Happy Pride Month! Meet Composer Ahmed Al Abaca

Join us this June as we honor the rich diversity in classical music with a profile on contemporary composer Ahmed Al Abaca. You may remember them being featured on last year’s Queer Composers to Know Pt. 3, where we discussed their work The Crown Suite. Ahmed Al Abaca is a nonbinary Black composer, whose works have been performed by the Arlington Philharmonic, the Florida Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and more, and have composed for numerous films and TV series, including Emmy Award-Winning Series Giants. Currently, they serve as the music director of the South Loop Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. Read more about Ahmed Al Abaca’s story about growing up in the inner city, uplifting community, and healing from tragedies through music. Happy pride!

Ahmed Al Abaca was raised in San Bernardino, California. Since the age of 6, they have found comfort in all different kinds of music, from playing piano in jazz bands, playing clarinet in orchestras, to co-starting a string orchestra during their college years. “I would sit for hours in Guitar Center,” Al Abaca recounted, “just playing every instrument-discovering new sounds, learning new chords, imagining my future life making music with other music nerds.”

Al Abaca might be considered a “late bloomer” in their musical career compared to many of their peers. Raised by their grandmother, Al Abaca is the youngest in a big family. During most of their childhood, they sat on the piano bench and played tunes by ear. They were only able to take piano lessons for around 3 months before their family car broke down and lost the only mode of transportation to the piano teacher. Throughout high school, Al Abaca couldn’t read music that well. Still, their talents emerged through their natural ability to solo in jazz band performances, imitating what they heard from Duke Ellington, Little Richard, Elton John, and Motown — every record they could get their hands on. Bach Invention #8 was the first piece of classical music that Al Abaca performed. They discovered their love for classical composition because of it, and worked hard during their freshman year to pursue a degree in composition. 

Al Abaca is not a musician who always depicts the world in major keys or through rose-tinted glasses. Instead, many of their compositions center around tragedies and challenges and transform that despair into hope. In 2015, Al Abaca composed Across the Calm Waters of Heaven — A Piece for Peace in response to a mass shooting that occurred in their hometown. An emotional journey across anxiety, grief, love, and loss, the piece flows towards a calmness that captures the reassurance that the loved ones of these victims will always have guardian angels looking over them. Albaca’s resolve comes through the grand instrumentals, that show the power of love cannot be extinguished even through violence and injustice, and it will continue to bring peace and healing to the world around us. 

Photo by Kira Lynn

In 2022, Al Abaca composed Ode to Liberty as a response to the invasion of Ukraine. A project commissioned by the Florida Orchestra to be performed alongside works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, Al Abaca wanted to incorporate Eastern European influences into their piece, while also keeping in mind their Black heritage. When they read Alexander Pushkin’s poem of the same title, Al Abaca saw in it a connection to their own identity — Pushkin was of distant African ancestry, who had to disguise his heritage and live as a white man in Russia. In an interview about Ode to Liberty, Al Abaca points out the relevance of free speech and social justice: “Pushkin was trying to remind the Tsar of his place and how he got there, while at the same time educate and empower the People. We’re seeing [repression of free speech] today with the banning of books, drag shows, and truer history lessons.[…]When we’re in desperate times we surround ourselves with family and community, scared, and so we pray, as a war is waged outside our homes.”

My idea of “a new renaissance” has changed over the years from wanting to record and archive new works by Black and Brown composers — and cataloguing them in a specific place like a library either at an HBCU or a library in a predominantly Black city — to engaging with and encouraging Black and Brown composers/creatives to take up space and be their authentic self, so that there is a surge and an abundance of art, music, dance, film, and expression being created and pushed into the world. In doing so, we can define a generation of creatives, a new renaissance.

As a part of the Composer Diversity Collective — a group of Black and Brown composers in the LA area — Al Abaca greatly values the community that they are a part of. They have found family in the industry and a space where they can express their voice. In their vision for the future, Al Abaca sees a new renaissance for underrepresented composers, focusing on creating opportunities for marginalized people and creating opportunities for them to perform, record, and archive their work, and centering community building in their practice. “I make a point to shine a light on specific topics that I feel strongly about. Being a product of a music program for innercity children, I know that through music and the arts, anything is possible. As I grow as an artist, I wish to continue that line of inspiring those who are living in dark places.”

Learn more about LGBTQ+ composers in our past profiles Queer Composers to Know: Part 2 and Part 1. You can listen to our Celebrating LGBTQ+ Voices playlist on Spotify.

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