The legacy of musician, composer, band leader and visionary Sun Ra comes to the Union Chapel in Islington for one night April 14th 2016.
‘So slowly that it seems to not even be happening, the lights begin to come up. A single drummer in dark glasses, hood, and sparkling tunic, who can just be made out standing behind a six-foot carved drum, raises two strangely shaped sticks and begins a rhythm… others in robes, weird hats, all in dark glasses, take up his beat and add to it until the rhythm becomes a polyrhythmic snarl… Now the horns are heard, one by one, then all in a knot of dissonance, a trumpet piercing the air above them… And there in the middle of it all, his face impassive, sits a stocky, middle-aged black man in a cockpit of electronics. On his head is a cap which appears to be a working model of the solar system. He fingers, then thrashes the keyboards around him with his fists and forearms. And so it would go for the next four or five hours…. Sun Ra was in the house and in his universe’.
Owing to the recent 100th anniversary of his birth, there has been a marked revival of interest in the work of enigmatic jazz iconoclast Sun Ra. Often described as a lunatic and a genius in the same breath, Sun Ra re-wrote the rule book on traditional tropes of jazz, with his often wildly experimental music drawing from the entire history of jazz – from ragtime and swing, to bebop and free jazz. And a whole lot more besides.
In mid-30s he claimed he was abducted and taken to Saturn, and that he was actually originally from the planet - ‘They [the extra-terrestrials from Saturn] told me the world was going into complete chaos... I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me… I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me’ Ra would recount at a later date. This marked his change from a relatively conventional jazz band leader, to the mythical and ethereal persona that merged science fiction with Egyptian mysticism. It also marked a change in his music, as he turned from the big-band swing he had been making with his band to the outer-space-themed ‘cosmic jazz’ for which he is more renowned, and influenced the formation of the ideology Afrofuturism, which is reflected in Ra’s explicitly extra-terrestrial compositions.
His Arkestra, featuring up to 30 musicians, dancers, fire-eaters, singers and elaborate lighting, not to mention the outlandish, Egyptian style futuristic costumes. These costumes and stage designs were not there for theatrical diversion – they were an integral part of the total cosmic immersion expressed by the music and helped to create a visual and aural cornucopia that often divided audiences. For instance, Ra was once asked to perform for an early experiment in music therapy at a mental hospital and whilst playing, a patient who hadn’t spoken or moved for many years rose from where she was sitting, walked over to the piano and cried ‘do you call that music?’ However, support came from two of the architects of bop – Dizzy Gillespie told Ra to ‘keep it up’ and Thelonius Monk, when asked about Ra’s music, simply said ‘it swings’.
Moving his Arkestra into a communal house in Philadelphia in 1968, he would often wake them up in the middle of the night to rehearse for up to 12 hours. Forgoing all drugs and alcohol, rarely sleeping, and continually spreading his message of Afrofuturism to any that would hear, the locals who lived nearby could only complain of the unorthodox practice hours.
Ra was also one of the early pioneers of the keyboard, in particular the Moog model – he was known to both conduct and play up to six keyboards simultaneously at live performances. At a time when the keyboard and synthesiser were seen as novelties, Ra uses them to great effect, frequently altering them himself, and in the process, broadening his musical palette with unearthly textures and harmonics. Concerts were very frequent, with the Arkestra embarking on a 25 year world tour commencing in the mid-60s and playing shows up until Ra’s death. He recorded well over 100 albums of material, released from 1946 until the year of his death in 1993. Many of these were released in very small amounts through his own record label, El Saturn Records - Thurston Moore, the experimental guitarist and former leader of alternative grunge band Sonic Youth, saw the influence this method of music distribution had on the independent music scene and declared that ‘Ra was more punk than punk even pretended to be’. Influencing both his contemporaries and modern-day musicians, Sun Ra altered the way many artists approached and listened to music, spanning all genres from hip-hop to grunge.
After Ra’s death in 1993, long time band member Marshall Allen took over as bandleader. Even at 91 years old, Allen still performs with the fervour and vigour of Ra himself, and the upcoming Sun Ra Arkestra concert at the Union Chapel on the 14th April is surely not worth missing. Featuring direction from Allen, and many of the original band members who played under Ra, this is as close to the futuristic sonic madness expertly woven by Sun Ra throughout nearly 40 years of tireless music production we can get.