Since starting his undergraduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music, trombonist Abdulrahman Amer has found himself in the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, and Arturo O’Farrill’s Grammy-winning ensemble, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Amer is about to finish his degree at MSM, and will simultaneously re-enroll as a masters student for the next two years. Alongside it all, Amer has performed twice at The Jazz Gallery as a bandleader.
For this upcoming show, Amer will be performing at the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning for a series featuring projects by emerging jazz musicians. His band, Ba Akhu represents an effort to heal and change the world through the power of sound and emotion. Playing Amer’s original music, the band consists of pianist Chris Fishman, bassist Hwansu Kang, and drummer Savannah Harris. As we discussed via phone, Amer was particularly eager to use this upcoming Ba Akhu performance to spread love, empathy, and personal connection.
The Jazz Gallery: Tell me a little about the band you’re bringing to this upcoming gig at the Jamaica Center.
Abdulrahman Amer: It will be my band, Ba Akhu, which consists of pianist Chris Fishman, bassist Hwansu Kang, and drummer Savannah Harris. This time around, we’ll have a guest artist, a brother of mine named Nicola Caminiti, an amazing alto player. The band started last year, during my junior year at Manhattan School. We’ve almost been playing for two years now. When I met each of these people, I thought, “Yeah, these are the people that I want to play my music.”
TJG: What is it about them that made you envision a band?
AA: Each person stands out in terms of their individuality. They have paved their own roads, you know? They’re true to themselves, which creates a selfless environment: There’s freedom in being yourself with other people. That resonates with me, my band, and the name of the band, in terms of what Ba Akhu means to me, what I want to give people through the music, and what I want to continue exploring myself.
TJG: What does Ba Akhu mean to you?
AA: It’s a combination of ancient Egyptian words—I’m Egyptian, it’s part of my heritage, and I’ve been exploring my ancient people. Ba is the term that refers to our physical container, and Akhu is about existing beyond any container, everything touching everything, no divisions. One beautiful thing about these people, and why they resonate with me and my vision, is that I hope for people to find the freedom to leave their container by staying true to themselves. To destroy any concept of division through acceptance, empathy, understanding, loving people who hate. We’re trying to combat the toxins that have developed over so many years of pain and harshness. We need people who are in tune with themselves in order to bring that kind of humility and honesty to the bandstand. That’s something I want people to come to terms with: Embracing vulnerability and accepting humility is part of the process of growth, the process of finding your most true and beautiful self.
TJG: Are you able to put that process into your compositions? Is it more about how you interpret the music as a band? Is it about your stage presence? How does that look?
AA: I try to keep it universal, and I try to make that process the overall theme of my life. I wish not only to preach it, but to spend my days practicing it. When I put the horn on my face, it’s something I encounter. When I compose, it’s a conscious part of me that enters my writing. When I’m around other people, they’re capable of being vessels for it. It applies to everything. It’s a part of my existence.
TJG: Is this something you talk to your bandmates about? I would guess you’re such good friends already that much of this doesn’t need to be said.
AA: In a rehearsal setting, when we’re getting down to business, I’ll explain a composition, how it’s relevant to me, and how I want it to manifest for other people. When I’m communicating on a personal basis, friend to friend, I try my best not to say what I’m about, because the only thing that truly matters is my actions. That’s true for everybody. I could say “I’m a positive man, I want to make a difference, I want this and that.” But saying it doesn’t mean anything. People who are close to me and love me, I would hope they feel that from me, because I put so much of my time, energy, and focus into it.
TJG: You brought this band to The Jazz Gallery before, right?
AA: I was fortunate to debut the band there. Playing at The Jazz Gallery is one of the greatest opportunities as a performer and student, because when you’re up on stage, the atmosphere is a learning environment. I was also part of the Future Fest that happened last September, where they brought a bunch of younger bands and did a mini festival within The Jazz Gallery. That was my second time bringing Ba Akhu to the Gallery stage.
TJG: What were those performances like for you? Anything you’re still processing?
AA: [Laughs] One of the biggest things for me is learning how to communicate with an audience. Right now, I’m a sideman in a great band, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. We tour a good amount, and I hear Arturo speak a lot. The way he communicates with people brings me back to my time where I was given the platform to speak at the Gallery. With supporters, friends, and new faces there, I began to think “Okay, how do I truly communicate with the audience in the most affectionate, loving, tender, engaging way?” You have to think about that when you’re given that platform. Some of my favorite artists will go on stage and not say a word until the very end of a concert. That’s their decision, and everyone finds their own way to present themselves, to make their statement. It’s a matter of communication.
What is my true responsibility in that space, you know what I mean? That answer could be simple: Deliver great music. But I wonder about my ego, when it comes to sharing my compositions and the music I think is good for the world. How can I present myself on stage so that I’m not imposing my will, but so that I’m trying to open doors for curiosity without forcing people through those doors? How can I open a discussion, encourage new thoughts, change my own perspective? That kind of communication only comes from experience, and the two times I brought the band to the Gallery, that was probably the biggest thing on my mind. Every little thing we say, man, it has such impact. Our words and presence create a kind of atmosphere that can completely determine the flow of our lives. It can impact the conversations we have ten minutes, an hour, a year, twenty years from now. You know?
TJG: I hear you loud and clear. Jumping off that, what are your thoughts approaching the upcoming gig at The Jamaica Center?
AA: I wrote some new music. My goal, first and foremost, along with thinking about how I communicate with people, is to make sure I’m my best self. I have no right to stand in front of people if I’m not presenting my best self. A lot of it is taking time to write music, making sacrifices for my art. People deserve to see an artist who has submitted to the art in order to give it to them. I hope to provide the best experience I can based on what I have given up.
The new music is inspired by recent incidents in New Zealand. I created a little piece, a prayer for the people who were lost. I’m Islamic by faith, and no matter what side of the gun violence fence you’re on, it’s important to ask yourself, “Is this what we need? What idea is this built on? Why is this here?” People don’t think about a lot of those questions because they submit to fear.
TJG: Was there a specific moment or feeling that moved you to write?
AA: One thing that really touched my heart was that even though the shooter came in, equipped to do such harm, people were still referring to that man as a brother, you know? His ego was huge, he came to scare, but some people were so strong that the fear didn’t overpower them. That tells me a lot about human compassion and empathy, and was enough to inspire me to share my thoughts on fear. Guns exist because of fear: If someone needs to take advantage of someone else, they pull out a gun. In order for that person to feel protected, they need a bigger and stronger gun. Now, the other person is scared, so they get three people with guns, the guns get bigger, it’s an endless cycle. Today, I hope we can be inspired to move forward without being limited by fear.
In addition to my compositions and my music, I’m very excited to have another performance with the band. We play together all the time, but Savannah tours with Kenny Baron from time to time, Hwansu plays nonstop with all the baddest cats, Chris Fishman bounces between Los Angeles and New York because his workload is so high. Having a moment to get this band together, share what we’ve been working on as individuals, and apply that to my music, contained in one special moment, I’m so excited to give that to people. I believe that’s something beautiful.
Abdulrahman Amer and Ba Akhu play The Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning on Thursday, April 11, 2019. The group features Mr. Amer on trombone, Chris Fishman on piano, Hwansu Kang on bass, and Savannah Harris on drums. One set at 8 P.M. $10 general admission. Purchase tickets here.