If you’ve ever craned your neck toward the sky on a clear night, you’ve likely seen Sirius, the brightest star. Actually, it’s a pair of stars — Sirius A and Sirius B — but without a telescope, it looks like a single, glowing dot.
And yet, somehow the Dogon people, an ancient civilization that now resides in Mali, reportedly knew about Sirius B long before they had access to telescopic technology.
Jazz drummer Mark Lomax, who holds a doctor of music arts degree from Ohio State, has been researching the Dogon for the last few years, so when the Wexner Center asked him to write a new piece to perform, he took inspiration from the cosmology and spirituality of that ancient culture to create “Song of the Dogon,” a seven-movement suite he’ll perform as a trio with saxophonist Edwin Bayard and pianist Dr. William Menefield on Friday, June 3. (The performance also doubles as a release show for Lomax’s two new albums, Blues People and The Art of Sound.)
“[The Dogon] didn’t keep records like Western culture does with books. It was passed down orally, but it’s very specific the way they do it — how the integrity of the wisdom system has been maintained for thousands of years,” Lomax said. “They’re not materialistically wealthy from a Western perspective; you see abject poverty. And yet they have this very profound system of knowledge that guides their daily lives and all their interactions.”
In the same way the Dogon people reflect their belief system in every aspect of their lives, from building homes to filling a bucket of water, the music Lomax creates is full of purpose. Lomax, who previously worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbus and is now a community research and grants management officer at the Columbus Foundation, is “vehemently against” art for art’s sake.
“My work, from my very first album when I was 19, is about optimizing human potential through narrative that’s specific to the African and African-American experience,” Lomax said, “because I think by telling our stories, not only do we learn more about each other, but we come to see each other as more human. … I hope the work we do is one that helps people turn within themselves and ask questions to make them better people. Everything you do should have that purpose in it.”
In writing “Song of the Dogon,” Lomax investigated recordings of traditional Dogon music. “I sat with that and learned a lot in terms of how they understand rhythm and melody,” said Lomax, who’s never been comfortable with the idea that a drummer should be a metronome. “For 20 years as a drummer, I’ve been trying to achieve a rhythmic expression that flows but doesn’t feel like a clock. Growing up playing funk and gospel, your job is to be a clock, which is why I stopped playing that music. It never felt natural to me. In listening to the Dogon and other traditional music, I heard a rhythmic sensibility that matched the innate sense I have as a drummer.”
Lomax will record “Song of the Dogon” later this month, but it likely won’t see release until 2019, when he plans to release 12 albums to commemorate 400 years of African-American survival in North America. Over the span of a dozen records, possibly packaged as a box set with accompanying essays, Lomax hopes to “tell the story of who we are and offer something for what we could be,” he said. “If we don’t tell our stories, who will?”