Mark Lomax sounds off on African-American history in 400: An Afrikan Epic

A monumental 12 album project divided into three suites charts 400 years of African-American history.

Mark Lomax II

400: An Afrikan Epic |

In 1619, the Dutch ship White Lion arrived at the failing British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Among its cargo were 20 kidnapped Africans who were traded for food and supplies. Thus began the North American slave trade or movement of so-called “black gold” to be used for free labour to build the New World.

The slave trade would peak in the 18th century with an estimated six to seven million being transported, having dire consequences for the African continent and the beginnings of a debate on civil rights that still rages.

In recognition of this historical moment, Mark (Ogunwale) Lomax II, who teaches at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, set about composing a 12-album cycle titled 400: An Afrikan Epic. Divided into thirds, the recordings with various group configurations and contributing musicians chart thousands of years of pre-colonial African history, the Ma’afa —  the period from 1619 to 2019 — and enter into an Afro-futurist vision of the coming world view. It’s a massive undertaking that delivers both as an activist statement in sound and an exceptional musical journey that is divided into three suites.

Released on January 23, 2019, the release coincided with Lomax’s 40th birthday and also marked the total number of recordings in his discography at 40. Talk about timing. Lomax answered some questions about the project as it became available worldwide.

Q: When did you decide to devote yourself to a 12-album project focusing on the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade? And, c’mon, did you know it would do the whole 40th album/turning 40 thing too?

A: I made the decision to say Yes to this project in 2016, after the realization that we only had three years to prepare to tell this epic story. What initially started as an idea for a symphony became a 12-album cycle! It didn’t occur to me that it would be my 40th album until I began completing the recordings and adding them to my list. The math was in amazing alignment! 400 years, 40th birthday, 40 albums; it was meant to be!

Q: The music on 400: An Afrikan Epic is so wildly expansive. From the string-heavy Ma’Fa to the brilliant percussion gift of First Ankhcestor to the more new thing stylings of Dance of the Orisha, the variety is huge. How did you source your players?

A: William Menefield, Dean Hulett and Edwin Bayard are members of my working group. We’ve been playing together in various configurations since 2001. The classical musicians were musicians I hired from the central Ohio area to perform the premiere of Blues in August in 2016. One of them, cellist Mary Davis plays with UCelli, which is how they came to be a part of the project. And the Afrikan drummers are folks who play at my father’s First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Ga.

Q: Many say that their albums, the songs, are like children. Do you have any favourites out of this family of a dozen distinct beings? If so, why? If no, why not?

A: I haven’t gotten to the point where I can say there is a clear favourite. They all play their part in the narrative. However, I have found myself returning to Dance of the Orisha and Tales of the Black Experience more often than others. I think it’s because Tales was originally composed when I was 18 and I didn’t like the original recording because I wasn’t used to our sound. I had the templates of Coltrane, Mingus, Monk and others in my head and couldn’t truly hear myself.

Q: Clearly, it would be huge to perform all 12 recordings in an omnibus show, so that’s probably impossible. Do you have a plan of how you will bring this project to concert stages?

A: We premiered the 400 Years Suite on Jan. 26, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. The suite is comprised of the major themes from the 12-album cycle with new material that points to the future and clocks in at a mere 45 minutes.

Q: While the listening experience of this project is clear, there is the educational aspect as well. What do you hope for students, players, others to absorb from 400: An African Epic?

A: I hope that people absorb the fact that being authentic is the only way to engage the world. Secondly, no one lives in a vacuum. Therefore, one people’s history is all peoples history. Thirdly, that history is the sum of our collective human experiences, so to is the future. It’s up to all of us to create a more just and equitable world.

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