Hannibal Means is not your run-of-the-mill vocal coach.
Built like a linebacker with a deep sonorous voice and a laugh like James Earl Jones, the guy tells you that the black swan is his totem.
And with good reason.
He shapeshifted into one 30 years ago in New Jersey, he tells you with sincerity.
“All of a sudden I noticed wings and necks were appearing from the blue sky and I said to my friend, ‘The swans are here.’”
The black swan is a symbol of beauty, majesty and respect, he says of his totem.
It’s also, apparently, not an animal to be messed with.
“Do you have a totem animal?” he asks.
“Does everyone?” you ask, tentatively. “Not that I’m aware of … maybe?”
“What do you see when you close your eyes…”
Then you’re at his High Country Inn room.
And inside is a menagerie of Means’ totem animals.
The handmade critters are scattered on the bed, assorted tables and the edge of the room’s Jacuzzi.
There’s a rooster, a fish, an owl, a lion, a polar bear, a dolphin and Belinda the Monkey Girl.
Means crocheted all of these puppet-like creatures himself, and has sewn them onto toques.
Spools of yarn spill off of the bedside table and onto the bed. Means was up until 4 a.m. making horns for a new goat.
You wear the hats when you want to assume the personality of the particular animal, he explains.
He wears the lion when he wants to be brave, the fish when he wants to get deep and the frog to take a leap of faith.
“She’s just crazy, silly, fun and daring … daring to be beautiful,” he says with a full-throated, resonant laugh.
The animal hats were used at the vocal workshop he gave on April 19.
The class explored speaking and singing voices, with an emphasis on breathing.
Means is an internationally renowned musician, vocalist and teacher who flourished as the protege of the legendary Nina Simone.
Means recalls hearing a Simone track for the first time at the age of 13.
He had just began learning to play the flute, but told his friend that one day he would perform with that woman.
His premonitions didn’t end there.
A prophetic vision cropped up when he was 27.
“I had a dream that I was rescuing a martyred saint, similar to Mother Teresa, in my ex-wife’s red Volkswagen station wagon.”
The next morning he received a call telling him Simone would like to meet him.
“I walked in the door and we looked in each others’ eyes and we knew each other immediately,” he says.
And they’d known each other for quite a while.
“You were my son in Atlantis,” Simone told him solemnly.
“I was told by a psychic. I hear that you’re highly trained in classical singing and I want you to sing this aria so I can be sure.”
Means sang for her and, as he finished, he saw she was weeping.
A tall, heavyset man with a slightly greying goatee and shaved head, Means looks as if he could very well be from Atlantis.
A strange winged talisman hangs from his neck.
But his eyes are his most striking feature – they’re extremely expressive, opening wide at certain points, punctuating a conversation like exclamation points.
His father was Cherokee, his mother African-American and both were Christian ministers who encouraged their son to sing and make music.
And both parents could see the spirit world and angels, a gift they passed to their son.
Once, in Vienna, Austria, where he and his family still live, he was visited by his old Chinese spirit guide, who told him to sing at a certain audition.
He followed the advice, and the audition went so well he was performing on stage that very night.
The show was extraordinary, with the normally staid Austrians on their feet dancing and singing like a Southern Baptist congregation filled with the spirit.
Means played a random selection of songs, including several Simone tunes.
He chose the songs based on the suggestions of a row of children, lined up on stage behind him, who whispered in his ear.
No one else at the show could see these phantom children.
Nor could they see the stage morph into a scene from a horror movie. Means saw bright red blood splashed all over the stage and walls.
Afterwards, he asked the logical question, “Why am I seeing blood everywhere?”
Somebody told him the land occupied by the club used to be the heart of the Jewish ghetto, before the Holocaust.
“And that’s when I knew why I was led there,” he says. “To bring joy for those who were trapped there.”
See, Means also cleans bad energy and restless spirits out of people’s homes.
He performs this exorcism side gig every once in a while, singing to the spirits and telling them it’s time to go.
He tells you more about Simone, how he took her swimming and taught her to play piano.
He discovered she had multiple personalities – the African Queen, the child, the general, the guru and the raging woman, to name a few.
Her spirit came to him the night she died and continues to make visits.
One night he dreamt she was crawling all over the ceiling and barking at him in some incomprehensible tongue.
The next day he learned a duet they performed together had been used on a new Simone compilation.
She’d been trying to tell him.
Means’ started singing at three months old and was performing on the radio, singing and playing the ukulele, at the age of five.
He sometimes sings these autobiographical tidbits to visitors, as if they’ve stepped onto the set of a musical.
He grabs his flute and plays a few Jazz scales before launching into a Bach aria.
At another point, he tells you he’s met you before.
“And you feel the same way about me,” he adds.
The assertion is delivered with such certainty, you find yourself inexplicably nodding your head, as gobsmacked as you were when he asked about your totem.
And then the meeting is over, and you’re back in the hallway unsure of what just happened.
With good reason.
You’ve just met a former Atlantean, a self-described shapeshifting black swan, and discussed phantoms and Nina Simone while surrounded by crochet totem touques.
In fact, you’re not entirely sure about attending his vocal workshop, even though he’s invited you as his “special guest.”
But the uncertainty is fleeting.
Because you know if you don’t go, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.
Contact Chris Oke at firstname.lastname@example.org