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Heliocentric World 

Sun Ra’s cosmic tones for mental therapy

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
Photo by Edward Clover

Sun Ra was a big-band leader and autodidactic mystic who throughout his fascinating 60-plus-year career as a musician-teacher had an amazing habit of magically showing up at those precious points in history when something new was happening, usually some pre-existing musical genre that was about to be transmuted by external-power forces from one form into something else. Then he’d seemingly disappear back into space — always the place to be, according to his many colorful manifestos.

For example, members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra were tripping on yet another of their leader’s co(s)mically convoluted confluences of energy circa ’69 when punk forefathers Iggy and the Stooges played a series of crazed shows with them and the MC5! It was so very Sun Ra to be eye-center of such a heavy sociopolitico-musical moment when race, class, age, mythology, free jazz, electronica, loud free-form rock, drugs, sex and alcohol all blurred together into the one sick mess that eventually came to be called “proto-punk.”

The 5’s manager, John Sinclair, who’d been conspicuously weaving many of Ra’s philosophical concepts into the twisted White Panther rhetoric he foisted on his baffled charges, insisted that Sun Ra’s Astro Infinity Arkestra (or whatever moniker they were traveling under that month) be added to the bill. Sinclair had the 5 publicly talk about wailing away with atonal white noise shrieking from their guitar amps — basically what they perceived Sun Ra to be doing with brass, woodwinds, percussion and electronic keyboards during his more radical expressionistic space jams.

Now the Arkestra found themselves interacting with black revolutionaries at one end and the MC5 — a bunch of wasted, angry, white blue-collar hippies — at the other. Here was this thrashy, doped-out, barely competent band of long-haired garage-rock gnarlers, most of whom had only one honest agenda: sex, drugs and living out some mythical doof-headed “rock & roll” fantasy without the musical chops or the material to pull it off. Even worse, their middle-class, overeducated, media-savvy manager kept writing embarrassing revolutionary treatises that band members didn’t have the education to comprehend or were too high to read even if they could! (Critics, naturally, loved Sinclair’s literary rhetoric, while the masses passed.)

Sun Ra was apparently so unimpressed by the derelict lifestyle of his new concert mates (he was adamantly anti-drugs) that he never pursued further entrée to the open-air-rock-concert circuit of the post-Woodstock generation, opting for the world of international jazz festivals, clubs and a few colleges. And so Ra vanished from the rock radar until April ’81, when he appeared at Myron’s Ballroom in Los Angeles, his first L.A. date since Dorsey High in ’69. The Arkestra utterly galvanized L.A.’s hodgepodge community of avant-jazzbos, free-music freaks and musically adventurous “post-punks” too old to go the way their music was taking them now that it had been overthrown by suburban hardcore skate-punk kids.

Thus the mighty Ra spake to the hippies, the proto-punks and the post-punks. With the MC5/Stooges/Arkestra show, the high priest of the musical omniverse had once again officiated during a passing-of-the-torch ritual. That particular time was at the birth of American punk rock in Michigan (depending on who you’re talking to) in 1969, where the hippies were no longer necessarily all peace-loving, stoned whitebread kids subsidized by their parents.

1969 was also a time when alienated inner-city blacks were still being browbeaten by Muslim despot Elijah Muhammad’s reverse-racist, sexist perversion of the Koran. Although the ascent of the Nation of Islam had paralleled the so-called New Thing uprising of post-bop black avant-garde jazz musicians, writers and artists, it was not necessarily sanctioned by pre-eminent exponents of mid-’60s “spiritual jazz” and its descendent “free jazz” movement. Free jazz was at that time drawing smallish crowds of young, predominantly white music-department kids and other jazz fans, with fewer black nationalists in the loop. Politically, Sun Ra did influence black-separatist street thought by openly bugging with Muslims in the park, yet like the post-Mecca Malcolm X, he rejected Elijah Muhammad’s hate-mongering “white devil” theory, bearing in mind, no doubt, that young white kids were among his biggest supporters.

For more than 40 years till his death, Sun Ra’s orchestra represented a quasi-Masonic-meets-Afro-Baptist hard-work ethic as a symbol for black excellence, with “precision and discipline” the keywords he drilled into his disciples. Ra’s ideal follower was an ascetic, workmanlike musician who’d toil away in his female-exclusionist Sun Palace (only exceptions: June Tyson and a dancer or two), which housed the globetrotting mutant lodge-cum-space-jazz-orchestra with its own secret codes, initiations, etiquettes, rituals, costumes and other cosmic pranksterisms.

During the early ’70s, Sun Ra’s concerts drew eager collegiate crowds who were enthralled by the Arkestra’s stage show, which incorporated strokes from ’50s exotica-kitsch folks like Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Esquivel, Yma Sumac and Korla Pandit. Ra weaved in imaginary ancient Egyptian music with straight Ellingtonian–Fletcher Henderson stompin’ swing, space chants and abstract electronics, all thrown into the same blender that combined Cubist-informed Tatum and Powell piano solos, with a dash of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and the creepier end of Bartók hovering in the mix. Visually, Ra was influenced by New York–based Nigerian drummer Olatunji’s passion for hand drums, feathers, robes and ecstatic dancing. Olatunji was the leader-teacher who first brought African hand-drumming music to mainstream USA with his “Drums of Passion” series of best-selling albums, and a refined scholar with whom Sun Ra exchanged intellectual ideas as well as musicians.

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