no. 31/50: Pheeroan Aklaff

1. You were in your early twenties when you first played Moers festival in 1979. Was this one of your first touring experiences in Europe?

Actually 1977 was my first visit to Moers. It was with Oliver Lake’s quartet, featuring Fred Hopkins and Michael Gregory Jackson, and me. I was 22. It was also my first European tour. 

2. Was there a lot of bureaucracy needed to fly to Germany in ’79?

Flying was a breeze for professionals, but in those days overweight for instruments made flying coach impractical for musicians. Charter flights were usually better. I believe that is the way we came to Moers that year. Some promoters would get the cheapest tickets, which could devalue the experience if there was a missed flight, or a cello which needed its own ticket for a seat, or a horn that was too big for the overhead bin and should never fly in the underbelly.  Bringing drums was a luxury for larger budgets.

3. What was your impression of the Moers Festival grounds in ’79? Was there a lot of mud and hippies?

The mud and the hippies were great. Most of us loved it because it expressed the “Woodstock” type of events that we could not experience in our venues. Probably only a few guys like Howard Johnson with his broad career may have had those opportunities. Perhaps Southern gentlemen like John Carter or Abdullah Ibrahim may have been taken aback by this. It was an eye-opening experience for someone like me who had studied African, and African American history, while growing up with presumptions of European civility and its “first-world” superiority complexes.  In this light the festival grounds presented a dichotomy of striking images. It was my first time arriving in Europe, and now these Euro-centric social constructs worshiped by the U.S. were exposed with a new lens.  The hippies made the literal phrase “Down to earth” actual. I rode a bus in town and the bus driver’s body odor almost prevented me from taking a seat. I imagined these town folks considered deodorant a wasteful, if not lethal, American invention. The toilet paper in the gasthaus, was as hard as sandpaper. Now we know why, it was recycled. This society in transition introduced to us by young well-meaning Social Democrat art lovers presented a chasm. Annoying as these dynamics could become with the facilitators, they were on our side. And we might experience that once we left their clutches to interact with the average daily worker. We were allies by default, as they laid a foundation for the green movement, and other residual ethical enhancements for their youth. Ones that we would hopefully adopt. Especially as these fully engaged enthusiastic listeners identified with our revolutionary musical arts.

4. The bands are all incredible lineups. In terms of the 1979 groups, how long had you been working with James Newton, Anthony Davis, Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell at that point in 1979?

Anthony and I had played together with Wadada Leo Smith since 1975. Rick and I had played together with his brother Mixashawn, since 1976. James and Anthony with their great chemistry, may have begun playing together just after that, in 77, or 78. I learned so much on that tour, especially in the memorable concerts and navigating the affectionate and persnickety culture of Northern and Southern Italy. They endeared Newton, with his breadth of knowledge, and disarming joy which engaged audiences with the spirit of Duke Ellington and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He and Davis supported a kind of Raison D’etre  for many Italian socialists and afficionados who heard this exploration as a distillation of our predecessors in the wide range of creative music.
The large ensemble of Smith and Mitchell was my first time playing with Roscoe.

5. Were you able to spend time at the festival, or were you on a strict travel schedule. Do you have any memories of seeing Sunny Murray or some of the other groups in 1979? 

I may have heard the other bands on the same day as I played, but we usually went on to the next venue the following day, and sometimes immediately after performing.  Yes, I saw Sunny Murray with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons in Gronningen a few days after my first performance at Moers. Needless to say, it was a life changing experience. I could only dream of playing with Cecil, at that time, and was pleasantly surprised to get a call from him a few years later. But there were many great drummers that were creatively influential to me at that time; Beaver Harris, Eddie Moore, Phillip Wilson, Harold White, Bobo Shaw, Edgar Bateman, “Sharky” Lewis. SO many.

6. In ’86 you played in Craig Harris’ Quintet. Do you have any memories of that performance? Did you get a chance to see any of the other groups?

Craig’s band was so much fun and filled with dramatic humor. It was effortless to play with Anthony Cox, and Don Byron who was a few years younger than the four of us, yet so ancient musically,and kept us laughing. Craig’s diplomacy made all of our interactions with promoters very professional, even with the eventual calamity here and there. Thanks to, and sometimes no-thanks- to Tomas Stowsand, we traveled and played constantly and had little time to hear any other bands or to do laundry for that matter.

7. In ’89 you presented your Key One Band. How did this band come together, what was the approach of this band, and how did you connect with Moers for this performance?

My Key One band was formed from these musicians because Carlos Ward had been generous enough to record my CD Sonogram.  Ayib Djieng was one of the few extremely versatile African percussionists, and after living in West Africa, I always wanted this kind of blend. Charles Burnham was my Brooklyn neighbor and after playing with Leroy Jenkins and Noel Pointer I could hear a fresh blend of violin and alto sax. Ira Coleman was a brilliant young player and eager to play unique music despite coming up in more conventional settings. I’ll never forget him saying after the concert “ Pheeroan that’s the loudest I ever played in my life, and maybe it’s a good omen because I just auditioned to play with Tony Williams !” Each of these men are phenomenal musicians with warm and sophisticated character. Each has a magician’s spirit. The chemistry was important. The way I got the opportunity to play there with my band was only to repay me for slander. Burkhard had lied about me and the other drummers on the ‘77 festival and said that we stole the drums that were supplied by Sonor. I didn’t find this out until years later when Michelle Rosewoman said that she wanted to hire me for a tour and the promoter said he didn’t want me on the tour because I had stolen the drums from the Moers festival. Can you imagine how many people thought that, and how much work I may have missed? But more so, what people may have thought of me, or Oliver.  Truth was, he took on the responsibility of the drums for us to continue using as backline to complete our other performances in Gronningen, and finally in Paris. Mind you, we were taking a whole five-piece drum-set with hardware onto trains in first class compartments, trying to make train changes, rushing equipment through the windows. It was a circus, but it was our only option. Fortunately, we didn’t see Dizzy or Max while in transit. But I didn’t know enough to be embarrassed, I was happy to be working. Now imagine trying to get a taxi in Paris at all, but being black and carrying drums, and basses and guitars. So, when it was time to go home, we asked Burkhart where to take the drums. I vaguely remember that he looked in the phone book and saw that there was an instrument company that seemed to be associated with Sonor, somewhere in Paris, and said for us to take them there. Now remember, Sonor Rosewood drums and hardware was the heaviest in the industry in 1977, almost twice the density as all others. After painfully transporting all this equipment across Paris, and up 3 flights of winding stairs we found out that this office had nothing to do with Sonor. The office was closed that day, and the people knew nothing about this when we did get them on the phone the next day. So, what was my option?  Leave them on the street? Well, I had befriended some visual artists in Paris. Lytfa Kujowski and her guy Phillip. Phillip fashioned some homemade cases from layers of cardboard, and twine. I checked them on the return flight and must have paid considerable overweight.  The next time I ran into Burkhart after discovering his cover-up interpretation of the facts, was at the hotel breakfast room during a festival years afterwards. So, after confronting him with this lie of his, his retort was; “Oh yes that was bad. Tell you what, I’ll put your band on the next Moers festival.” And he did. So at least he did well by me, to try and make up for it. Though I was impressed with the aesthetic choices Burkhard made in 1977, the attempt to coordinate engagements for several musicians, with other venues outside of Moers, was too much for him.

8. In ’99, you were with David Murray & Creole. You and David Murray were at the Moers Festival 20 years earlier in 1979. How was the experience two decades later together, and also I am curious what the concept of the group was.

I remember
I only remember that the festival had matured and the technical production was at a very high level. And people were not camping out. Ha Ha. Though most tech concerns in Germany at that time were taken seriously in acoustic or electric bands, and with knowledge of both.  The Creole band was enjoyable because I could play the West African style American Drum-set. I didn’t do enough of playing like that after living in Cote D’Ivoire. It was great to work with a guitar genius like Hervé Sambe to play music like that. Also I remember seeing Cesaria Evora’s band that day and that their guitarist and composer Tiofilo, sat in, and played a piece with us that night. Heavenly.

9. At Moers and other festivals, when you arrive and before the performances do you have a routine for warm up and practice or meditation ... how do you stay loose after all the travels and mentally ready to play with such mastery? Has your travel ritual evolved over the years?

Yes, I have pre-performance rituals of meditation, and I stay in touch with my perception, absorption, digestion, musically and physically.. Ray Anderson was always flabbergasted by my 15-minute power naps. I swim in every pool and steam or sauna whenever possible. I enjoy body work of all kind. Acupuncture has been very good for me

10. Were any of these performances released as live albums?

I have no idea what has been made available for public listening. I’m sure there are unauthorized recordings and possibly what we call bootlegs from Uli Blobel or others with labels which the German loophole in the law allowed for. You’ll have to look it up. Everything may be somewhere.

11. You have played the Moers Festival over three decades. What are some of your general impressions about how the Festival has changed in the ’70’s, ’80’s and ‘90s ... in terms of the festival grounds, audiences, the catering, the equipment? 

Moers was never on my radar as a place that I visited over three decades. What did occur to me one day was that in my young career, the income from Germany and Austria, the music I was involved with, and the people I met and inspired was much more enriching than I would have imagined. Moers like many of the festivals grew to looking more like the mainstream highly financed ones, so there was clearly a maturation that served many.  Always great backline, and usually some choice other than local food. But some festivals grew predominantly safe musically. Their programming would be similar to watching the computer spoil an honest moment between a song and what it took to tell it, with some of those “concepts” that sever ways to connect grass roots musicians with grass roots listeners. Over the years it sometimes appeared that audiences would be in attendance because someone said it was the place to be, not because they craved the music.

12. I see the “Moers Music” record label released Wadada Leo Smith’s “Budding of a Rose” in 1979 — do you have any memories of the Moers Music label?

I know about as much as no one about the Moers label, except evidently Braxton found out about them releasing one of his records. He just laughed about it at the time.

13. How has your relationship with music been affected by covid-19 in terms of practice, composing, performing and teaching?

This period has allowed me to go back to something I began in the 1976-1986 period; playing at new levels of quiet. and the value of dynamics from pppp, to mp. It is useful to add prayerful meaning to everything I do musically, especially when mourning the spirit of those affected by this pandemic. Most of the projects I put together have a point of raising the awareness of our oneness in some way or another. I have continued producing short events of reflection relating to human rights.

14. Can we look forward to hearing some of your playing this year on recording ... or any live performances starting to be scheduled again after the shut down?

Yes, there are things to be seen and heard. I have a new recording with Aska Maret-Kaneko, featuring her string ensemble, and Scott Robinson playing Sarrusaphone.

Commissioned by City Of Asylum, this past summer my daughter filmed a piece I wrote in response to a poem written for Emmet Till, featuring D.K. Dyson voice, and Jun Miyake flute.  I worked on a multi-discipline art-web-project with Australian theater artists Aku Kadogo,  Park Young-Hee, and Nathan Stoneham. It used music, poetry and film.  I performed with Mixashawn and Rick Rozie for an in Indigenous Peoples ceremony in an outdoor event. So I had some activity last year. I am now fundraising for 2021- 2022 to present creative musicians in live performances to be streamed in the New York and New Jersey areas. 

15. Do you like to go on an adventure by yourself during a festival weekend? That could be as simple as trying to find a place to eat that isn’t the festival catering ... or do you enjoy the social aspect of being just at the fest?

Always.  I have an appetite for visiting sacred architecture, cathedrals, public art and parks.  I take mountain walks. I try many traditional dishes and ask the chef how it’s made. Before there was a social media there was my collection of favorite places, experiences, and faces. When Covid hit Italy so hard, and other places I have known, it was palpable. I take lots of pictures and I look forward to sharing more of my photos and travel stories, and let them tell the thousand-word story of the best things that could have ever happened to a lucky so and so.

Thank you!