#6 in a series inspired by LCD Soundsystem’s Losing My Edge
Gather round children, this is a story.
In the beginning there was a little boy called Herman who went to college to learn to play the magic piano. Little Herman was very talented at his piano and could read and arrange music. He would grow up to use those skills.
Whilst he was at college he had a vision that the Aliens visited him from outer space. He saw them and they had antennas over their eyes and ears and they took him to Saturn by teleporter. The aliens told him he would speak to the world through music.
So Herman left college and went to Chicago to do music better. He got a job in an R&B band led by the great Wynonie “Bloodshot Eyes” Harris and made his recorded piano solo:
and he also played with the very great Fletcher Henderson swing band.
In Chicago Herman liked the Egyptian influenced architecture a lot which is there in the cold and snow for no obvious reason…
He started to get into ideas about black Muslims (he claimed to be related to Elijah Mohammed distantly) and black Hebrews. He read from the Bible, Egyptian mythology and the teachings of the esoteric Christian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. He became interested in ideas about new and old worlds, and Space. He was quite a thinker and formed a little group to make pamphlets and idea books with his friend Alton Abraham. They started to come up with the ideas of Afro-Futurism.
You can still read Herman’s clever little ideas about how the black race came from space, and how the Egyptians were the first black brothers. We don’t know if brother George Clinton could read but he definitely pirated some of this wisdom for his Parliament/Funkadelic/Rubberband express. And that goes for Bro Afrika Bambattaa too. And some others. Even up to Little Wayne and Kanye.
When he wasn’t busy making new thoughts Herman set up a record label called El Saturn (of course) and made some songs. Surprisingly a lot of these were catchy 45s, and some of the others were inspired by the hits of the time.
But there were also early records from his big band The Arkestra, and his band started to dress up in clothes that echoed both Ancient Egypt and the Space Age.
But most importantly Herman decided to change his name. Lots of African Americans did this at the time (like Malcolm X) to rid themselves of what they considered their “slave (or western) names” but few chose such an interesting new name.
And so Le Sony’r Ra was born.
Or Sun Ra as we mostly call him now.
Allow himself to introduce… himself:
When my friend Jez Nelson interviewed Sun Ra he started -
“Sun Ra, you’re a man who has made hundreds of records and travelled the planet”
Which seemed a sensible opening gambit .. but Ra stopped him dead:
"I’m not a man – I’m an angel.”
Sun Ra and the Arkestra moved to New York and stepped it up a gear. They started to try to travel the Spaceways through their music. It became more and more avant-garde tapping into the new developments in “Free Jazz” (which often sounds like chaos and squawking, but actually is about energy and passion). The band all played percussion as well as their main instruments giving the Arkestra a driving rhythmic force borrowed from African music. They made this classic album, which is still THE one to choose out of his 300 or so records.
The title track is the best bit (with its chanting) but it’s very long, so why not try the strange bangs and bumps of Rocket Number Nine? It is easier and shorter but still great.
Ra also started to experiment with electronic instruments and was one of the first musicians to do so with organs and electric keyboards. Many of the Arkestra’s other worldly sounds for their cosmic music came this way. Later he got a Moog synth given to him and made a very strange proto funk album called Lanquidity which included this jam “Where Pathways Meet”
And if that’s not accessible enough there’s always Ra’s protest single “Nuclear War”
These steps plus the fantastic costumes and the Arkestra’s strange psychedelic lightshows made him a bit of a favourite with hippies and he started to reach more people. He even got on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
He even became a teacher and gave musical lectures on “The Black Man In The Cosmos”.
Afterwards Ra moved his whole Arkestra to a single house in Philadelphia where they lived together in a commune (that’s where lots of grown-ups who aren’t a family live together in one house). Here’s his front door so you knew you’d come to the right place:
Many of the Arkestra’s musicians like Pat Patrick, John Gilmore and Marshall Allen stayed with him for years, and even until they died. The house was their base from which they toured and toured and toured. And Sun became fascinated with Walt Disney’s music. He made a classic version of the Pink Elephants theme from Fantasia which showed the accessibility of his later music and you may well like it although it’s a little crazy.
Children, in the end Sun Ra died, but his music (which we cannot tell you all about because there is so much of it) didn’t die and you can live with him through it. His Arkestra and the remaining musicians still tour the world today playing his music, and there are lots of tribute bands of which the one run by Jerry Dammers of the Specials (the Spatial AKA) is one of the best. Or you can watch the brilliant video they made about Ra himself while he was alive called “A Joyous Noise”.
In Sun Ra’s hands it really, really was.
[when trying to find a Sun Ra for today it is obvious to think of dropping George Clinton or maybe Prince. There is a stream through these three and although Clinton and Prince are more famous they serve many of the same masters. The ideas of Lester Bowie and The Art Ensemble of Chicago were contemporary with Ra but have many of the same themes (and the same costumes). But Cool Accidents is inclined to think of the way Mark E Smith has piloted The Fall through multiple incarnations to the present through over 30 albums. Just as Ra always took the Arkestra back to swing, Smith often returns to a brutal pummelling rockabilly. And he has his own philosophy just as abstract as Ra’s. It wouldn’t surprise me if I found out his blood was green either!]