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The Music Lives On: The Legacy of Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra Today

Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra on stage at Grand Park during a New Year's Eve celebration | Samantha Lee sls ep9 preview
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Get an inside look at jazz in Los Angeles on "Artbound" S11 E2: The New West Coast Sound: An L.A. Jazz Legacy. Watch now.
S11 E2: The New West Coast Sound: An L.A. Jazz Legacy (Media Manager)

An infant’s yelp rises midway through a profound bass solo on the spiritual jazz flight, “Future Sally’s Time,” from the 1979 album “Live at I.U.C.C.” by the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. It rings perfectly between notes as if in duet with the deep, searching strings. The moment is but a blip but speaks volumes. This sort of interjection was considered a blessing by this big band — an audible utterance of humanity. In fact, the group’s founder, Horace Tapscott stated that he didn’t really feel at ease performing until he heard a baby’s cry. This illustrates his outlook on music as a family affair — an embrace of art’s integral role in community life.

The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra has always been an incubator — cultivating talent and giving space for creative expression. Over 300 musicians have participated in the Ark over the years, each bringing their own personal energy to the ensemble while disseminating the spirit of the organization through their actions outside of the band. Saxophonist Sabir Mateen remarked, "The Ark vibe never dies.... You're in, you're never out." The embracive band has historically offered a high-level performance platform where beginners elevate and veterans soar. Artists such as Arthur Blythe, Kamasi Washington, Adele Sebastian, Nate Morgan and Sonship Theus have been fixtures in the ensemble over the years and today, you are as likely to see seasoned virtuosos Phil Ranelin, Azar Lawrence, Jesse Sharps, Roberto Miranda, Dwight Trible, Maia and Kamau Daaood alongside young musicians playing their first gig with the Ark. It’s a regenerative vehicle for personal expression through a collective whole.

A multi-generational band called the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra during rehearsals | Samantha Lee ab s11
A multi-generational band called the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra during rehearsals | Samantha Lee

Open the gatefold cover of the aforementioned LP, “Live at I.U.C.C.,” and you’ll find a photo of Horace Tapscott alongside Reverend E. Edwards. The two fondly clasp hands in front of a stucco church glaring brightly in the Southern California sun. It was here, in the Immanuel United Church of Christ on 85th and Holmes in South Central Los Angeles, that the reverend provided space for the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra to perform a decade’s worth of free, monthly concerts. These standing dates were open to anyone who wanted to slide into a pew for sonic communion. The music wasn’t religious per se, but the spirit was high. A motto spelled out on the album sleeve amplifies the band’s intent, “Our Music is Contributive Rather than Competitive.” This is a potent proclamation when weighed against the money-centric framework driving much of the music industry. Tapscott’s inclination for radical altruism was one cultivated by his elders and an energetic offering to the continuum of creative community music.

Horace Tapscott was a Texas-born musician and composer who came up in Los Angeles playing trombone and piano alongside peers Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry, Frank Morgan and Billy Higgins. He voraciously absorbed the energy of the city’s famed Central Avenue Jazz scene — a master course for seekers with open ears and the stamina for late-night jam sessions. Tapscott also received a more formalized mentorship from Jefferson High School music teacher Dr. Samuel Brown who offered musical training and a bedrock belief system — one in which sharing knowledge was key, not only to the preservation of the past, but also a mechanism for future proofing African American cultural heritage. The potency of this pay-it-forward system was insured by placing magic knowledge only into the hands of those dedicated to doing the most good with it. In an interview with his friend and collaborator, bassist Roberto Miranda, Tapscott recalls the caveats Brown placed on imparting his precious wisdom, “I was always told that they'd give it to me if I promised to pass it on. That was Mr. Brown’s particular saying and that's one of the main reasons why I'm still here.”

Tapscott’s career was on the rise, when in 1961, he walked away from the commercial sphere, leaving his gig playing trombone in Lionel Hampton’s touring band to return to Los Angeles. Tapscott sidestepped the industry hustle, feeling the call instead to build a homegrown movement focused on uplifting his people. This ideology was the blueprint for The Underground Musicians Association (UGMA) which he founded in 1961. It subsequently morphed into The Underground Musicians and Artists Association (UGMAA, 1968-1970), The Community Cultural Arkestra (1970-1971), and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (P.A.P.A., 1971-present). Additionally, an umbrella organization known as The Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension Foundation (UGMAA) launched in 1975 and continues into the present, albeit very sporadically. Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra or simply the Ark, is the moniker that most commonly surfaces from this timeline. The large jazz orchestra was established as an instrument for self-determined socio-political thought in action, doling out music as medicine and serving as an outlet for the expression of a multitude of other art forms — poetry, dance, theatre, painting, and even martial arts. The Ark was aligned philosophically with other Black arts organizations that were forming around the nation in the 60s including Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and Affro Arts Theatre, the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, and Philadelphia’s Sun Ra Arkestra.

Tapscott fostered a holistic approach to nurturing healthy and enlightened inhabitants but didn’t kowtow to the powers that be. In the face of systematic oppression and outright racism, the Ark served as shield and spear for Black citizens. In the smoldering landscape following the 1965 Watts Rebellion, Tapscott’s actions were crucial. He armed his community with sonic ammunition. The notion of a band as an activism unit appealed to tenor saxophonist Michael Session who joined the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkesta in the 1970s. In Steven Isoardi’s comprehensive history of Tapscott’s movement,The Dark Tree,” Session expounds on the allure, “I was a revolutionist. I was into Black power. I hated the structure. America can kiss my a-s… And the Ark had that kind of revolutionary motif to it. It definitely depicted the struggle through music. The vibe of what was going on with it. The Ark is the Black struggle.”

Listen to music influenced by the work of composer Horace Tapscott:

Although he was to eventually double down on his belief in the arts as the prime element for social upliftment, Tapscott had maintained a tight relationship with the Black Panthers. The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra played benefits for Angela Davis and Geronimo Pratt and Tapscott even arranged the Panther’s anthem “The Meeting” by the party’s future leader Elaine Brown. These details surely found their way into Tapscott’s F.B.I. file and their institutional paranoia manifested in encounters with the L.A.P.D. who feared the Ark’s music would incite an insurrection. Tapscott details a recollection of one such encounter in “The Dark Tree,” “The police broke in with their shotguns and told me to stop the music. I wouldn’t stop. The guy in charge pulled back the hammer of his gun and yelled, “I said stop the goddamn music!” Meanwhile, they were lining up these pregnant women, who were there for a class, by one of the walls. I put my hand up in the air to stop the band. The cop put his gun back on the safety and headed out. As he walked past all the kids who were listening to the music, David Bryant, or one of the other bass players, looking right at the police, started the line from ‘The Dark Tree,’ and we all started playing again.”

In its early phase, the ensemble was a ubiquitous fixture in South Los Angeles, regularly assembling in parks, churches, coffee shops, prisons, community centers, and even playing from the back of flatbed trucks at impromptu intersection pop-up concerts. This was both out of necessity — the L.A.P.D. had shuttered many Black-owned performance spaces, and a desire for accessibility — taking the music where it was needed. Tapscott’s biographer Steven Isoardi points out the deepness of his dogma, “It really does resonate with traditional West African culture and the approach to music performance and how culture was passed on. There wasn't a separate designation of arts within traditional cultures, they were so integrated in community life. That is what Horace represents. It's also very forward looking in the sense of looking beyond a competitive, ego-driven capitalism — to a more collaborative kind of social system.”

With a mission dedicated to “preserve and present music from Black composers, dead or alive,” the Ark inspires an atmosphere of creation from within its ranks  —disseminating the essence of a people by the people. Tapscott encouraged members to actively contribute to the band’s songbook, or Horace’s “treasure chest” as many called it. “For Horace, what they were was a cultural safehouse. Safeguarding the history and the legacy and making sure it would be passed on,” comments Isoardi. From this viewpoint the band is indeed a literal ark, carrying forth African American creative expression into the future. It’s not merely an ensemble that arose from the community, but rather a reflection of the community’s soul itself. Isoardi recounts, “Horace at times, when he was on the bandstand, turned to the audience, and instead of introducing a number by telling people what it was called, he would just say, ‘Well, this is another one you wrote through us.’”

While the Ark serves to convey culture, some were born into the vessel itself. Mekala Session is a fiery young drummer who first heard the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra in utero. His father Michael has been active in the group since the 1970s and assumed leadership of the band soon after Tapscott’s passing in 1999. Although the frequency of P.A.P.A. performances had slowed starting in the early 1980s, Mekala helped spark its reemergence in 2017 and now guides the band — organizing rehearsals, booking shows, reanimating pages from the archival songbook and writing new compositions. Mekala comments on his thicker than blood connection to the Ark, “I literally was familiar with it before being born. It is a big part of my identity, like being passed down nappy hair through genetics. The cool thing is I get to add to it and propagate it and give people identity through this thing.”

Mekala Session, leader of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, playing drums | Samantha Lee ab s11
Mekala Session, leader of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, playing drums | Samantha Lee

One of Mekala’s closest friends and collaborators is Jamael Dean, a fellow son of the Ark and rising talent signed to Stones Throw Records. The pianist is the grandson of renowned drummer Donald Dean, a regular performer with early iterations of the Arkestra and still an occasional contributor. Mekala and Jamael are third-generation Ark affiliates who honor Tapscott’s tenets while also fulfilling an instinct for expansion. Jumping between genres with ease, their stylistic fluidity is a wide embrace. Producer and musician Carlos Niño weighs in, “They both rap, they both make beats, they both lead ensembles. They both come directly out of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Jamael to me is one of the great prodigies to ever come out of Leimert Park. He's on another level. And for me, what Mekala is doing with the Arkestra is excellent. I feel like to encompass the continuum is to look no further than those two guys.” 

Jamael Dean during a Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra rehearsal | Samantha Lee ab s11
Jamael Dean during a Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra rehearsal | Samantha Lee

From a sonic standpoint, Mekala and Jamael exemplify Tapscott’s lean towards genre-defying sound. If anything, Horace classified his aesthetic as Black classical music. This concept transcends classification to focus on constant evolution. Mekala outlines the ethos, “The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra’s culture is rooted in jazz, but also community and Black empowerment and Black wisdom and Black history, in the past tense as well as the present tense.” Jamael carries on the tradition through his boundless sonic excursions. Andy Beta wrote in his Pitchfork review of Dean’s debut album “Black Space Tapes,” “A wide-eyed view of jazz as broad as his grandfather’s. Allowing jazz to imbibe hip-hop, electronic, R&B, and ambient, Dean orients the century-old artform firmly toward the future.” The multitude of forms present in the music are both a product of the Los Angeles underground’s exploratory sensibility and a direct result of the aspirational attitude of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the far-reaching perspective fostered by its founder.

Tapscott recognized that new voices were vital to keep the creative continuum flowing. Speaking to Roberto Miranda, he said, “You know, I’m into the music, and I go where the youngsters be playing the music, and I hear the youngsters trying to reach for certain things.” His enthusiasm for contemporary sonic expressions was reciprocated by the emerging artists around him. Tapscott’s creative community-building was key in laying the groundwork for the mid-1990s hip-hop innovated at the Good Life Cafe and Project Blowed and recorded for posterity by Los Angeles groups such as The Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship. The latter even enlisted Tapscott to play on their legendary 1993 album “Inner City Griots,” while Tapscott’s contribution to their song “Hot Potato” was shelved by shortsighted label executives (It can still be heard on YouTube under the title “Hot.”) Tapscott’s influence would continue to travel to new ears via Saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his group The West Coast Getdown who were raised on a steady diet of Tapscott’s music and its associated tangents active in Leimert Park. This energy fused into their musical DNA, feeding the foundations of Washington’s 2015 masterpiece “The Epic” and imprinting itself circuitously into Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” for which Washington and crew provided the musical backbone.

Jimetta Rose, a Los Angeles-based vocalist with a cosmic disposition also found her way to Tapscott, “His legacy is living, active, breathing, growing through many metamorphosis, but it still has the same energy. And so, sharing continues to spread the energy over and over again.” The influence of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and maybe more importantly, the presence of the band’s mind-set in the community itself, helped propel her, “As my own journey of how I would like to express blossomed, so did my access to that legacy. And it was merely through, being cut from the same cloth, and having those same objectives that I kept finding resonance.” Inspired in part by the Great Voice of UGMAA — a vocal appendage of the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, and its rapturously-voiced director Dwight Trible, Rose eventually founded her own choir, The Voices of Creation. Her group merges the wide spectrum quintessence of South Los Angeles’ musical vibrations into lofty arrangement — incorporating equal parts spiritual jazz and beat scene boom into their performances. The choir has joined P.A.P.A. on stage on many occasions bringing the cycle of illumination full circle.

Jimetta Rose and the Voices of Creation perform during New Year's Eve 2019 | Samantha Lee ab s11 Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra
Jimetta Rose and the Voices of Creation perform during New Year's Eve 2019 | Samantha Lee ab s11 Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra

Tapscott’s appreciation for non-institutional performance spaces would have put him very much at ease at Listen to Music Outside in the Daylight Under a Tree, a free, bi-monthly concert series in Highland Park curated by Matthewdavid, a local musician and the founder of Leaving Records. Matthewdavid’s idealistic ambitions and his record label’s penchant for sonic experimentation — summed up by its “all genre” tag, would likely have resonated with Tapscott. Matthewdavid zooms in on his perspective, “Serving the super diverse and expansive audience and community of L.A. — getting tapped in right to the core of it, offering accessible events or music releases that can be approachable to all, locally and internationally. That's a huge part of my vision with my label, in my art. A lot of times it feels idyllic and utopian, but I'm on a mission to make it a reality.”

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, every other Saturday afternoon would see Tierra de la Culebra Park filled with one of the most diverse audiences to be found anywhere in Los Angeles (the series has since gone virtual). This is a far cry from the city’s climate at the time of the Ark’s founding, when racial segregation and restrictive housing covenants made for a sliver of Los Angeles where truly free creative expression occurred and even then, it was still often under fire by the forces that be. Listen to Music Outside in the Daylight Under a Tree has the feeling of an eccentric art picnic with a radiant positivity. The all-ages happenings foster an environment in which the reassuring sounds of babies’ cries can float above the treetops and put a smile on Horace’s face in the celestial planes. Past installments of the park series have featured performances by a quartet version of the Arkestra called the Ark-tet and many affiliates — the Shaw Brothers’ Black Nile, Jamael Dean’s Afronaughts, The Voices of Creation and still others who are an extension of the P.A.P.A. circle such as Carlos Niño, Zeroh, Busdriver, Nels and Alex Cline. Although Matthewdavid wasn’t hip to Tapscott when originally launching his concerts, he’s now very turned on, “Mekala has been extremely illuminating to what has been happening in that community for decades now. He is so enthusiastic and supportive. He saw what I was doing and immediately extended his efforts to me to serve and collaborate as an extension of the legacy that he comes from. It was very inspiring.”

On June 6, 2020, Jamael Dean, Mekala Session and Black Nile participated in a virtual edition of Leaving Records’ event series organized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police. 55 years may have passed since the Watts Rebellion but white supremacy and police brutality have still run rampant in the United States. Protest signs could easily be passed across the decades as verbatim pleas for long overdue justice. A positive shift seems to be in the air however and the quartet’s live-streamed set channeled that optimism — their impassioned tones rooted in the foundational Black classical music espoused by Tapscott. The continued transference of creative energy is living proof of the efficacy of his mission. It has prevailed and remains vibrant even as it continues to evolve. Tapscott’s influence rings as the echoes of his actions and the magic continues its voyage through the continuum. For Mekala Session, Tapscott’s impact is indisputable, “His fingerprints are everywhere.”

The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra performing New Year's Eve 2019. Men and women with instruments and microphones perform on stage | Samantha Lee Top Image: 

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