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Musician Hannibal Lokumbe thinks of Hurricane Katrina and people in prison

By Jarvis DeBerry

The 1964 recording by folk singer Len Chandler, "I'm Goin' To Get My Baby Outa Jail," neatly summarizes what honorary New Orleanian Hannibal Lokumbe is doing with his music. Granted, the incarcerated men the composer has worked with at Orleans Parish Prison and correctional facilities in Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn., wouldn't meet most people's definition of babies. But they are, for the most part, younger than the 64-year-old Lokumbe, and he is determined to help them get free.

The "baby" in Chandler's song has done nothing wrong. She's been arrested and convicted for refusing to obey a segregationist law. There may be some innocents among the men Lokumbe works with, but it's doubtful there are many. No matter. He wants them all free, and he thinks his Music Liberation Orchestra will help them reform their minds, reform their hearts, move them toward self-enlightenment and away from the selfishness and short-sightedness that led to their confinement.

There's a lot of journaling, an emphasis on genealogy and "a crash course in music composition. I'm teaching them theory, too," he said during a recent lunch at Lil Dizzy's Cafe in New Orleans.

"Jonah people, I call 'em," Lokumbe said, referring to the prophet whose refusal to follow God's orders resulted in his being swallowed whole by a whale.

The fact that his students are confined in man-made facilities doesn't matter to Lokumbe. "A beast just the same," he says.

In May 2003, Lokumbe and I drove to Philadelphia, Miss., where in 1964 civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were ambushed, killed and disappeared. Lokumbe was in the process of writing "Trilogy," which was performed at the Contemporary Arts Center in 2004. During our trip he sat at the feet of 87-year-old Mabel Steele whose church, Mount Zion Methodist, was burned by the Ku Klux Klan to lure Schwerner back to the town.

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