
Hatred requires so little,
Love the greater test.
A choir of students was selected from Comly Elementary School and the Girard Academic Music Program to sing at the concert. Hannibal met with them in Verizon Hall’s Green Room to talk through the music, and specifically, the importance of the text he’d written. At the end of his comments, he asked them for one favor: Could he join them in the choir loft to sing along?
Hannibal wasn’t the only one to join the students in song. The audience was also invited to sing along on the chorus and had a few run-throughs to learn the melody before the full performance. Hearing this new work for the first time with such powerful text, as sung by children and community members alike, was a testament to the unity that sometimes only music can bring.
Given its strong message of unity, “Hymn for the World” was a perfect piece for the Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Tribute Concert on January 15, presented at the Girard College Chapel in Philadelphia. Choirs from Immaculata University and the Creative and Performing Arts High School worked with Hannibal and conductor Thomas Wilkins in preparation for the event. This concert was well-received by over 2,000 people in attendance and many more who heard the concert broadcast live on radio station WRTI.
Photo by Jeff Fusco