Idris Ackamoor makes `Music’ for Afro Solo

Idris Ackamoor debuts a fragment of his work-in-progress, Music for One Hand Clapping, as part of Afro Solo’s Black Voices series at The Marsh. Photo by Pat Mazzera


Not to be too dramatic about it, but Idris Ackamoor had a life-changing experience when he nearly cut off his left hand.

He was 21 and studying at Antioch College making a percussion instrument – he was a music major studying composition and also made instruments – and the accident left him unable to move parts of his left hand – he severed left index finger and the middle finger was unmovable. Not a good situation for a blazing-hot saxophone player.

That was 30-some years ago, and Ackamoor has moved on and found ways to play the sax and become an innovative composer and theater artist.

His long-ago accident has inspired a new one-man show, Music for One Hand Clapping, a part of which will be part of the Afro Solo
Black Voices series today (Aug. 21) through Sunday, Aug. 24 at The Marsh.

“Thinking about my accident was the genesis of wanting to talk about issues relating to how people overcome life-threatening, life-changing disabilities,” Ackamoor says. “I zeroed in on certain artists – Peg Leg Bates, a famous tap dancer of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s; Django Reinhardt, the Gypsy guitar player whose hand was terribly burned in a fire; and the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had a serious attack of something like carpal tunnel that attacked the nerves in his hand and for years left him basically incapacitated. But he found a large repertoire of music for one-handed piano players. He eventually was able to get his facility back, but it took quite a while.”

Ackamoor, a founder and co-executive director of Cultural Odyssey with Rhodessa Jones, who is directing Music for One Hand Clapping, received a Cultural Arts grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to develop the piece, which will be largely autobiographical.

“It’s my coming-of-age story,” he says. “Growing up all I ever wanted to do was play and study music, and a lot of my own story is told through the people I find inspirational. They persevered and triumphed in spite of a life-changing event. I’ll also play the saxophone because that is the story in many ways. There was a period after the accident I wasn’t sure I’d be a musician or that I’d ever actually be able to play the sax.”

Ackamoor will share about 20 minutes of the work-in-progress with Afro Solo audiences, who will also see work by Angela Dean-Baham (Unsung Diva: The Life and Times of Sissieretta Jones, aka Black Patti, also directed by Rhodessa Jones) and Laura Elaine Ellis (i that is we, a collaboration with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Ajayi Lumumba and Kimara Dixon inspired by Nina Simone’s “Four Women”).

The complete Music for One Hand Clapping will have its debut, or so its creator thinks, in February of 2009. It’s hard to know exactly because he’s deep into a Cultural Odyssey project with Jones called The Love Project, which also involves the writer Pearl Cleage.

“We’re getting ready to take that on national tour,” Ackamoor says. “It’s basically about my relationship with Rhodessa over all these years. We’ve been through all the ups and downs, the fights, the separations. We once were a couple and are no longer a romantic couple, but our working relationship has a lot to do with trust. I realize now, after all these years, there’s nobody I’d rather place my creative energies than with Rhodessa.”

Ackamoor says he and Jones will always be “family.”

“I listen to her because I know she has my best intentions completely at heart,” he says. “I think she’d say the same about me. We continue to work together and separately, and each is the other’s biggest fan. We support each other. It’s a question of trust.”

Afro Solo’s Black Voices Series is at 8 p.m. tonight (Aug. 21) through Saturday (Aug. 23) and 3 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 24) at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Call 415-771-2376 or visit

Here’s the amazing Peg Leg Bates on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”