Generations of Los Angeles musicians have had a global impact on popular music, from rock to punk, pop to jazz, and hip hop to Latin.

One of them is the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra — also known as P.A.P.A. or the Ark — the legendary Black music collective that was formed in 1961 and is still thriving today. Horace Tapscott, the Ark’s founder, died in 1999, but UCLA Library has, for decades, helped preserve manuscripts, arrangements and recordings from his personal archive.

The collection, which was donated to UCLA Library in 2003 by Tapscott’s wife, Cecilia Tapscott, is in the spotlight now thanks to a slate of upcoming projects.  

June will see the release of an Ark retrospective album — which includes three tracks drawn from the UCLA archive — and an exhibition and concert are being planned for later this year. In addition, a recent grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation will enable UCLA Library preservationists to digitize and preserve 230 audio recordings in the collection beginning this summer.

And on May 3, from 1 to 3 p.m., some of the experts involved in the preservation will show off how they restore and maintain all types of library materials, including from the Tapscott collection and others, as part of the Library preservation and conservation department’s first-ever public open house. (See sidebar.)

A leader in the Los Angeles jazz scene, Tapscott was a composer and pianist who played with renowned musicians and bands, including, from 1959 to 1961, the percussionist and bandleader Lionel Hampton.

But in 1961 at the age of 28, disillusioned with commercial music, Tapscott stepped away from Hampton’s band and formed the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. The group was intended in part to preserve and nurture Black music and musicians, and to build community in South Central Los Angeles. And through its six decades, it has done that — and more.

Among the Los Angeles artists inspired by the Ark are Freestyle Fellowship and saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington, who is an Ark member.

"Horace Tapscott's music was so powerful,” said Washington, who attended UCLA from 1999 to 2004. “The sound felt like it healed spirits instead of people, especially when performed live. It’s important that this music is preserved and shared, that the Ark lives on and keeps that tradition."

Mark Weber/UCLA Library Special Collections
The Ark performing at UCLA in 1981.

Dalena Hunter, a UCLA librarian and archivist for the Los Angeles Communities and Cultures program, which includes the Tapscott archive, said the collection illustrates the continued power and relevance of even the Ark’s earliest work.

“The recordings and musical scores in Tapscott’s collection provide us with an example of the genius, ingenuity and pride that Black musicians during that period brought to their work,” she said. “The fact that the Ark is still active after all these decades shows what Tapscott initiated is still needed, as Black folks continue to navigate attacks against Black history, culture and Black people themselves.”

On June 16, a compilation featuring music from every stage of the band’s history — including  previously unreleased material from the UCLA Library collection — will be released by the Ark-focused label The Village, which was co-founded by Samuel Lamontagne, a UC Chancellor’s postdoctoral scholar in history at UCLA, along with Mekala Session, the Arks current leader, as well as Sam Lee, Jesse Justice and Ajay Ravi. 

“Since its inception, the Ark has emphasized the value of community and political consciousness in relation to Black arts and culture, especially in South Central, where communities have been impacted by anti-Black racism for generations,” said Lamontagne, who earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology from UCLA in 2022. “As a member of The Village, and also as a scholar, my role is to be a bridge between UCLA as an institution and the larger Arkestra community, in order to ensure that UCLA remains accountable to the community first and foremost.”

UCLA Library
Notes from an Ark recording session in 1974.

T-Kay Sangwand, librarian for digital collection development, is working with The Village to organize an exhibition featuring materials from the Tapscott collection that will accompany a concert later this year. Sangwand, who also works as a DJ, hosts a monthly audio program called The Archive of Feelings. It was through that project that she was introduced to the Ark’s music.

“As a member of L.A.’s music community, I’ve long admired and respected the Ark’s ethos and work,” Sangwand said. “It’s been an honor to bridge these music and archive worlds through collaborating with The Village on resurfacing some of the materials from the Tapscott archives to celebrate the Ark’s legacy.”

The 230 recordings being digitized by UCLA preservationists include outtakes from Ark rehearsals and studio sessions, as well as performances at South Los Angeles schools, parks, prisons and festivals. Many were originally recorded on open-reel audio tapes that are now deteriorating due to age and environmental factors.

“Our team is committed to preserving the Ark community’s rich legacy in support of long-term access to this vibrant record of Black life in Los Angeles," said Yasmin Dessem, head of audiovisual preservation at UCLA Library. “We are deeply grateful to the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation for supporting this important work.”

Sam Lee
Mekala Session, the current leader of the Ark, says even bandmembers are learning from the Tapscott collection.

The UCLA Library Music Library is also engaged in preserving the Ark’s impact through the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra Composers Score Book Series and Composers recording project. Initiated in 2021 and supported by the Hugo and Christine Davise Fund for Contemporary Music, the project will result in the publication of music scores by prominent Ark composers, as well as supporting new recordings of music by Tapscott, as well as Jesse Sharps, Ernest Straughter and Lester Robertson.

Session, who has led the Ark since 2018, said the preservation work has been enormously valuable even to the band itself.

“I can read a score created by Tapscott or listen to a recording from his archive and the audio could be from a piece that I've never heard, by a composer I've never heard of — a reel-to-reel that was going during a practice in the 1970s or ’80s, a song that may have been performed twice,” he said. “Our current band can learn and perform that song and the elder members can tell us about that composer.”

“The Ark is made up of over 60 years of a musical breath that will continue to expand throughout generations, because all of our members are passionate about keeping the Ark’s musical power strong.”