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‘Like many African American musicians, Sun Ra fantasised about Africa,’ says writer Joseph Ghosn

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Tuesday, 12 January 2021 14:39

Sun Ra at the Jazz Middelheim festival in the Netherlands in 1990 © Frans Schellekens / GettyImages

The Arkestra, a musical ensemble formerly led by the late African American jazz musician Sun Ra, is releasing a new album called 'Swirling'. Journalist Joseph Ghosn looks back on Sun Ra’s work and radical political thinking.

It’s been 27 years since Sun Ra passed away. However the Arkestra, the avant-garde pianist’s big band, continues to honour the leader’s mission on Earth. Sun Ra explained that he was propelled to Saturn by extraterrestrials who encouraged him to use his art to overcome chaos. As proof, the band released a new album called Swirling (Strut Records) on 30 October.

The dashing old men of the Arkestra, led today by saxophonist Marshall Allen (96 years old), have concocted a cosmic trip, mixing standards (including Rocket N°9, sampled notably by Lady Gaga) fitted with new arrangements and convincing novelties (Darkness).

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The group has not lost its unique style. It continues to rely, for its live concerts, on the space opera decor imagined by Sun Ra, a pioneer of Afro-futurism, who used the myth of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt to construct an Afro-American identity.

We sat down with the journalist and writer Joseph Ghosn, author of an extensive biography, Sun Ra – Palmiers et Pyramides (Sun Ra – Palm Trees and Pyramids).

The Africa Report : What did you think of Swirling?

Joseph Ghosn: It’s a good record, it has the same energy, the same passion as before. The Arkestra’s repertoire continues to live on. But for me, without Sun Ra, it will never really be quite the same. He always breathed something unexpected into his music. Like when, in the late 1960s, he used the Moog, one of the first synthesizers, which produced sounds that were totally unusual at the time.

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For the album Strange Strings (1967), he asked his musicians to play exotic instruments that they weren’t even proficient at! Earlier, at the start of the 1960s, during a recording session at the Choreographer’s Workshop in New York City, percussionist Tommy Hunter made the wrong connections, creating an echo effect throughout the track. Hunter was apologetic, but Sun Ra said not to erase anything so that they would be able to release a host of amazing albums that use this psychedelic reverb effect.

You explain in your biography that Sun Ra had an early political consciousness.

Yes, it was born very early, when he was living in Chicago. He had a separationist attitude: African Americans, in his opinion, should live in a nation established just for them. However, he later changed his mind, even before Arkestra was created. He no longer spoke of a separate state, but of a fantastical elsewhere, Saturn, based on an imaginary world drawn from the Egypt of the pharaohs.

This marginalisation is rooted in reality. In 1942, he refused to be enlisted in the US army and went to prison.

There are many myths surrounding this refusal to join the army… Some also say that he was ill, that he had a hernia. One thing is certain, he did well in prison.

To reinvent himself, he went so far as to change his real name, Herman Blount.

It’s because his former name has ties to the history of slavery, of segregation. Many other jazz musicians have done the same thing. In fact, more broadly, he would go on to inject his political activism into his approach to music. Sun Ra became totally independent, controlling all his artistic production, at a time when this was not common.

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In 1957 he created his own label, El Saturn, with an associate, Alton Abraham. He self-produced his records, assembled the covers of his albums himself… There is obviously this idea that independence comes from managing your own economic affairs. The band was self-sufficient, a bit like a sect: in the 1970s, they all lived in the same house. Sun Ra was the boss and would call up any musician, night and day, to play music.

How do you explain his fascination with Egypt?

Like many African American musicians of his generation, especially jazz ones, he fantasised about Africa. Some of them wanted to go back to their roots. He claimed to have come from elsewhere, from Saturn. He cultivated this strangeness, which was his strength, as it allowed him to hold apparently extravagant positions or remarks. For example, in the film A Joyful Noise, we see him saying in Washington, in front of the White House: “I don’t see the Black House.”

When he disguises himself as a pharaoh, you can feel that it is both pure fantasy and a theatrical act, but that there is also an element of sincerity. Myth and reality merge, he became his character. He went to Egypt in 1971, purchasing the tickets for all his musicians with the money made from the band’s ticket sales. The trip was chaotic… On arrival, all the instruments were confiscated by customs officers. However, they borrowed instruments and even managed to record albums!

Do you see his heirs in today’s music?

Yes, for example with the hip hop producer Madlib. But also with Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Erykah Badu… The list could be much longer because Sun Ra is first and foremost a musical genius with a rich repertoire [specialists mention more than a thousand recorded pieces] from which everyone has been able to draw inspiration.

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How can new fans approach such an abundant discography?

There are a lot of entry points… I would recommend albums that were recorded in a traditional studio, like Lanquidity (Philly Jazz) or Sleeping Beauty (El Saturn), which contain some very beautiful, very poppy stuff. The band never ceases to amaze, at one point the Arkestra was only doing covers of Walt Disney’s music!