A famous war photo of a Vietnamese girl inspired his music. At last, he performed it for her live
Hannibal Lokumbe first wrote “Children of the Fire” after seeing that photo from the Vietnam War. But 45 years later, this might be the most important performance of it yet.Listen 1:29
When he first saw the photo on the TV news, he thought it had to be a still from a movie. It couldn’t be real.
The year was 1972. Hannibal Lokumbe, a jazz trumpeter and composer, was 23 years old and living in New York.
The photograph — what came to be widely known as “The Girl in the Picture” — shows a 9-year-old Kim Phuc Phan Thi, screaming, running naked, surrounded by other children and South Vietnamese soldiers, her village ablaze in the background after a napalm bombing.
The image evoked such visceral emotion, Lokumbe rose from his seat.
“It was a strange thing, because it was me. I saw myself. I saw Medgar Evers, I saw Fannie Lou Hamer,” he said, naming Black civil rights activists.
So drawn to the image was Lokumbe that in 1973 he composed an orchestral suite, “Children of the Fire,” in honor of that 9-year-old.
More than 45 years later, the power of that depiction of war and the girl’s suffering sticks with Lokumbe. But a performance this weekend felt more important than perhaps any other before it.
That’s because Dr. Kim Phuc — now a physician and peace activist living in Canada — attended a special tribute performance of his work Saturday night at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in University City. The piece was accompanied by a student ensemble made up of the Play On, Philly! Symphony Orchestra.
The performance — organized by Philadelphia arts nonprofit the Painted Bride — also included the premiere of Lokumbe’s latest work, “First Breath, Last Sigh: A Journey Called Life,” a composition in three parts dedicated to Kevon Dix, a Morgan State University student and choir member killed by gun violence in Baltimore in April. That piece featured the choir from the Philadelphia High School of the Creative and Performing Arts.
About 250 people attended the concert, which took place in the cathedral’s sanctuary. “Children of the Fire” — a composition in four parts — takes the listener through events that June day in Vietnam from Phuc’s perspective. Prior to the bombing, Lokumbe imagines 9-year-old Phuc playing in a nearby forest.
“In life there is so much to do
The clouds floating freely
The forest to explore
The high reaching mountains
The endless seashore”
But during the bombing — portrayed through syncopated drum beats and the Play On, Philly! string musicians — the lyrics wonder:
“What is this rain that falls from the sky
This rain that burns me until I die”
Friday afternoon, Lokumbe and Phuc joined in a discussion at the Constitution Center about “Children of the Fire” and Phuc’s experiences past and present. The conversation also featured commentary from former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, whose 2017 book, “Hue 1968,” is about the turning point in the Vietnam War.
For the first time, Lokumbe was able to tell Phuc what he felt and thought after seeing that photo of her.
“Even in all of that pain, I saw this profound beauty, and it was obvious to me that you were being crucified, but at the same time you were being resurrected,” Lokumbe told Phuc. “I was glad when I put the last note on the piece, because it took me on a journey. I felt what you felt.”
Phuc recounted that horrible day in June 1972, when soldiers from the United States had just come to occupy her village.
She and her family hid in a nearby temple for three days, she said, assuming that a holy place would be safe from bombings. But on the third day, the soldiers dropped the napalm.
Phuc, the other children playing outside near the temple, and South Vietnamese soldiers started running.
“Suddenly, the fire everywhere around me,” Phuc recalled. “As soon as the bomb touched my clothes, my body, it just burn off my clothes. At that moment, I remember my thoughts, ‘Oh my goodness, I got burned, and I will be ugly and people will see me different way.’”
The photo of Phuc is said to have contributed to a different turning point in the war, the one in which public opinion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam shifted dramatically.
By 1968, Bowden said, it was apparent to the highest levels of American government that the Vietnam War was not winnable. At that point, the war strategy became to inflict as much pain on the Vietnamese as possible.
“A weapon like napalm is an indiscriminate killer,” Bowden said. “That act — which ought to be a war crime — I think emblemized the approach the United States was taking toward the war in Vietnam, and it, like all the other approaches, ultimately failed. But I think that image that was so viscerally powerful had deep meaning for many Americans and helped to change attitudes in the country toward the war.”
“Children of the Fire” — one of Lokumbe’s earliest recorded pieces — was just a beginning in the Texas native’s musical storytelling about tragedies. In 2017, during a three-year-residency with the Philadelphia Orchestra that finished in the spring, he performed “Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a Traveling” at Mother Bethel AME Church in memorial of the congregants murdered inside Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015.
Last year, Lokumbe performed at the Kimmel Center with a survivor of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in November 2018.
Many of his pieces have religious themes of crucifixion, but there’s also always resurrection.
“That theme doesn’t only apply to 2,000 years ago,” Lokumbe said. “It’s every day of our lives.”
At the end of Saturday night’s performance, Lokumbe embraced Phuc, both of them teary-eyed. It was a dream come true.
“She’s the only other woman I know besides my wife that makes me cry,” Lokumbe said. “I prayed and asked the Lord to let this beautiful soul hear it, and not only did that dream come true, but I’m here to hear it and play it.”
To this day, said Phuc — who won a Dresden Peace Prize earlier this year for her work helping child victims of war — she is still shocked to hear about the impact the photo of her has had on people all over the world.
“But now, the result of that is love, compassion, of the people who return to me, that little girl,” Phuc said. “It’s beautiful.”
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