The Jonah People
Before us was a spectacle, yet it was incredibly intimate. Within us grew its fire: we were both ignited and consumed. It collectively blew away the audience of several hundred, and it touched the core of each individual present.
We went to Nashville, Tennessee, to take in the world premiere of The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle & Triumph, a master work by composer and artist Hannibal Lokumbe, produced with The Nashville Symphony Orchestra at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The work comes directly from the soul of its creator, and it took years (and a lifetime) to create.
We were there to cheer on Mr. Lokumbe’s premiere, with only an inkling of what to expect from a composer whose works we already knew and appreciated. We are extremely glad we were there: this is an exceedingly powerful work, and coming away from the experience our thought is that somehow we must find a way for everyone to take it in.
The cover of the program says “Come as you are. Leave transformed.” It is not an idle promise. Inside the program, Mr. Lokumbe is quoted, “The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle & Triumph was created to end the suffering of a people, who could then end the suffering of a nation, who could then end the suffering of the world.”
Upstage, elevated, and out of sight were at least 150 vocalists from several choirs. In what effectively was a large orchestra pit were about a hundred members of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and there were additional musicians in the balcony. Traversing the stage were another 50 or so cast members. Dozens of designers were involved in the creation of the production, which was staged on a set with one main projection screen shielding the choir members from view and planting the audience alternatively firmly on land and irretrievably at sea, and on each side of the main screen, broadening those views while creating a sort of wing space, were two secondary projection screens shaped like fore-and-aft sails (also known as “spanker sails,” which term adds many dimensions to their use here).
There was scenery, there were props. There was an assortment of African instruments used in the composition, and various sound effects were produced by the orchestra and the cast members, even to the creaking of the boards of the ship produced by vertical bow strokes on the upright bass.
The composition consists of four movements, which, as in prior work, the composer calls “veils.” Veil I is Ile – Home, Veil II is They Swallowed the Ocean for Me, Veil III is Searching – Na Lelakole, and Veil IV is The New Beginning.
We meet individuals in the fullness of the happiness born of harmonious tribal life in Africa, and we are transported along with them as they are plucked from their homes, thrown into the belly of the wooden whale (the bottom of a ship, hence “Jonah People”), and subsequently sold as godless, culture-less, soulless pieces of muscle born to do the bidding of the buyer. Even during the crossing, they begin to lose their identities, both in the eyes of others and for themselves. They try to cling to their music as the very breath of life rooting them in their culture, but there is no anchor strong enough to stop the living hell.
Music, though, is ultimately the key. Not only does the music of this work take us through the entire journey, it proves to be at least a healthy portion of the possible redemption of the Jonah People.
At the intermission, everyone was totally silent. It felt as if we’d lived through an entire lifetime in the first half.
The second half provided surprising turns.
The symbol in the image above is referred to as the “calligraphic sign” of the Jonah People – the sweeping line of the boat cutting the waves intersected by two thin lines – representing all those who survived the Middle Passage and all those who perished (the portions above and below the boat, respectively), both females and males (the shorter and longer lines, respectively).
We were privileged to meet Hannibal Lokumbe in 2019, when he was just completing his final work as composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. That work was Healing Tones, composed for orchestra augmented by two choirs and a handful of soloists. Healing Tones took the audience through the primordial soup of the earth through the incipience of Humankind and what we humans did to one another and to the earth. It reflected the pre-Columbian times in the Americas and the Native Americans’ plight, overlaid upon three movements, which the composer also called “veils,” titled “The Tones of Peace,” “The Tones of War,” and “The Tones of Healing.” Every performance of that work was a journey of its own: I know because I was there, playing my shofar, with a major symphony orchestra.
Hannibal Lokumbe’s view of the world and our collective place in it is distinctive, and he easily communicates it through his work, fully and clearly. That said, one could take in his music time and time again and continue to hear more of what he is saying.
I have noted to him with a smile that he and I are exactly the same, and perhaps at the core that is so, but of course for the most part we could not be more different. Yet maybe it is true that he has the ability to touch the commonality in everyone, that he reaches our souls with his work, and shows us where we need to remove the darkness to see the light. For all the negativity he reveals to us, he seems ever optimistic that we will find a way through.
As I say, I would like to find a way for everyone to take this in, but it was a huge undertaking for the orchestra and the composer to produce. It was performed only during that one week in Nashville (April 13-16, 2023), and I can only hope that there is a way it can travel – to be performed by other symphony orchestras, perhaps, with other choirs and soloists, or to be re-created as originally performed elsewhere. As long as there are slavery and oppression, we need to communicate the message of this work.
Perhaps for next Passover… Is anyone game to host a production? We could use an additional call to action against the evil that is still being perpetrated around the world. Come to think of it, that logo also looks a lot like a shofar, doesn’t it?