Who are the robed figures in pixie caps who travel the globe singing space-songs? Does their leader really come from planet Saturn? And were ancient Egyptian sun priests the first jazzmen? Graham Lock sets the controls for the heart of the Sun Ra cosmos. This article originally appeared in The Wire 78 (August 1990).
"I've been sent here to help people. My mission is
to try and save this planet. Mission impossible"
Talk about moving in mysterious ways.
The wisdom of the universe has been stuffed into a white plastic shopping bag and is now lying slumped against a backstage wall at the University of London Students' Union. I watch intently as an ancient black man with an ornate head-dress and a bright orange beard pulls a wad of papers from the bag and begins leafing through them.
"I got some copies made but the pages all mixed up," he mutters. "I gotta be careful I don't give you no pages I ain't got copies of."
He thrusts a sheaf of papers towards me and I take them with trembling fingers. Am I dreaming? What I am now clutching could be the journalistic coup of the century, the most sensational news story of all time: except for one small snag. What I have in my hands are pages from a book transmitted to Earth by beings from outer space.
You see the snag. I'm not even sure I believe it myself. My
companion has no doubts. "You can't get off this planet but two
ways," he tells me. "You have to die off it or somebody rescue you.
I can easy be rescued by spaceships. If I request rescuing, I can
get it. If humanity won't help me, some other type of beings will
land and take me away. I keep that exit open." He shoots me a
momentary grin, but I'm starting to feel way out of my depth. Right
now, I wish a spaceship would land and rescue me. "I don't think
this planet has treated me right," Sun Ra continues balefully.
"They think I'm a joke, but I know what I know. They think they
just dealin' with an old man - but I'm not a man, I'm a spirit
That I can believe.
"I'm not really from this planet. I did something wrong on my
planet and they sent me here to pay my dues"
It's five years since Sun Ra and his Cosmo Love Arkestra last touched ground in the UK. They're here now, in early June, for a brief, three-gig visit - Liverpool on Friday, London on Sunday and Monday - courtesy of leftfield rock label Blast First, who last year released the subtly mind-scrambling Out There A Minute, a compilation of rare, late-60s Arkestra recordings.
Offered the chance to travel with the group, talk to Sun Ra, and attend the concerts, I rocket into seventh heaven. Not only are Arkestra sets among the most spectacular and joyous of all music events - the group in their shiny, outer-space costumes dancing, chanting and blowing the entire spectrum of creative music from Jelly Roll Morton to (new Ra favourite) Walt Disney - but I'm fascinated by the 'Astro Black Mythology' Ra has created as a context for both his music and his life. To say that my one previous meeting with him - in 1983 (see The Wire 6) - had changed my life would be a shade melodramatic, but he certainly set off several new trains of thought for me (some of which I'm still running to catch). Besides which, and all enigma aside, the man is special, his achievements nothing less than astounding and his story possibly the most extraordinary saga in all of jazz. As onetime Arkestra drummer Roger Blank has observed: "Musically, Sun Ra is one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
So who is he? The mystery begins here. In various interviews Ra has claimed that he comes from the planet Saturn, that he arrived on Earth on a date that can't be revealed because of its astrological significance, and that his name is a secret - though he has admitted to using the names Sonny Blount and Sonny Lee and has stated that his parents' name was Arman, which, he says, "comes from ancient Egypt". Certainly the name Sun Ra derives from Ra, sun god of ancient Egypt, one of the poles of the Ra cosmology: although, with typically sly humour, Ra has also announced, "Sun Ra is not a person, it's a business name". Whatever the truth about his name, two independent researchers, Franco Fayenz (in his sleevenotes to an Italian issue of the Savoy LP The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra) and Gary Carner (in his forthcoming book Jazz Performers: An Annotated Bibliography Of Biographical Material), both cite 22 May 1914 as Ra's birthdate; and it's widely accepted that Birmingham, Alabama, was at least his terrestrial birthplace. The facts he has revealed of his early years confirm 1914 as a plausible year of birth: he's spoken of his folks taking him to shows by the great classic blues stars - Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Ethel Waters - and of listening avidly as a child to records by Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra and other early swing bands. Ra formed his own group in high school, toured the Midwest in the early 30s, but then seems to have dropped into obscurity until the late 40s, when he turned up as house pianist/arranger in Chicago's Club DeLisa, where he performed for a time with his first idol, Fletcher Henderson, and also played with many other artists who were passing through.
By the early 1950s he was leading his own ensembles and
establishing a reputation on Chicago's South Side as a bit of an
oddball. A keen student of Egyptology, Hebrew, philosophy and
science, Ra issued his own pamphlets reinterpreting facets of the
Bible and prophesying the coming of the Space Age - electronic
horns, men walking on the moon, etc. (It seems these insights were
greeted with scepticism: tenorist John Gilmore, who's been playing
with Ra since 1953, remembers people calling him "on the moon
man".) By 1956 Ra had assembled his first Arkestra and that year
they made their recording debut for the tiny Transition label. When
the label folded before a second session could be released, Ra set
up his own record company, Saturn - one of the first artist-owned,
independent jazz labels and certainly the longest-running. For the
last 35 years he has released the bulk of his music - probably
150-plus LPs - on this label, still a shoestring organisation run
from the group's communal HQ and still issuing records in the plain
white sleeves with (sometimes) hand-drawn pictures and titles that
are now valued collectors' items.
Just as amazingly, The Arkestra have also survived for 35 years, despite relocations to New York (1961) and Philadelphia (1968) and innumerable, if evocative, name changes, such as The Myth Science Arkestra, The Blue Universe Arkestra, The Cosmo Jet Set Arkestra and The Astro Infinity Arkestra. The list of illustrious Arkestra alumni reads like an A-Z of modern jazz: Marion Brown, Vincent Chancey, Charles Davis, Richard Davis, Robin Eubanks, Von Freeman, Craig Harris, Billy Higgins, Clifford Jarvis, Frank Lowe, Julian Priester, Pharoah Sanders, James Spaulding... there are dozens more. What's even more remarkable is that many members have either stayed for decades, most notably the brilliant saxophone duo of John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, both with Ra since the 1950s; or, at the least, have kept returning to the fold - take, for instance, current bassist John Ore, who first played with Ra in 1964, or trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, leader of three bands of his own, regularly in and out of The Arkestra since 1975. Being around Ra, says John Gilmore, is like "being around a fast-moving vibration. You know if you go anywhere else, it's a slowdown - you'll start moving backwards.
But Sun Ra has not only maintained a big band and a record label through years of hardship and ridicule; he has also - and uniquely - maintained a history and a cosmology too. I doubt that any group in the world can match the range of music The Arkestra regularly span in a single evening: blues, swing classics by Henderson and Ellington, Monkian bebop, 60s freeform, Ra's own space-age electronics solos - The Arkestra's repertoire is no less than the complete history of black creative music, performed with a passion and a gusto that explode it out of the past in a blaze of living colour.
Ra has been a trailblazer too: a 50s pioneer of synthesizers and electronic instruments, of modal music and freeform improvisation; of looking to Africa for inspiration (and finding chants, raps, polyrhythmic percussion); of reasserting pride in black music and black culture (particularly through his championing of the big band tradition). His influence has seeped into every corner of modern music, from Funkadelic to Stockhausen to The Art Ensemble Of Chicago. More significantly, Ra's explorations of the links between music and mysticism sparked a new awareness of sound's spiritual dimensions; the healing power of music, its role as an agent of transformation and the roots of this knowledge in African mystical traditions are all aspects of a Ra mythology which many musicians, from John Coltrane to Albert Ayler to Anthony Braxton, have been drawn to investigate for themselves. And that Ra considers its spiritual force (rather than, say, improvisation) to be the defining essence of creative music is underlined by his comment to me that, "You might say that jazz came from the sun priests in ancient Egypt, from the ones who were worshipping Ra. They had music, they could heal people... They most certainly experimented with music and sound."
"Into being in this universe some 43,000 years ago. Moved around and then was ordered to this Planet Earth by the higher forces... for the purpose of serving my duty as a Music Messenger" - Malachi Favors Sun Ra's "Astro Black Mythology", created around the twin poles of ancient Egypt and outer space, provides the philosophical foundation of his music, yet is rarely taken seriously: dismissed by his detractors as a bad joke, even Ra fans tend to see it simply as a good one. So what dark purpose does lurk behind the glitzy costumes and the gnomic utterances? I went in search of enlightenment.
Graham Lock: Why are you so interested in ancient Egypt?
Sun Ra: Well, I deal with the foundations of things. Civilization started in Egypt. It had the culture. It had the truth too. Another kind of truth, which the world will have to recognize - although it went another way after that Moses did his job. But it's proven that the world's in the condition it is today because of Moses, not because of Pharaoh.
GL: Could you explain your phrase 'Astro Black Mythology'?
SR: Astro black is about... Oh, something that's greater than
the truth. So it's over in myth, it's hidden. Myth was here before
history. When they started history the truth couldn't move, 'cause
they put a lot of lies in there too.
GL: But what do you mean by 'Astro'?
SR: I'm talking about space. I'm talking about not being a part of this planet. They got this planet on the edge of chaos and destruction. Everything they got here is improper: it doesn't fit with the universal law, it's selfish and egotistical. People been misled, they deep in ignorance.
GL: On your track "They Dwell On Other Planes", who are "They"? SR: I'm talking about the universe, about worlds this world don't know nothing about. But they exist. And there are other beings in other dimensions, strange dimensions, and people here know nothing about it. But when they send those rockets up there and get out in the universe, they'll find out I'm telling the truth.
GL: Could you explain why the planet Saturn is important to you? SR: You have to feel what you are. As a man thinketh, so is he. I'm not of this planet and I know I'm not. I'm comin' from somewhere else, another dimension.
GL: Is that why you called your record label Saturn?
SR: I had to deal with Saturn, 'cause I feel that a lot of black people come from planet Saturn. I got some literature that says so, but it's not out there on the bookshelves. So I felt I had to do something in the name of Saturn, which I did - I made the record company. And Saturn is a beautiful planet - it's most beautiful. The early black man and the Babylonians, they worshipped on Saturn's day - Saturday is named after Saturn. Would they worship on Saturn's day unless Saturn is very important? So I put my equation together. Now, in Babylon, each planet had a different colour: they had gold for the sun, silver for the moon, black for Saturn. So black people are associated with Saturn - the colours black, blue and purple. There were black kings and Babylon was a black nation and they built a temple to Saturn, but, of course, religions came and obliterated it.
Ra's cryptic references to Moses and religion offer further
clues to his interest in ancient Egypt and suggest too that it is
rooted in a cultural context rather than personal idiosyncracy. In
1954 the African-American scholar George GM James published his
book Stolen Legacy, in which he argued that much of the philosophy
and science attributed to the Greeks had actually originated in
ancient Egypt, that Egyptian mystery teachings had been suppressed
by the early Christians and - perhaps most significantly - that
ancient Egypt had been a black civilization (a fact ignored or
denied for centuries by white academics: come to that, when did you
last see a black Cleopatra on stage or screen?). Though by all
accounts Ra was well into his Egyptian researches before James's
book appeared; there are definite similarities between the two, not
least a shared emphasis on Egypt as a source of black pride and the
need for black people to throw off the influence of Christianity in
order to discover their own history and cultural identity.
(Remember, in Old Testament mythology, basis for most early
spirituals and gospel music, the Egyptians were the bad guys.) And
it's at least a curious coincidence that it was also in 1954 that
(according to John Gilmore) Ra's embryonic Arkestra first began to
diverge from standard big band uniforms - by donning Egyptian
The importance of ancient Egypt's blackness is attested to by current Arkestra members. Altoist Marshall Allen answers my queries with, "Well, there are a lot of ancient Egyptians in America". You mean black people?
"That's right. People from all over Africa are there. You gotta have some kind of identity." And trombonist Tyrone Hill states it even more plainly: "Knowing about ancient Egypt makes me feel better as a person, 'cause those were black people. Our race don't know very much about ourselves. In America, education and the mass media tell you black people got nothing to offer, but we've done many beautiful things. Sun Ra made me aware of this."
That relatively few African-Americans have been so aware is something that Ra has attributed to the influence of a Christian religion that was forced onto the slave population. He's already gone on record as saying that Christianity made black people passive to racism and its ugliness; and when I ask him about this, his answer suggests a disillusionment with the black race which, I guess, has been slowly growing over the years and which may explain why the ancient Egypt mythology tends now to take second place in his music to the outer space references. It's as if, as Ra's dreams of a transformation of black consciousness have receded, he has turned increasingly to outer space and its inhabitants as the only remaining hope for this planet's salvation.
"I looked at the condition of black people in American and I judged the tree by the fruit. They don't deal with culture, with progress - they back there in the past, a past that somebody manufactured for 'em. It's not their past, it's not their history. They don't see no fault with America, they want to be part of it. I ain't part of America, I ain't part of black people. They went another way. Black people are carefully supervised so they'll stay in a low position. But I'm not down there, yet I come from one of the most discriminating states in the whole world - Alabama. They don't know why I am what I am. And black folks know nothing about me, so they can't ask them.
"I left my family, I left my friends, I left for real. I left
everything to be me, 'cause I knew I was not like them. Not like
black or white, not like Americans. I'm not like nobody else. I'm
alone on this planet."
"I must play music that is beyond this world"
Whatever you think of its outer space aspects, Sun Ra's music, at its best, is irrefutably out of this world. Recent releases such as the swing-based Blue Delight (A&M) and the expansive Live At Pitt-Inn (DIW) suggest The Arkestra are hitting a new peak to rival the extraordinary outburst of creative excellence in the late 70s and early 80s that gave us a cluster of great LPs: Blithe Spirit Dance, Disco 3000, Media Dreams, Omniverse and Sleeping Beauty on Saturn, Languidity on Philly Jazz, The Other Side Of Space on Sweet Earth, Strange Celestial Road on Rounder, the live Sunrise In Different Dimensions on hat Hut and two superb double albums on the Italian Horo label - New Steps, Other Voices, Other Blues - that feature an exceedingly rare Ra small-group, with John Gilmore, trumpeter Michael Ray and percussionist Luqman Ali. (Ra prefers working with big bands, the bigger the better: "I know exactly how to colour music in such a way I need maybe two or three thousand pieces to interest me.")
The three concerts I see confirm this hunch: they are
sensational. The gig at Liverpool's Bluecoat Arts Centre - house
packed, ecstatic audience whooping every solo - is a typical
Arkestra sound panorama: frontstage instrumental duels,
processions, the band dippy-dancing through their space chants; Ra
crooning "I'll Wait For You" and "I Dream Too Much"; flurries of
smoking alto from Marshall Allen, strumming his keys like a
guitarist; Ra, face abeam, twirling a tinsel wand and parading with
a cushion on his head while June Tyson sings "Sunset On The Nile";
plus there's the funkiest Ra chant to date - "You gotta face the
music, you gotta listen to the cosmo-song".
But the gig at London's Mean Fiddler is perhaps even more impressive, if only because the group reach the same heights in far more trying circumstances: the acoustics are dodgy, the stage hopelessly cramped (no room for processions or dippy-dancing here, alas) and Ra's electric piano conks out on the first song. Disaster looms, but soon the adrenalin is flowing, the group hit their stride with a wonderfully bloodcurdling "The Forest Of No Return" and the second set turns into a non-stop scorcher. It's peak after peak after peak - Marshall Allen and Noel Scott exchange electrifying alto tangles, a raggedy version of "Slumming On Park Avenue" (from the Fletcher Henderson repertoire) adds hilarious satire, Ra sings a heartbreaking "Down Here On The Ground" ("So if you hear a sound, way down here on the ground, my friends it's only me, trying to fly") then throws a stomping blues piano, and John Gilmore, after two relatively sedate evenings, rises up to blow a series of absolute gems, including one solo on "Lights On A Satellite" that is utterly bewitching - a lovely, flowing, feinting line that takes him in and out of the tune with compelling invention. Then, as they file offstage and the audience clap along, Ra raps out his farewell warning: "You're on spaceship Earth, you're outward bound, out among the stars, destination unknown. Destination unknown. Des-tin-a-tion un-knooooooooown!"
GL: Is your purpose here to play music? Do you enjoy that?
SR: Well, I have to play for people. It's not about me enjoying it, I'm compelled to. I was sent here to help people, and I'm compelled to do it. If I had my way, I wouldn't let 'em hear me. I'd go out in the East and I'd be a camel-driver or something and I'd be quite content, 'cause I found out that simple people are very beautiful. They don't have any prejudice or discrimination, they ain't tryin' to harm nobody, and I'm happier when I'm around people like that.
GL: Could you explain why percussion has played such an important part in your music?
SR: That's 'cause I be hiding behind the rhythm, so folks can't
hear me. I stay out of the way,'cause they don't treat people right
who are sincere. They don't have me at all - not even on record. I
choose very carefully what I put out on records. They have not
heard the real me and they never will unless they learn how to
treat me properly as a spirit being. If they just be honest with
me, then I be honest with them. Otherwise I'll be a mystery, and
this planet will never make it.
"It's an inner revelation that has come several times to me, that I have been educated on Sirius, that I come from Sirius"
That night, after the ULU gig, I hurry away clutching my handful of random pages from the space book. The book, some 500 pages long and given to Sun Ra by "space people" during his 1989 trip to Turkey, is called The Information Book and is, says Ra, "more fantastic than any science fiction. It'll change you. You'll know it's the truth." I'm tempted to peek on the bus home, but it hardly seems appropriate: this is the kind of thing you read alone in a locked room at the dead of night, with a nervous glance over your shoulder in case there's an alien being scratching at the window.
At first sight, The Information Book is baffling; a collection of messages beamed down telepathically from the space people to certain mediumistic "friends" on Earth. It has primarily a functional slant - advice, instructions, answers to queries, explanations about vibrations, frequencies, dimensions, etc - but comes dressed in what often sounds distressingly like New Age-speak - there's much talk of brotherhood, sincerity, "luminous and flowery paths". On closer reading, though, the book grows curiouser and curiouser. There's a diagram of the constitution of the universe, which is run by something called "The Centre Of Unified Reality Administrative Mechanism", though with the help of other "Mechanisms" and various councils, such as "The Council Of Stars" and "The Council Of Pre-eminent Ones". There are also various "Missions", Earth coming under the jurisdiction of "The Sirius Mission", and there's a diagram of the Sirius double-star system as our local "focal point of the unified reality". The space people claim to have bases throughout the solar system, including an underwater HQ here beneath the North and South Poles, and they have some kind of astro-technology that measures each person's essence, to see how sincere and positive we all are.
There's a lot about the different religions too, some complex numerology and occasional interruptions by beings from yet other dimensions, one of whom offers advice on how to combat cancer (avoid stress, eat raw green vegetables, do gymnastics, take plenty of minerals and be spiritually strong). And terrestrial musos will be interested to hear that, whereas on Earth seven notes comprise a scale, in outer space music seven scales comprise a note, which means that "we possess sound vibrations with much richer volumes, but on your planet, your ear frequencies can not receive these sound waves. If these waves could reach you, your brains would become liquid."
But I bet what you're all dying to know is, will the planet survive? Is there a future? Hang on to your space helmets! "The predestination of your planet has been designed till the year 2000. There are many difficulties and obstacles in front of you which you will have to overcome." But don't despair: "After the year 1990, your planet which will be washed by cosmic rains which have been unknown to your planet til today, will make progress and improvements unknown to it and a selection foreseen by the plane which is in touch with us from the Divine Dimension, will be made. The nineth [sic] solar system will help you on this path."
So there you are: be sincere and don't forget your cosmic umbrella! Incredible truth or insane fantasy? You'll have to make up your own minds because, due to a cosmic lack of space here, this article will now continue in a different dimension.
Over to you, Planet Earth.