Space is still the place
Sun Ra’s music centers cosmos, festival
by W. Kim Heron
You know that static on the radio dial between stations, where there's a little bit of a country tune that sounds like it's being broadcast from 1962, and further in the distance a big band and a conservative crank, but it's mostly a raging storm of white noise? Well, the other night I heard this familiar voice, gentle, with a little lisp, chanting something like, "The astro nation of the worlds of outer space. We hereby declare ourselves to another order of being." And then, "If you're not a myth, whose reality are you?" And then the clincher: "Space is the place."
"Sonny?" I said, finding myself talking back to the little silvery box in the living room. "Sun Ra? You left the planet back in 1993."
And I think I heard: "In some far off place many light years in space, I'll wait for you. Where human feet have never trod, where human eyes have never seen. I'll build a world of abstract dreams and wait for you."
Could it really be Sun Ra? The guy who, at a time when the avant-garde seemed like an underground movement, declared himself "king of the sub-underground." The bandleader-pianist born Sonny Blount Jr. from the musical backwater of Birmingham, Ala., who, in Chicago in the 1950s, turned himself into Sun Ra and turned his band into a DIY space program. No, make that a space-time program. He didn't lead an orchestra — but an arkestra.
Memories flooded back, going back in the 1970s when I first saw the arkestra. The sets spanned massive percussion storms and synthesizer solos that blasted off the stage; the music evoked scenes from ancient Egypt to the moon, with some Fletcher Henderson- and Duke Ellington-style swing interludes. Some nights, Ra would lead the band members in a conga line, snaking through the audience. Resplendent in a silver lamé space suit and layered capes, he'd grab you by the shoulders, lean close and ask: "Will you give up your destiny?" Or did he say, "Give up your death for me"?
More of his voice crackled through the static: "People have a lot more of the unknown than the known in their minds. The unknown is great; it's like the darkness. Nobody made that. It just happens. Light and all that — someone made that; it's written that they did. But nobody made the darkness. My music is about dark tradition. Dark tradition means a lot more about than black tradition. There's a lot of division in what they call black. I'm not into division. I'm into coordination, discipline and tradition."
The voice went on. Something about being prophesized in the Book of Revelations and needing a band of 144,000. A rap about the millions of American gathering in stadiums, ostensibly to play football, but really to call out for him: "Ra, ra, ra, ra." And something about all the sad folks going to psychologists and psychiatrists in search of "the-ra-py."
"Those are puns," I said. "You're talking in puns."
I couldn't hear whether he acknowledged that or not. Something was garbled. Then he came through faintly: "Proper evaluations of words and letters in their phonetic and associated sense can bring the people of earth to the clear light of pure cosmic wisdom."
Then there was static for a long time, and I went to bed and got up wondering whether I'd dreamed the whole thing.
A couple days later, I called his old house in Philadelphia, where his longtime caterwauling saxophonist Marsall Allen still lives with a nucleus of the musicians who keep the flame of Sun Ra's music burning. Did Sun Ra ... seem to communicate with them?
"Oh, yeah," Allen said. "I don't worry about it or nothing. You know, you can communicate with those you've been with a long time, like family. He communicates with most everybody in the band. They all have stories of Sun Ra in their dreams and communications and stuff. I just carry on the program. He says not to worry. Keep on going."
For core arkestra members, the group was like a family, perhaps for few more so than for Allen. Born in Louisville, Ky., musically seasoned in Paris, he started playing with Ra in Chicago in the mid-1950s; back then Allen was in his early 30s and Ra was in his early 40s. And he stuck with Ra as he moved his base camp to New York and Philly — and toured everywhere from Mexico to Egypt (including a tumultuous Motor City gig — 40 years ago this month — on a John Sinclair-booked bill with the Ra-influenced MC5). With Ra having left the planet, Allen has taken the reins of the band.
He laughed when he was asked about spending all those years with one bandleader.
"Well, why not?" he said. "He's got a lot of stuff, a lot of music. More music than I've ever seen anybody have."
Allen continued: "He was always challenging musicians, and the music was a challenge in order to express it like he wanted. It was nothing but notes and things — but it was a way of expression and technique of how you wanted it played. Every day he had something different for us. Well, I said, 'Where else could I get such a teacher?' I've found my place where I could be part of something."
That something, though, is still a struggle. Allen has to hold together a core of Sun Ra-era veterans and, to bolster the ranks, indoctrinate a couple of players who only know Ra secondhand.
The impressive roster of veterans these days include trumpeter Michael Ray (also, amazingly, an ex-member of Kool and the Gang); saxophonists Danny Thompson, Charles Davis and Noel Scott; drummer Luqman Ali; and bassist Juni Booth. Some months go by without a single gig, which makes it hard to keep a 14-15 piece band engaged. When don't work enough, as Allen put it, "the music will get away from you."
And after recording well over 100 discs with Ra (mainly on his indie El Saturn label), the band has recorded only a couple to show what they can do in the post-Ra era, though Allen says more are on the way.
Even without many new discs from the group, the fascination with Ra's music has never dissipated. Notable admirers include George Clinton, Phish's Trey Anastasio, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Yo La Tengo and James Carter (who sat in with the post-Ra band when they last came through town).
"The young people are eating it up," Allen said. Sun Ra, he continued, "was always writing something about the 21st century, the century of 21. And the 21st century is here, and the young folk are accepting."
And — who knows? — maybe some of them will wind up listening in on the radio static, like a sonic Rorschach too.
The Sun Ra Arkestra performs Friday, June 8, as part of the second annual Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music at Bohemian National Home.
The arkestra heads a bill with the trio of Noah Howard, Hakim Jami and Bobby Kapp; Raw Truth (Michael Carey, Skeeter Shelton, Ali Colding, Greg Cook), Thollem McDonas (solo piano) and the Faruq Z. Bey Quintet (with Anthony Holland, Kenny Green and Ali Colding). Doors at 6:30 p.m.
The Trio of Sabir Mateen, Daniel Carter and Andrew Barker headline Saturday, June 9. Also on that bill: Engines (David Rempis, Nate McBride, Tim Daisy); the quartet of Hakim Jami, Salim Washington, Pam Wise and Sean Dobbins; the trio of Lotte Akers, Gerald Cleaver and Craig Taborn; Triochrome (Charles Waters, Andrew Barker, Nate McBride); Kyle Bruckman's Wrack; Spectrum 2 (Skeeter Shelton, Ali Colding); Keenan Lawler (solo).
Doors 4 p.m.Tickets are $25 per night (general admissions); $40 for both nights (general admission); $35 per night (reserved seating). Food by Slows Bar BQ.
Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman St., Detroit; 313-737-6606.
"The astro nation of the worlds of outer space. We hereby declare ourselves to another order of being." … "If you’re not a myth, whose reality are you?" … "Space is the place." … "Will you give up your destiny/death for me": Chants heard at Sun Ra performances over the years.
"In some far off place many light years in space, I’ll wait for you. Where human feet have never trod, where human eyes have never seen. I’ll build a world of abstract dreams and wait for you.": often-quoted poem (line breaks removed) found in liner notes to Monorails and Satellites (Evidence) among other places
"People have a lot more of the unknown than the known in their minds. The unknown is great; it’s like the darkness. Nobody made that. It just happens. Light and all that — someone made that; it’s written that they did. But nobody made the darkness. My music is about dark tradition. Dark tradition means a lot more about than black tradition. There’s a lot of division in what they call black. I’m not into division. I’m into coordination, discipline and tradition.": liner notes to Destination Unknown (Ennja)
Sun Ra in Book of Revelations, "Ra, ra, ra, ra" and "the-ra-py": interviews with author, 1970s and 1980s
"Proper evaluations of words and letters in their phonetic and associated sense can bring the people of earth to the clear light of pure cosmic wisdom.": liner notes Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy & Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (Evidence)
W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.