Alto saxophonist Ackamoor had originally left his home town of Chicago to study music at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where his teachers numbered legendary pianist Cecil Taylor. Ackamoor founded his first group there: “My first major concert performance was on August 29th, 1971 with the improvisational jazz ensemble, The Collective,” he explains. “I founded the group in collaboration with a professor in the music department named Lester Knibbs. We both had a strong interest in African American improvisational music.” His new partner, flautist Margo Simmons, became a member of the band and later, in another incarnation of The Collective, electric bass player Kimathi Asante joined rehearsals and concerts. Ackamoor continues, “Myself, Margo and Kimathi would later become the nucleus of The Pyramids.”
Via the Antioch Abroad Program, Ackamoor landed a year’s study overseas in 1972/73, which allowed him, Margo and Kimathi to travel to Europe and Africa with their music. He explains, “During our stay in France we formed The Pyramids. The group’s first shows in Amsterdam were performed as a trio before young drummer Donald Robinson joined us several weeks later. It was a dream come true for us. We were making money from our concerts and were living and loving it in Amsterdam. The Pyramids was now a family band living together on the road.”
The trio, minus Donald, continued to Africa in December 1972, passing through Tangier, Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco, and Dakar in Senegal before settling in Accra, Ghana. Ackamoor continues, “Margo, Kimathi and I became immersed in the color, fascination, and incredible musical life and culture of Ghana. Music was everywhere and I had never been so moved and inspired.” The trip took in a musical spiritual journey up into Northern Ghana, the land of the Fra Fra of Bolgatanga and the Islam-influenced Dagomba in Tamale, where Ackamoor taped some field recordings. “We played with the King’s musicians in Tamale. I also undertook a healing ceremony in the bush of Bolgatanga with a Fra Fra traditional healer (a Juju Man).”
To complete their African odyssey, The Pyramids travelled to Kenya to the town of Kiambu, outside Nairobi. Ackamoor explains: “A young Kenyan businessman allowed us to stay with him on his coffee estate. He would bring Masai and Kikuyu tribesmen to his estate to perform for tourists. It was a marvel to listen to fifty percussion-clad Kikuyu dancers as they marched in formation creating a sound like rolling thunder! Margo and myself then left Kenya for Ethiopia where we explored the rock churches of Lalibela which were the source of inspiration for the debut Pyramids album in 1973, ‘Lalibela’.”
Back in Yellow Springs, they brought together all of the knowledge from their journey. Idris and Margo married and The Pyramids recorded their second album, ‘King Of Kings’ in Chillicothe, Ohio, exploring African folklore and instrumentation and adding guest artists Jerome Saunders on piano and Chris Chaff on cello. “It was a spiritual session,” remembers Ackamoor. “ ‘Queen of the Spirits Part 3’ from the album is one of my favorite Pyramids compositions of all with Kimathi playing the Ugandan Harp and Margo’s amazing flute work.”
After graduating, Idris and Margo headed to Oakland, California and quickly met other musicians in the thriving San Francisco Bay Area music scene. “We met a talented acoustic bass player named Heshima Mark Williams,” Says Ackamoor. “Heshima joined the band along with new conga player, Mcheza Ngoma. Within a year, Kimathi returned from his travels and rejoined the band.” After several other personnel changes, the group recorded their third album, ‘Birth / Speed / Merging’, their most ambitious to date, produced by Ernest W. Baker.
The Pyramids played their last concert at the 1977 UC Berkeley Jazz Festival alongside Al Jarreau. Due to different paths and the dissolution of Ackamoor’s marriage with Margo, it was time to move on. Ackamoor turned to traditional jazz whilst continuing to compose original music and lead new groups. In 1979, he formed a new non-profit organization, Cultural Odyssey, which is still going strong 37 years later. “Although today it is predominantly a theater and musical theater organization,” explains Ackamoor, “I still utilize the organization to produce and present my music. I formed the Idris Ackamoor Ensemble during the early ‘90s and this continues to be a part of my compositional and musical performance life”.
Out of the blue, The Pyramids announced their return in 2012. “Around 2006 there was an increased interest in the 1970s music the band recorded with many requests from record labels to re-issue the early albums,” Ackamoor explains. “The Pyramids’ three LPs were showing up on eBay for high prices.” Chicago label Ikef reissued the three 1970s albums on vinyl. At the same time ‘EM’ Records in Japan released ‘The Music of Idris Ackamoor 1971-2004’. The Berlin agent, Planet Rock, began organising European dates for the band and The Pyramids were fully back in business.
The momentum has continued for the group. Ackamoor landed a Lifetime Achievement Award from Gilles Peterson at his Worldwide Awards in London and German label Disko B released a box set of the band’s archive recordings alongside the first new studio album by the band in over 35 years, ‘Otherworldly’.