The musician preps for the release of his years-in-the making, 12-disc '400: An Afrikan Epic'
Mark Lomax is sitting at a table in a King-Lincoln eatery, not surprisingly drumming his hands on the table. It's a complex, polyrhythmic pattern (although perhaps not for Lomax, a lifelong drummer), playing four beats to a subdivision with his left hand while playing six beats to the same subdivision with his right. It seems effortless, this two against three, four against six. Indeed, Lomax is also talking at the same time, explaining what it is he's doing and why, because it's not just a musical concept but an object lesson for larger concerns.
“I write rhythmically, and rhythm is not something people trained in western art music do well,” Lomax said. He then related a story about an assignment he was given while a student in the music school at Ohio State University to trace the development of rhythm in western art music from its roots to contemporary times. He found source material for harmony, counterpoint and notation, and orchestration, but no books on rhythm, which was addressed under notation.
“[For] Stravinsky or Bartok, who were known for their rhythmic compositions, rhythm is changing meters, it's not syncopation,” he said. “I don't hear that way. I want to go against the four … in a way that creates rhythmic tension.”
At this point, it still seems like Lomax is talking about music.
“I feel like, as an African-American that has slavery in my lineage, that I should take advantage of the best of both traditions, not necessarily as either/or, but as an organic hybrid,” Lomax said. “The issue with the hybrid is the training of the musicians who are playing the music. I have to create structures that they can get to and understand quickly. I feel like I'm a bridge all the time. It's not always the best place to be in. But I can't not do it.”
That bridge spans the centuries in Lomax's latest project, 400: An Afrikan Epic. Recording for the three-year project will be completed soon, with an early 2019 release date targeted. In 2015, Lomax challenged himself to create a 12-album cycle that would address the African-American experience past, present and future. Four albums will address black history on the African continent, four the experience of Africans in America and four a hoped-for future through the lens of Afrofuturism. All of the music was composed by Lomax for ensembles ranging from the drummer/composer's standing duo, trio and quartet projects, to an African drum ensemble and a full symphony orchestra. (UCelli: the Columbus Cello Quartet will present the premiere performance of “Four Women,” from 400: An Afrikan Epic, during a free event at the Pizzuti Collection Thursday, July 5. The event begins at 6 p.m.)
“I'm still trying to find my voice compositionally. Creating work for six or seven different ensembles and trying to fit it all together has been a huge challenge. There's a huge difference on the surface between [my] duo and a symphony,” Lomax said. “What I didn't learn in school was how to tell stories. I learned that from the drums. So I'm trying to apply that in all these settings — to do something in these environments that's still germane to [me] as an artist, to tell stories I want to tell regardless of the ensemble.”
The title of 400 refers to the number of years between 1619, the date widely designated as the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, and 2019, the anticipated year of the project's release.
As Lomax researched and laid out the scope of the project, he encountered repeated significance throughout history to the numbers 12 (the number of albums in 400), three (the number of sections in the project) and four (the number of albums representing each section). “That let me know I was in alignment,” he said. “And once I knew there was cosmic alignment, I knew I was going to finish it.”
Born in Virginia, Lomax moved with his family to the Northland area of Columbus with his parents before his second birthday. His parents — his mother a gospel singer and composer as well as a reading specialist in Columbus Public Schools, and his father a preacher and professor of homiletics from an African perspective — divorced when Mark was 6, but travels each made to Africa while Mark was young began to form in the young musician a historical sense of who he was and gave his music a purpose.
“When he was an infant and I would hold him, he would fold his ear down and tap on the back of his ear. You both hear and feel that inside your head. And he would tap on me. He would just beat on anything. He was so rhythmic,” said Lomax's mother, Cynthia Gowens. “When I came back from Senegal with cassette tapes of music and a little set of African drums and all my stories, I feel like it planted a seed.”
Lomax's musical gifts were nurtured both in church, where he played from the time he was small enough to sit on the lap of Harvey West, his church's drummer, into his 20s, and in the school setting. Music teachers, including Dr. Robert Carpenter, a middle school teacher who fostered a love of composition and provided an opportunity to learn recording techniques, and Jeff Goff at Brookhaven High School (Lomax also attended Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School during his junior and senior years), for whom Lomax played a number of instruments that weren't the drums, fostered growth in his musical skill and understanding.
“I was in the jazz band at OSU and we did a master class at Fort Hayes, and I was really impressed with his talent … on the piano,” said saxophonist Eddie Bayard, who has played with Lomax now for about 20 years. “It wasn't until we were having this jam session that I learned he played drums.”
After graduating high school in 1997, Lomax spent two years at Ohio State, but dropped out to pursue drumming full-time. As Lomax likes to say, “The drums taught me everything I needed.”
“If you're from, say, Japan, and you come to the U.S. to learn about gospel music, and you only go to university or conservatory and you never set foot in a church, you've wasted your time,” Lomax said of his belief he'd be better served on the road than in the classroom.
That changed in 2001, when his then-fiance (and current wife) informed him they were going to be parents. Lomax determined not only to finish his undergraduate work but to earn masters and doctorate degrees, as well.
“Had I known the hell that I was going to go through, I probably wouldn't have done it,” Lomax said. “But I know the support I have these days, that people give me credibility, comes from that. It was another directive.”
Lomax and Gowens both lamented the difficulties Lomax experienced during this time, both using the word “barriers.” At the core of these difficulties, Lomax said, was that his performance and composition continued to be rooted in African and African-American traditions, and the school's hierarchy had no frame of reference for it.
“I had to do two master's thesis compositions, because my original work for large choir and orchestra used Negro spirituals and the blues as source material, and I was told this is not the stuff of art,” Lomax said, offering an example of the challenges he faced
Thus Lomax views his recent Wexner Center Artist Residency Award, which will support the completion of 400: An Afrikan Epic, as “extra sweet, if I can be like that for a moment.”
“Because of the hell I went through, being recognized and being able to premiere work at the Wex and be a part of that community in that way at that level is an honor, and honestly I think it's vindication,” Lomax said.
“Sometimes it's harder to see when someone is in your own backyard,” said Wexner Center Director of Performing Arts Lane Czaplinski. “Mark was somebody that really struck us not only as an artist but as a cultural leader.”
“There was a time when Mark was just a part of the scene,” poet and event producer Scott Woods said. “Now, we don't have the scene the same way without him. He's one of our greatest artists, but also one of our greatest voices. He could just play music and be amazing at that, but he has consistently, the entire time I've known him, stepped up and said what needs to be said.”
As he approaches the completion of 400: An Afrikan Epic, Lomax doesn't take satisfaction from the knowledge he'll have made a project of great scope that includes loads of terrific music. That whole art for art's sake thing doesn't ring true with him.
“I can't finish music that doesn't have a purpose,” Lomax said. “If it has no point, I don't get excited about that. And if it doesn't fulfill something inside of me, it won't interest or engage the listener. I felt like doing something artistically epic starts conversation by bringing more people to the table. ‘Why 12 albums, Lomax?' That's a conversation. So I'm not, at first, talking about black people and African people in diaspora and our need to love ourselves. That's not the narrative. The narrative is it's a big art project. And so we all enter into that space that brings us together.”
Then, Lomax posited, the real work can begin.
“All the psychological research around oppression and trauma [says that] if you experience a trauma for x amount of time, it's going to take that amount of time to get over it. If you consider Africans having been brought here as slaves in 1619, that's 400 years. How do you heal from that?” he said. “I'm reading from psychologists and scholars that the phenomenon of internalized oppression can be reversed by first telling a strength-based narrative, because it begins to add value. And once you value yourself, you begin to value others, [and] your behavior shifts.”
Bringing about that healing has never been more important, the way Lomax sees it. He repeats that, “We won't be around for the next 100 [years],” but it's not lost on him that his daughters could be, and that the generations that follow will.
“Sure, I'm thinking about legacy and creating something that will have lasting impact and effect, so that when I'm not here, there's something for my triple-great grandchildren so they can say, ‘Big Daddy,' or whatever they call me, that he was a part of this thing,” Lomax said.
“My theory in terms of healing for blacks in America is we have to reprogram our vibration. I honestly think we all have to do that, but specific to black America, we've been programmed to a different rhythm,” he continued. “I can say this for sure about West Africa, but I'm sure it's the same across the continent, that drums speak the dialect of the people. It's the reason the drum was taken away from us here, because the drum was a language, a slang and way of communicating. When the drum is taken away, there are other ways it comes out: speech patterns, clapping patterns, the way rappers flip the rhythm and then land again. That's the drum. It's there, but it's not at the vibrational frequency we were accustomed to when we were brought here. So I have this goal of reconnecting people to the drum.”
Just as it's taught him everything, Lomax believes the drum can teach everyone. He believes the healing begins with a return to ancient, primal, natural rhythms — the kind of rhythms represented by his drumming on a table at a cafe, six against four, creating tension.
“The way 400 is constructed, it's about systems. ... Nobody understands how to change the system, but systems are created by people, so if people can create a system, they can change it,” he said. “That's a metaphor for how we fix the situation. The idea is to create a space that's not safe, but [where] the folks who are bold enough and brave enough to go in there can have a conversation with the intention of coming out, maybe bloodied and bruised, but together.”