When Sun Ra Went to Egypt in 1971: See Film & Hear Recordings from the Legendary Afrofuturist’s First Visit to Cairo

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. 

Hear “Watusa” from that LP, above, lis­ten to the full Egypt 1971 ses­sions at Band­camp (or below), and see sev­er­al more new­ly pub­lished pho­tographs at the Vinyl Fac­to­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Col­lec­tion of Sun Ra’s Busi­ness Cards from the 1950s: They’re Out of This World

Sun Ra Applies to NASA’s Art Pro­gram: When the Inven­tor of Space Jazz Applied to Make Space Art

Stream 74 Sun Ra Albums Free Online: Decades of “Space Jazz” and Oth­er Forms of Inter­galac­tic, Afro­fu­tur­is­tic Musi­cal Cre­ativ­i­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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