Just to be clear, this is not a review of a gig by 60s surf group The Pyramids, of Long Beach, California, who appeared in the film Bikini Beach; nor are they contemporary indie-rock band The Pyramids from North Carolina, much less the ‘heavy ambient’ Pyramids from Denton, Texas. The Pyramids I saw at Café Oto are the apparently un-Googlable Pyramids from 70s Ohio, purveyors (say Oto) of “Deeply spiritual Afro psychedelic music”.
Although they had opportunities to play with the likes of Sonny Sharrock and Cecil Taylor in their hometown of Antioch, in 1972 Idris Ackamoor (alto sax and percussion), Kimathi Asante (electric bass), and Margo Simmons (flute, no longer with the band) left fellow original Pyramid Bradie Speller (congas and percussion) back in Ohio, and sailed for Amsterdam and Paris. From there they made individual voyages of discovery to Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia before returning home. There they realized, on three albums recorded between 1973 and 1976, their signature mélange of African percussion and free jazz. Kenneth Nash, the band’s current drummer and vocalist, joined for the last of those records, only for the band to split in 1977.
Ackamoor subsequently formed the San Francisco performance company Cultural Odyssey, and he talks with pride of cultural work undertaken in South African prisons. But now the Pyramids are back in action, with an impressively experienced new boy Kash Killion—who has work credits from Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Ali Akbar Khan, and Sultan Khan, among others—on double bass.
But enough of the back story: In Dalston the band emerge from the back of the performance space robed in ad-hoc splendor (Ackamoor in leopard-print dressing gown over gold lame), and process blowing whistles and conch shells through the audience to the cramped performance area, which is crammed with an array of congas, bases double and electric, kit drums, a saxophone and sundry percussion instruments arranged around a carved wooden chair with a jumble of thumb pianos at its feet.
This is all rather splendid. Everyone in here knows the back story but few, I guess, would actually have heard the Pyramids’ music. I hadn’t. But we can all imagine how potent a mix of African and Afro-American influences might be. With this procession routine, The Pyramids are lifting a trick from the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Anyone who has seen either the present-day Arkestra or Jerry Dammers’ tribute to it, the Spatial A.K.A Orchestra knows the drill, and associates it with the promise of good vibes.
And the Pyramids deliver royally on the good vibes score. Nash and the disarmingly maniacal Speller, in particular, are constantly joshing on the back row, like overgrown kids. This music is all about the rhythm, so Nash’s regularity and adaptability and Killion’s elastic timekeeping are essential. (In musical terms, the relatively self-effacing Killion is this band’s secret weapon.) Nash also handles the majority of the songs—chanted lyrics based on the usual platitudes of universal harmony—in a tremulous, almost feminine voice laced with querulous feeling. While Asante’s electric bass adds body and a touch of soul, Speller’s congas and drum machine (which seemed to have a theremin option, so it might have been a chaos pad) were deployed more disruptively; the electronics bringing the ancient-to-the-future mix of idiophones + sax + elec. bass right up to date.
Ackamoor hasn’t lost his taste for theatrics, stripping off his feathered hat and leopard-print robe after an opening couple of numbers to reveal matching gold lame shirt, trews, and back-to-front baseball cap. When not rummaging around on the floor to unearth a new percussion toy or whistle, Ackamoor picked up his sax to solo in a style not far removed from that of the great Pharaoh Sanders, albeit in a narrower range. His true versatility only emerged, however, when he changed shoes just before the end of the first of the night’s two long sets, and engaged Killion in a bass/tap duet; as his colleagues pointed out: “now, that’s old school”. Still tapping away, Ackamoor led his colleagues in a reverse processional, back through the audience to the dressing room.
To be honest, enjoyable as all this was (and I’m certainly glad I went), the Pyramids’ Afro-Psychedelia was a tad too rigid, repetitive and uninspired to sustain the evening. As a jazz outfit, musically they fall some way short of the (stratospheric) benchmark-setting standards of the Art Ensemble or the Arkestra in their pomp. But it seems churlish to say so, when such good times were had.