We Travel the Spaceways

This article originally appeared on the Cultural Gutter, June 7, 2018.

My first exposure to Sun Ra came thanks to a friend who ran a punk rock record shop but liked to dabble in the experimental. He had a VHS of a film called Space is the Place, a strange amalgamation of blaxploitation, surreal Jodorowsky-esque journey, and concert film featuring Sun Ra and his Arkestra. It’s a rough-around-the-edges movie, but there was something so earnestly weird, so endearingly strange, so human about Sun Ra that I felt an immediate connection with him, his oddball music, and his outlook on the universe. There’s such a charming honesty, strange as it sounds, to that man in sparkly robes and trippy Egyptian headdress strolling through a cosmic garden and quietly saying, “The music is different here. The vibrations are different. Not like planet Earth…

Most people, upon discovering Sun Ra, find that even if they don’t care for his music (which is a bold claim to make given his vast and varied his body of work) Sun Ra himself is still endlessly fascinating. In the mid-1930s or maybe the ’40s or maybe 1952 — Sun Ra is purposefully evasive and contradictory when speaking about himself — the man born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama had a cosmic revelation. He was transported to Saturn, where he met with a race of aliens who told him that his academic pursuits would come to nothing, that the world was collapsing into chaos and darkness, and through music would the young man learn to speak to the world and perhaps deliver it from its grim fate. Blount emerged from the experience a changed man, dedicated with incredible focus to expanding his musical horizons and developing a personal mythology surrounding himself and his work. When he was drafted in 1942, he refused service on the grounds that killing was immoral — as was the total lack of black representation in draft boards. When told that he would damn well be forced to serve, Blount defiantly claimed that, if given training and a weapon, he would immediately kill the first high-ranking officer he encountered. According to Sun Ra biographer John F. Szwed, an exasperated judge exclaimed “I’ve never seen a n—– like you before!” to which Blount, still defiant, responded, “No, and you never will again.” He was sent to jail.

Eventually, his status as a conscientious objector was affirmed, and he was sent to Pennsylvania for alternative service. In 1945, he left Alabama and moved to Chicago, where he immersed himself in the post-War jazz revolution. He also steeped himself in black consciousness and empowerment movements, including arguments that vast epochs of African accomplishment and civilization had been wiped from the face of history by white Europeans. He also developed a growing interest in ancient Egypt and what would become loosely classified as “New Age” thought. Space, cosmic enlightenment, and black pride became a greater and greater part of his life and music as he transitioned from working traditional gigs with big band and swing era musicians, including Stuff Smith and Fletcher Henderson, to more experimental work in keeping with the innovations pioneered by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and the others who founded first the bop, then hard bop, then post-bop styles of jazz.

I Am the Alter-Destiny

In 1952, Blount legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra. In 1957, his debut album as a band leader was released, Jazz by Sun Ra. Around that same time, he began affecting a striking personal attire cobbled from ancient Egyptian style (and Hollywood interpretations of Egyptian style), science fiction, and other sources. His dedication to esoteric fringe thought became more pronounced. His arrangements became more avant-garde, almost stream-of-conscious, and incorporated more and more allusions to space, altered states of being, and prophecy. And yet, more conventional work often slipped in alongside his most outré compositions — a contradiction of style and purpose that only makes sense when Sun Ra does it. He and members of what became known as his Arkestra even moonlighted as session musicians under the name Dan & Dale, recording, among other things, country western, easy listening, and even an album of James Bond theme covers and other “spy film” music collected on the album “Thunderball” and the Original Dan & Dale Themes.

At his farthest out, Sun Ra’s music, like much avant-garde jazz, takes some getting used to. To paraphrase David Bowie talking about Eric Dolphy, you first decide you’re going to like it, and then you work at it until you damn well do. Two recently-released compilations, The Space Age is Here to Stay (Modern Harmonic/Sundazed Music, 2016) and Exotica (Modern Harmonic/Sundazed Music, 2017), explore various facets of his music and serve as a crash introductory course to the visionary musical and philosophical outlook of one of the founding voices of Afrofuturism.

The Space Age is Here to Stay is most reflective of the batty, glorious science fiction mythology Sun Ra spun for himself and his listeners. Composed of tracks featuring vocal performances by various members of the Arkestra, and anchored by the signature voice of June Tyson (who joined the Arkestra in 1968 and, like many members, never left), nailing down any one style is fruitless. It’s an interplanetary journey, don’t ya know, and that means the style will shift from track to track. In the liner notes for the release, Charles Blass summarizes the collection as “Sci-Fi Opera, Interstellar Broadway. Tales of non-linear space and time travel. Of Truth, Mystery and Impossibility.” Or as Sun Ra himself explains in the first track, “Along Came Ra/The Living Myth”:

“I am Ra, the living simplicity of an angel visiting planet Earth…If I told you I’m from outer space, you wouldn’t want to believe a word I said, would you? Why should you? You lost your way.”

Sun Ra envisioned outer space, other planets, and other planes of existence as a means of escape from the hate, racism, violence, and slavery that characterizes planet Earth. His was a philosophy of hope and pessimism, that perhaps there was no saving humanity, so stopping the apocalypse, but enlightened humans could escape the apocalypse. Across sixteen tracks, Sun Ra and the Arkestra weave a sonic tapestry that is sometimes harmonious and soothing, other times discordant and upsetting. Here hopeful and earnest, there dark and apocalyptic.

I can’t help but think of Trilogy: The Future, Frank Sinatra’s supremely weird foray into the cosmos that was released in 1980. On the surface, there’s little to bind Sinatra to Sun Ra beyond the surface similarity of a concept album (or in the case of Sun Ra, a concept career) which takes listeners on an interplanetary journey. But parts of Sinatra’s album are strangely apocalyptic and haunted, and given that Sun Ra was not above dabbling in space age pop and easy listening, it’s not so hard to imagine a song like “World War None” could have come from one of the more laid-back Arkestra sessions. Similarly, given that Trilogy: The Future kicks off with Sinatra relaxing in his backyard before being transported across the solar system, the Arkestra’s loungy “Back in Your Own Back Yard” would have played perfectly among Frank’s interstellar compositions.

“Round Midnight” and “Sometimes I’m Happy” are similarly catchy, conventional dinner club jazz. Other tracks are reasonably accessible beatnik jazz that dabble in the avant-garde without going full crazy. Some are straight novelty songs (“The Forest of No Return” belongs on any compilation of groovy Halloween songs). Others, however, defy all categorization and challenge the listener in the same way as Japanese noise or experimental music. But if you’ve submitted yourself to the vision, by the time the difficult material confronts you, you’re already part of Sun Ra’s hypnotic cosmic existence. You are part of his struggle against chaos, his battle against Lucifer for the soul of humanity, and should destruction come, maybe you have a place on another plane, somewhere where the vibrations are different.

Portrait of the Living Sky

The second album, Exotica, compiles Sun Ra arrangements that fall under the wide and diverse umbrella of, as you might guess, exotica — that musical “American pop vision of exotic lands” pioneered by the likes of Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and on the more “space age bachelor pad” end of the spectrum, Mexican composer Juan Garcia Esquivel. Sun Ra’s obsession with Egypt and lost civilizations real, theorized, and imagined, make him a good fit for the genre even if his more celebrated, more unconventional work makes him seem initially an odd purveyor of a musical style so commercial in its appeal. Perhaps it goes without saying that exotica, even though it’s a varied style to begin with, when filtered through the cosmic prism of Sun Ra is going to result in some eccentric interpretations of the core idea.

And indeed some of it (OK, a lot of it) is pretty eccentric. “Kingdom of Thunder,” the track that opens the collections sounds like Miles Davis dropped by to jam with the Residents and brought Alessandro Alessandroni with him, because if you need someone to go all jazz-flute snake charmer on a track, Alessandroni was your man. “Space Mates” adopts a more familiar exotica tone, though it still sounds less like Martin Denny and more like Martin Denny’s slightly mad brother who lived up in the rafters of Don the Beachcomber. Rather than invoking the languid allure of the tropics, it infuses the exotica sound with something sinister and distinctly noirish. Sort of like you’re exploring an ancient Martian pyramid…but your exploration is being filmed from the vantage point of someone who is secretly watching you. Still other tracks possess an almost lullaby quality, but of course it’s a lullaby about baba yaga stealing the thumbs of wicked little children or something.

When it first emerged as a musical style, exotica (for all its cultural clumsiness) was often surprising, in much the same way Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores were surprising. But then, over the years, the style fell into well-worn paths and became familiar and predictable — just like composers mimicking Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. Not surprisingly, taking the plunge into exotica as interpreted by Sun Ra returns unpredictability to the music. It’s still identifiable as something coming from the same mythical realms as Les Baxter, but it’s also something wholly different. There are moments that are unmistakably Sun Ra, as weird and unnerving and difficult as one expects, but with that familiar chord of recognizable exotica woven into it. Along with the three-disc Technicolor Paradise that collects together independently recorded exotica tunes by largely unknown performers, Sun Ra’s Exotica has become one of my go-to albums of 2018.

It’s After the End of the World…Don’t You Know That Yet?

If there’s one album to complete a trinity of introductory Sun Ra material (compiling a guided tour of his discography is beyond my power; and anyway, you and he are better served if you just start exploring the vast caverns of space-time like some traveler who has stumbled upon the cyclopean temples of a long-gone ancient civilization), it’s the soundtrack to Space is the Place, if for no other reason that it proved to be the gateway for so many to Sun Ra’s version of reality (there is another Sun Ra album called Space is the Place, also good). The album functions well apart from the film which, as mentioned, is a not-altogether successful mish-mash of concert film, spiritual odyssey, and a grafted-on quasi-action film about kidnappers and crooked promoters. At the core of the film are several ideas: that we are locked in a titanic, perhaps doomed, struggle with chaos and evil; that white society has ground black under its boot heel for centuries and robbed black people of their ancient history; and that escaping into a new realm of black consciousness is the salvation not just for one “race,” but for one race—humanity. For Sun Ra, that Eden is outer space, but in much of Afrofuturism, from Sun Ra to Black Panther and Wakanda, “outer space” is really just a place in which black culture has not been denied, black history has not been erased, and black people have been freed of the yoke of centuries of slavery and racism and allowed to excel. It is a social and moral tragedy that conceiving of such a place requires “escapism.”

The music on Space is the Place, the album, is more complicated, more freewheeling than most of what’s collected onto The Space Age is Here to Stay (though some tracks from Space is the Place naturally make it onto that compilation). But even at its most experimental and discordant, there is something imminently catchy about Sun Ra and the Arkestra. You might not be able to hum all the songs, but damned if certain chants and lyrics won’t plant themselves in your head. I’ll occasionally find myself muttering “It’s after the end of the world…don’t you know that yet?” or “If you find Earth boring, just the same old same thing…” which garners a lot of odd glances during the morning train ride. There’s a lot of electronic elements in play as well, but despite the vintage, there’s nothing to be found of synth disco beats. Think more along the lines of experimental electronica and the Forbidden Planet score by Bebe and Louis Barron. Space is the Place is also one of Sun Ra’s deftest balancing of the hopeful and the melancholy, of despair for what the world is and joy for what it could be.

Sun Ra departed this plane existence for dimensions unknown in 1993, leaving behind a stunning, puzzling, and exciting body of work that is ripe for discovery and rediscovery — even for people intimately familiar with it. It’s not meant to be understood all at once. Some is immediately accessible. Some takes years of thinking. Some of it might never be fully understood. The universe is like that. Much of the Sun Ra catalog has been reissued or is scheduled to be reissued in the near future, so there’s no time like today to delve into this taste of tomorrow from yesterday. It seems almost prophetic that this era of social upheaval, political collapse, moral abandonment, and widespread negativity should result in the reissue of Sun Ra albums. It is as if this bleak, mean-spirited world has called out to him, and he has answered, returning from beyond to offer us a sci-fi musical lifeline, an acknowledgement that yes, the world has gotten dark; and yes, a better world is still possible.

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