When COVID-19 descended across the land in March of 2020, my quartet and I were in the midst of a tour supporting our 2019 release of 400: An Afrikan Epic. We’d been playing together since 2001 but, due to school schedules, family responsibilities, and other musical commitments, this was our first real tour.
We were having fun! This is what we’d been talking about for years, finally getting the chance to play original compositions week after week in front of audiences all across the country and sharing our approach with young musicians at various high school and college music programs as we traveled.
Just as we thought things were falling into place, the global pandemic brought it all to a screeching halt. I know it happened to everyone, but it felt different for me because this tour and the release of the 400 project felt like a kind of personal vindication. I had been working for a number of years to create a compositional language and approach to drumming that was based on the art of Afrikan rhetoric.
In the Kemetic tradition, this is referred to as Medu Nefer, or beautiful speech. Medu Nefer was grounded in the spiritual conception of Ma’at so that what came out of the mouth was virtuous and powerful. This is reflective in the power of the word or Nommo, that we find in West Afrika where the voice is the tool that manifests the intentions of the Spirit. The artistic goal was to create a musical language that, like the voice, would manifest the intentions of the Spirit. This could be through composing for various ensembles and, more importantly for this record, though the drums themselves.
The drums have a long history of speaking to the people on behalf of various conceptualizations of the One and Ancestors. I’ve been exploring this notion of speech since Modern Communications In Ancient Rhythms (CFG201401) and it felt as though everything, the compositional approach and the drumming approach, was finally coming into focus on the 400 tour.
COVID stopped the tour and I immediately worked to figure out how to keep the momentum we’d been working so hard to build. That’s when I created the Drumversations weekly series. This allowed me to broadcast to an audience from my home studio in an informal way that included discussions of topics such as personal development and the power of cultivating deeper spiritual connections within ourselves and in communities, and to continue exploring the solo drum set language I’d been developing.
We ended up producing 35 episodes of Drumversations in 2020 from March to December. It was as rewarding as it was exhausting. We were able to raise awareness and money for local artists and develop ideas I’d been thinking about for years that will result in a couple forthcoming books. Most importantly, something unlocked in my playing and it felt like I was finding artistic synergy between the issues I was discussing (nommo) and what I was playing both as it related to compositions for the drums and improvisations.
This growth was exciting, but playing in my basement was starting to become a drag. Even though I could feel myself growing as an artist, it didn’t feel fulfilling because I couldn’t engage other musicians and “test” this growth in a live musical setting. I went into a deep depression.
I stopped playing until we had an opportunity to go into the studio about 375 days after our last performance to record what would have been our next record. We did the session, but my playing reflected my poor mental health and the fact that I hadn’t played in months showed. I got more depressed. We had another session in July. While I prepared for it mentally and physically, we hadn’t played together in so long that it took a while to get back into that groove we had built over the last 20 years. I slumped further.
In August of 2021, I decided that I had to shift my energy. We didn’t know how long this pandemic would last and we still don’t, but I couldn’t stay in that space for much longer. I decided to play. Not just for myself, but to record it audio and video, and release it no matter how it sounded. This challenge forced me to think and feel differently about the music and the drums. I was still not able to compose as I normally did, but between the first recording and the last (the album is sequenced in chronological order), I could feel myself getting stronger, more confident, and finding the love of the drums I had known all of my life.
This record might have literally saved my life!
Prismatic Refractions No. 1 represents the way COVID fractured how I was seeing the future. At first I thought that was terrible! I was on the path, it was working, we were doing what we had wanted to do for such a long time, it was all finally coming together. But the Ancestors and the ALL have other plans. I don’t know what they are, and that has made me uncomfortable in ways I’ve never felt before.
Because of all of the uncertainty, the image of a prism kept coming to mind. When you think of a prism, that shape in the form of glass or other transparent object, especially when it is a triangle (a shape that has significance in the Kemetic tradition!) that has refracting surfaces at an acute angles, separates light into a spectrum of colors. When I thought the light was finally shining on us, COVID presented a prism that separated that light in to a spectrum I still cannot see or even understand, but I have to have faith that the Ancestors are still guiding and the great Unseen ALL still has a purpose for what we’ve been given.
I’m learning to trust that in a different way. I have too, because this new spectrum has illuminated new paths, feelings, options and approaches. I don’t think I’ve fully realized or mastered the concept of Afrikan rhetoric on the instrument or in my compositional approach, but this recording is evidence that I am getting closer to manifesting the intent of the Spirit. That is exciting!
I hope you enjoy this very personal recording. I know that while we have all experienced our own unique challenges due to the pandemic and life in general, but this recording reasserted the fact that we do have the power to speak life over ourselves and others. We can shift the vibration within ourselves and our environment. This record is proof of that. I am better because of it, and I hope we can all begin the work of healing together!
Dr. Mark Lomax, II
November 30, 2021