We had the good fortune of connecting with Ahmed Al Abaca and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ahmed, how do you think about risk?
My whole life has been based around risk. Ive very comfortable with risk because Im comfortable with, either good or bad, the outcome. Thats an important thing about risk taking, are you able to handle or hold yourself accountable with the outcome? If you’re comfortable and have a strong understanding of who YOU are, then taking risks doesnt seem all that difficult. It was a risk when I decided to drop out of college to move to NY. I was 21, I had never visited before, but something felt right about it. I had always wanted to live there, write music, go to shows, start me life. I had a little chunk of change (money) and full luggage, and a dream…I lasted about 3-4 months. Pretty much that summer, and I was back in California. I wasn’t swayed, I was determined to move back. I ultimately did the following year, and ended up living there for 8 years. It was a great move for my growth as a composer. I scored 3 plays and wrote an original musical. I played in my University’s symphony and the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra and countless other musical experiences. When I decided to move to Los Angeles, that was another risk I felt worth taking, and It indeed paid off in many ways. The audacity of choosing to become a composer, as a Black person, in itself, is risky business. In an industry dominated by whiteness and eurocentric contructs-my blackness is a direct challenge to those who uphold it. It was also a risk by not continuing on to graduate school. Several of my colleague’s careers have blossomed in many ways because they’ve attended grad school. I knew it would set me back a bit by not going. I accepted the fact that I would have to make my own opportunities-a risk worth taking. Ive created a level of control and pace that Im very comfortable with because of the risk’s I’ve taken.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m a Composer, Conductor, Songwriter, Pianist, Facilitator, and sometimes painter. Im not sure what sets me apart from other composers or artists in general. Ive tried to stay true to who I am and learn from my heroes and colleagues. Im not very competitive-I believe there’s enough room for everyone-but I understand that you have to have drive and patients to succeed in this crazy business. Its taken me a long time to get where I am today, but thats because Im a big believer in going at your own pace. Im not a hot, fiery kind of person, I’m a definitely the low and slow type. But that works for me. The launch point of my composingr career was when the Colour of Music Festival premiered my piece Across the Calm Waters of Heaven, a Piece for Peace-after that, I didn’t blow up, but I definitely started to gain recognition among my fellow composers and musicians. People like Sam Thompson really pushed for that piece to be performed as many times as possible. His insistence lead to the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, lead by Barbara Day Turner, giving it its west coast premiere the following year. And now Ive worked with Barbara 3 times! For a composer to have any success, they need recordings. Thats the only way you’ll hear their music. Networking helps, but your music must be able to back you up. With limited funds and access to orchestras, composers relay heavily on Midi mock-ups, and sometimes the mock-ups just don’t cut it. So if anyone is reading this, and have millions of dollars and want to support a local, living composer, fund a group musicians to play their music. But the bigger issue here is accessibility and funding for composers. I could go into more, but Id need an entire segment just on how composers, especially black composers, are underfunded and cut-out. One other thing Im proud of, my friend S-hehk-Shem Ebron asked me to compose the music for her first feature “Ishema”-she flew me to Rwanda to work with local musicians on writing a soundtrack for the film. that was my first time going o Africa! The film crew was mostly women, and from Rwanda. there was only a handful of us from the states. Im currently writing the score, and securing funding has become a barrier and a struggle. But it doesnt stop us from pushing forward! ✊🏾 Ive learned so much on this journey, which is crazy because its just beginning. Ive composed music from the age of 6, and here we are 30 years later and Im just as happy and enthusiastic about music as I was back then. Ive learned that your time is precious and to not let people steal your time. Ive learned to be assertive, well living in NY taught me that, but a lesson best learned early. Generosity can get you a long way-but you must be genuine when giving anything to anyone. If you’re a student, I rarely charge them for my music. If you’re a community orchestra with a small budget, I’ll work with you. Ive also, with friends, will leave it up them to pay what they think the piece is worth. This isn’t ideal for everyone. I have a strong understanding of who I am, and what I want out of this life, and frankly, I just want people to play my music and be happy while doing so. Many years ago, I told myself that i wanted to help/heal the world with my music…And the best way to do that is to make it accessible to as many people as possible. Money can be a barrier to many things, and I refuse to have it get in the way of my music and the people who want to play it. At the same time, if you have a multi-million dollar budget, I will gladly and honestly, charge you the correct amount. I want people to know that I love music, its what brought you (the shout out series) to me. Music connects us, heals us, forces us to confront all kinds of issues: social justice, pandemics, world hunger while also helping us cope with hard breakups. Imagine a spin class without music-I would die! Ive learned so much about myself just by being a musician, and music has introduced me to some of the most incredible people in the world-I cannot see myself without it.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
So, first we’d go get breakfast tacos at Home State! the Los Feliz location. Motown Modays at Sidecar then Akbar for drinks and more dancing people watching is fun, so ice cream while sitting in the LACMA park-hopefully its on a day with live music LA Phil of course!!! and if its summer, Hollywood Bowl. I love cooking, so one or two nights, bottles of wine and food cooked by myself. (then Akbar) lol I love that place Karaoke at Brass Monkey, wed go on a Wednesday, weekend crown is too much! Coffee in Atwater Village Tacos at El Flamin in Ktown ! More food, eat at the Bowery Bugalow!! great wines take em on a rooftop tour (hotels, friends apartment buildings etc) LA is beautiful, its nice to see it from all these vantage points Then get dolled up and go club hopping in Weho. Pepperd through all of that, we’d light of the fire pit and watch the sunset at dockweiller beach. OH the fish market in San Pedro! that place be hoping especially on Karaoke night. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
This is hard to answer because I owe so many people so much! Im just gonna make a list All my music teachers, non of us would be where we are without teachers! Denise Yolen, Friend, Actor, Writer. (Los Angeles) Felix Hernardez-Jones and Adrienne Andisheh, Friends, Violinists, Community Organizers (Los Angeles) S-hekh-shem Ebron, Friend and Film Maker (In Los Angeles) Jae Rose, friend and Photographer & film maker (in London) Jax Puwalski and Jesse Lin, friends, film makers, artistic directors (Los Angeles) Anthony Parnther, Musician, Conductor of San Bernardino Symphony (Los Angeles) Stephanie Matthews, Friend, Violinist, Owner of StringCandy (Los Angeles) Lee Pringle, Colour of Music Festival Director (South Carolina) Lily Raabe, Friend and devised theatre extroadinaire! (Seattle) Samuel Thompson, friend, Violinist Director of Bridges Program (Maryland) Kevin Scott, Mentor, Composer. (New York) Brandon Estrella, Friend and Film Maker (Los Angeles) Barbara Day Turner, Friend and MD of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra (San Jose) Cosme, Friend and Bandmate (The Humble Boys) (Puerto Rico) (Los Angeles) Kearstin Piper Brown, Friend and Soprano (gateways music festival) Rochester, NY some podcast yall should know about- Trilloquy hosted by Garrett McQueen (St. Paul MN) and Classically Black Podcast hosted by Katie and Dalanie. Mad Swede Brewing (Boise) This list could go on forever, so many people have made sacrifices so that I could be where I am today. Everyone on this list would be a great candidate for The Shout Out series.