Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids took the stage at San Francisco’s Mezzanine last Saturday dressed in all manner of sequins and robes, celestial African crowns, and jangling chunky necklaces. Underneath these adornments lived another layer of clothing, mundane and deeply adult: generic black sneakers, dad jeans, and wrap-around sunglasses. It was as if they had spent the day toiling at desk jobs before leaving at five, grabbing a burrito and a Diet Coke, and pulling wrinkled robes and a saxophone from a box in the trunk of their car. We are used to artists appearing as departures from our daily lives. Ackamoor & Co. came across as versions of our daily lives briefly and hastily disguised as something else.
The spirit was there, but it’s not clear if the audience was. Ackamoor was enthusiastic and committed in his stage presence, reflecting the integrity of an old-school showman, but when he greeted us with “Hello, San Francisco! We love you!” it felt oddly like he was talking to strangers in a city he didn’t know, rather than the town he and his band have called home since relocating here in the early 1970s. It’s not difficult to understand why. Ackamoor and The Pyramids are from a version of the city that has long since been subsumed into an edgeless, monied, and aggressively gentrified tech culture. They represent a San Francisco that has historically been home to experimental movements, new religions, bold mixtures of mysticism and jazz, '70s soul jams that doubled as spiritual quests. I wondered what he thought of us today, a group of kids unfamiliar with his work, raised on laptops and 808s, most of whom were not born when he and his crew were launching their analog saga toward the liberation of the spirit.
Ackamoor’s Pyramids met at a small liberal arts college in Ohio in 1971, studied under free piano bad man Cecil Taylor, traveled to Europe on a scholarship, and there formed themselves into an Afro-futurist free-jazz experience heavy on chants and bells, whistles, gongs, and incantations. The quintet returned to the States a year later newly inspired by their vision, and settled in San Francisco, at the time a city with a vivid and unparalleled music scene.
They cut three albums — 1973's Lalibela, 1974's King of Kings, and 1976's Birth, Speed, Merging — all released on the now-defunct Ohio label Pyramid Records, but rereleased in the U.S. on Ikef in 2009. The recordings featured the large ensemble style of Sun Ra, but cut with a harder, more groove-driven edge. Yet the group never seemed to work its way into the long-lasting relevance of their Afro-futurist contemporaries; maybe musical transcendence is harder than it looks? They disbanded in 1977, relegating their works into the precise kind of historical dustbin that would make a perfect find for a young kid flipping through used LPs at the local record shop. If Alice Coltrane is for your chiropractor’s office, and Sun Ra is for your dorm, then The Pyramids are for the back room of a hidden meeting of the Masons in a nondescript building down by the Greyhound station. In a genre kept alive by people who thrive on knowing the unknown, The Pyramids are deeply unknowable.
In 2007, they reconnected and launched a European tour, leading to rediscovery by a new generation of kids, including some presumably searching for the most interesting and authentic experience of global blackness. This led The Pyramids into the waiting arms of Strut Records, the U.K. label that is due to release We Be All Africans, their latest effort, later this month.
The recordings, accomplished in a lo-fi analog studio in Berlin, capture the warm vinyl sound we are used to hearing when discovering obscure 1970s gems. The Pyramids lean as heavily on chunky grooves dirtied up by African percussion jangling in the background as on retro Afro-futurist jazz tropes like chants and sections of wild, free noise. The title track, “We Be All Africans,” is a straightforward groove, with a lithe snare stutter that gives wings to the whole affair. Comparisons have been made to James Brown, but The Pyramids don’t traffic in the ostentatious displays of death-by-tightness that characterize the JB’s. They are looser, weirder, slightly more awkward of timing. More fueled by music than by musicianship.
While this works to great effect on the recordings, where they are powerful and free, the live show suffers a bit from this same quality. Progenitors like the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Sun Ra, and Pharoah Sanders played aggressive, explosive music. This necessitated both chops and courage. The Pyramids are heavier on the latter than the former.
Early in their set at the Mezzanine, Idris Ackamoor, a consummate professional, implored the crowd to dance. No one moved. To be fair, many who were there had come to see neuroscientist turned beat meditator Floating Points, who was the headlining act. They greeted The Pyramids' opening set with the bemused enthusiasm they might give an eccentric street musician. There were a few among the group who were for sure there to see them, but sharing a bill with someone who makes beats in part by machine undoubtedly put the organic and freewheeling Pyramids at a distinct disadvantage in a room full of twentysomethings.
Earlier that day, music critic Stereo Williams posed a question on Twitter that I found myself thinking about during The Pyramids' set. Why is it, he asked, that hip-hop is the only genre of music where we don’t discover acts years after they flew under the radar? Shuggie Otis, Big Star, Death, and countless others experienced vague notoriety (at most) in their time, only to be exhumed to great fanfare on boutique label rereleases long after their heyday. Even if we were to find that some act from 1987 had accidentally made an entire catalogue of dope trap beats, would it receive any legitimate play? Maybe we need music to be forever new because we are too terrified of anything old.
That was the thing that was most striking about seeing Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids playing a midsize venue in San Francisco in 2016: the tremendous age difference between performer and audience, and the way it translated to a deep, seemingly insurmountable culture gap. The Pyramids make a kind of music that requires you to come along, to imagine. When they open with atmospheric sounds, rain sticks, and distant horns, you need to forget that you are in a room in the city. You need to forget who you are and who they are. They expect the music itself to be the most important thing in the room. They ask you to see the crown and not the shoes.
But in 2016, we are too savvy, too cynical. We have been lied to by everyone about everything. We look for reasons not to be dragged along. We protect ourselves from being fooled. We either need a show that is so visually encompassing that there is no room for us to remember ourselves, or we need to look onstage and see someone we believe is ourselves. And even though the title of Idris Ackamoor’s whole movement right now is “We Be All Africans,” looking at the crowd, I don’t think anyone is willing for that to be true.