Sun Ra died in 1993 (or he returned to his home planet of Saturn, one or the other). Twenty-seven years later his Arkestra is still going strong. “No group in jazz history has embodied the communal spirit like the Arkestra,” writes Peter Margasak at The Quietus. “Their hardcore fans are the closest thing jazz has to Deadheads.” We could further compare Sun Ra and Jerry Garcia as bandleaders—their embrace of extended free form playing against a background of traditionalism. Folk, and country in Garcia’s case and big band swing in the work of the man born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914.
But (all due respect to Jerry, and he earned it), Sun Ra had a vision that was wider than his dedicated fanbase. He harnessed the powerful symbols of ancient Egypt and other African kingdoms to form the base of his Afrofuturist message, a blend of “Black Nationalism, ancient spirituality, and science fiction” for the jazz masses. Ra fleshed these themes out fully in his 1974 film Space is the Place, a sci-fi fantasy in which he battles his adversaries in a plan to transport Black Americans to a new planet.
What seems like a call for separatism is really an allegory critiquing what scholar Daniel Kreiss calls the “terrestrial community programs” of the Black Panthers and the ills of poverty, racism, and exploitation. “Only the band’s use of technology and music will liberate the people by changing consciousness” the film suggests. Space, and ancient Egypt, are also places in the mind. Sun Ra had his own consciousness changed a couple year earlier when he visited the real Egypt for the first time in 1971. The resulting recordings—newly released—stand as “one of Sun Ra’s major works” Edwin Pouncey writes at Jazzwise, and “would lead him to other worlds of inner discovery in the future.”
Film of the 22-member collective at the pyramids (top), taken by Arkestra member Thomas Hunter, creates “an audio-visual teleportation into their interstellar universe,” The Vinyl Factory’s Gabriela Helfet remarks. Previously unpublished photographs of the Cairo concerts complete the image of the band as a psychedelic pan-African spaceship made of music. Where will it take you? Wherever you need to go. In a recorded Q&A held during one show, Sun Ra tells the audience that his adopted name is “my natural, vibrational name,” his true identity.
Each person, Sun Ra suggests, has to find to find their own frequency. “Progressive music is keeping ahead of the times, you might say. In America they call it avant-garde music. It’s supposed to stimulate people to think for themselves.” The message and the music resonated, and the band would return to Egypt two more times in the coming decade after their first visit, as Bradford Bailey notes:
Beyond personal appeal, the trip proved creatively fruitful—introducing the entourage to figures in Cairo’s growing jazz scene. The most notable was Salah Ragab—founder of the seminal outfits, The Cairo Jazz Band and The Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble, with whom they would collaborate on their second and third visits, recordings of which came to light on the 1983 LP, The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab Plus The Cairo Jazz Band – In Egypt.