In the early 1970s, as many jazz musicians looked directly to Africa for rhythms and inspiration, a group of students from Antioch College pushed even further, creating music that was so overtly African, you would have thought it was coming direct from Kenya or Senegal, not a small liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Between 1973 and 1976, the Pyramids released their music independently and sold albums hand-to-hand to classmates and during their travels on the road. Though the group earned a smattering of fans, its music — “avant-garde African jazz,” its bassist Kimathi Asante called it in an interview — was impossible to market.
“It was a little bit too much for people,” said Margaux Simmons, who played flute in the group. “We were so eager and open and we went there.”
The group’s members started to come together after its future leader, Idris Ackamoor, returned to Antioch following a work-study period in Los Angeles, where he was mentored by the saxophonist Charles Tyler. Ackamoor founded a band with Simmons called the Collective, which Asante later joined. For the next year, they played original compositions influenced by Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, mid-60s-era John Coltrane and classical music.
In the fall of 1971, the three students joined the Black Music Ensemble, a group started by the free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor, who came to teach at Antioch in the late 1960s, and began an intense period of musical training. “He would have us practice from 10 o’clock at night until 2 in the morning, seven days a week, for months on end,” Asante said. “We had chops that were just off the charts.”
Nine months into their tenure with Taylor, Ackamoor had an idea: Antioch had a work-study program that allowed students to travel overseas, so he wrote a proposal to study the source of Black art. “I said, ‘I want to go to Europe, I want to form a band, and then I want to go to Africa for nine months and just study African music,’” Ackamoor recalled in a video interview.
The school approved the request, requiring six weeks at a university in France. Ackamoor and Simmons flew to Paris in July 1972, where they befriended a young percussionist named Donald Robinson, who was studying there under the drummer Sunny Murray. At a university in Besançon, Ackamoor, Simmons and Asante played their first show as a trio, then played gigs around Amsterdam after Robinson officially joined the group. In France, they had lived in separate dorms that formed a triangle, giving the group its name. (An unrelated band called the Pyramids produced surf rock in the 1960s.)
But the most pivotal part of the band’s journey was yet to come. After a week in Morocco and Senegal, the Pyramids spent seven months in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, engaging in spiritual practices, playing in drumming circles and buying instruments. As Black Americans, an almost indescribable feeling set in once they landed there.
“It was the sense of community,” Simmons said. “It came from a place of spirituality, rather than something just to make music.”
Ackamoor said when the group was in Africa, “We just wanted to be vessels,” adding, “We wanted to take in as much as we could, and fortunately, we were blessed and we were directed to the right sources.”
The Pyramids returned to Ohio “transformed,” Asante said. “We were not the people or the musicians that had left Yellow Springs a year before.” The group bolstered its sound with Moroccan clay drums, a bamboo flute and Ugandan harp, giving its music a distinct African flair.
Back in Ohio, the conga player Bradie Speller joined the Pyramids, adding even more percussive depth. The band played shows on campus and even opened for the jazz fusion band Weather Report in Dayton and Cincinnati. The Pyramids emphasized theater and costumes as a part of their live shows, eschewing street clothes for colorful face paint, ornate kente cloth and interpretive dance. “We had a pageant going on,” Ackamoor said, “a ritual pageant that was a visual feast, not only for the music, but for the eyes and the movement and the dance. We were a multimedia spectacle.”
There was a consciousness-raising element to the group’s music, akin to experimental jazz luminaries including the Sun Ra Arkestra and Art Ensemble of Chicago. But Ackamoor said concerns about “humankind” were top of mind. “Although we were Afrocentric, we never defined ourselves as being Afrocentric,” he said. “We, at a very early point, were talking and speaking to all languages, all colors, all races, but we were African American doing it.”
The Pyramids recorded their 1973 debut, “Lalibela” — inspired by Ackamoor and Simmons’s trip to the city in Ethiopia of the same name — in a friend’s Yellow Springs living room on a four-track tape. “A lot of it was on the first take,” Asante said. “It was a very pure album.” Its 1974 follow-up, “King of Kings,” was made during a marathon all-night session at a studio in Chillicothe, Ohio. Both albums contain long percussive suites, with searing saxophone wails and upper-register flute solos that work best when played front to back without interruption. The results were daring then and now.
“We were more concerned with the progression of the music and creating a sound that was our own,” Speller said in a phone interview.
By the time the Pyramids recorded their third album, “Birth/Speed/Merging,” in 1976, they had moved to the Bay Area to be closer to some sort of music industry. Ackamoor’s brother, who lived in San Francisco, helped fund the LP and put the band in a studio with better facilities and multitracking equipment. The Pyramids printed 5,000 copies of the LP, but they couldn’t find a record company to distribute it. Then the group began to splinter, and members relocated around the world.
The Pyramids were trying to make a living as an avant-garde band when even the most popular jazz musicians struggled to find their footing in a marketplace dominated by funk. “It got deep,” Ackamoor said. “Those early days I had to pawn my instrument, do different things to survive. We were in the serious red, and once we were out of the college environment, we ran smack up to the reality of Black creative musicians trying to survive in America.” The Pyramids opened the Berkeley Jazz Festival in 1977, then broke up.
The band was defunct until 2007, when Ackamoor organized a reunion concert after fielding requests to reissue the Pyramids’ 1970s music. By then, the music had reached a new generation of listeners, and the group’s albums were selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Three years later, a German agency organized a European tour for the band.
In the years since, Ackamoor has resurrected the group in different forms, releasing the albums “We Be All Africans” in 2016, “An Angel Fell” in 2018 and “Shaman!” under the name Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids in 2020. But you don’t get those albums without the foundation laid by the original Pyramids in the ’70s, and the courage it took to trek into the unknown.
“We were the original Do It Yourself musicians, producers, label, the whole nine yards,” Speller said. “Everything cats are doing now, we did 50 years ago.”
Ackamoor isn’t done with the Pyramids yet — a new album is in the works — but he said the boxed set captures a bold moment. “It is an amazing historical document, but it’s also a living document,” he said. “The past is a wonderful thing, but I’m in the future and the band is in the future.”