As Hannibal Lokumbe enters the Philadelphia Detention Center in the city’s Northeast, he’s already listening for inspiration.
The bars close behind him with a motorized clang, which he identifies as a D-flat major. He wants to use that pitch in a new composition.
The 69-year-old composer makes his way into the prison gymnasium, which is humming with heating ductwork suspended from the ceiling. He mentally notes that tone.
“That sound is very important. It authenticates where you are, see?” said Lokumbe.
Lokumbe, is the final year of a three-season residency with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is working on a new piece to premiere next season. He has his new composition on his mind right now, looking for inspiration inside the prison.
But this is nothing new for him. Lokumbe has been visiting inmates in prisons around the country — wherever he happened to be staying — since 1974.
“In a way, we’re all in prison,” he said. “I want to remind people in this prison that they are still human beings. Many are here merely because they didn’t have the $700 or $800 to hire a good lawyer. How can I turn my back on people whom, in many cases, I could be among?”
Lokumbe grew up in Texas, where he still lives. He’s black with a large frame. By the time he turned 25, he says he had been wrongly detained by police 25 times.
“I’ve been stopped falsely so many times by police,” he said. “If I had not been trained by my grandfather on how to survive a police stop, I’d be here too.”
Lokumbe brought his own trumpet, and, before the dozen inmates arrived in the gym, he pulled various musical equipment out from under the stage — a conga, a snare drum — in case his hour with them evolved into playing music.
It didn’t. Instead, there was a lot of talking. After the inmates arrived — with warm greetings and hugs — Lokumbe passed out a notebook and pencil to each one. He told them he had made an arrangement with the prison that, should there be a shakedown in their cell, the notebooks would not be seized.
He asked them to open the notebooks and write down four principles, which he hoped they would take to heart:
- Renounce violence.
- Acknowledge the presence of the divine. (“What you call the divine is up to you.”)
- Keep a journal for yourself and your children.
- Fall in love with forgiveness.
One inmate took issue with the last principle.
“My life experience has taught me that I’m able to forgive other people, but I haven’t been able to forgive myself,” said inmate Rene L. Lloyd. “I keep beating myself up for actions I did years ago.”
Lokumbe assured him that self-forgiveness is possible “once you see the divine is in you. You’ll see it by how you treat others.”
Lokumbe is in the process of composing “Healing Tones,” a three-part piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra divided into what he calls veils. Veil 1 will be “Tones of Peace.” Veil 2 will be “Tones of War.”
“I believe this orchestra can play anything, but their fingers are going to be sore,” he told the inmates. “They are gonna need massages and retreats after Veil 2.”
Veil 3 will be “Tones of Healing.”
“Some of the most healing moments in my life have been in prisons,” he said. “My last visit, I witnessed the resurrection of a brother. He wept for 2 ½ hours. It was a weeping of renewal. We all began to weep.”
Lokumbe planned to come back the following day, when he hopes the men would share some of what they would have written in their notebooks. He shared his own writings to start the exchange, including some poetry written on long strips of tissue paper, which might be the opening text of “Healing Tones.”
When you sing, my lord, there is no weeping in the land
The fields are golden with wheat, mother’s breasts are filled with milk
And their smiles float like clouds in the eyes of their children.
Inmate Antoine Reeves met Lokumbe during a previous visit, after passing by an open door and hearing him play trumpet. Talking with him was an epiphany.
“Ever since he laid those words on me — fall in love with forgiveness — I’ve been able to do it more,” said Reeves, who is awaiting sentencing. “As I’ve been hurt, I’ve done some wrong to people. I need to forgive them, and I want people to be able to forgive me, so we can move forward.”
Reeves said this is not his first time in jail. He hopes to be in the audience at Verizon Hall in 2019 — should he be on the outside by then — when the Philadelphia Orchestra premieres “Healing Tones.” It would be his first time inside the Kimmel Center.
“I want to go. I look forward to learning more about the orchestra,” he said. “Right now, I’m a fan of Lokumbe. I know eventually I’ll be a fan of the orchestra.”