Words: Mr Beatnick
Poet, philosopher, band leader, jazz pianist, composer, writer, mythologist – Sun Ra produced a vast amount of art in his lifetime, such a large amount that narrowing it down to an essential digest is a truly challenging undertaking, with literally thousands of recordings out there.
His contribution to music history can be viewed from different angles – as a pioneer of noise and experimental synth music, an exponent of so-called free jazz, a big band leader who pushed the limits of group improvisation, or a cultural ambassador who fused disparate influences from around the world into his holistic, exotic sound.
Ra maintained til the end of his life on earth that he was born on Saturn, brought to our planet by a higher power to develop our knowledge and share universal truths from other worlds.
The context of all of this is further complicated by his mission statement – Ra maintained til the end of his life on earth that he was born on Saturn, brought to our planet by a higher power to develop our knowledge and share universal truths from other worlds. If that sounds kooky now then imagine how it must have sounded in the early 1950s when he founded his first Space Trio, as told to an audience that hadn’t yet been gripped by UFO fever, early sci-fi or Neil Armstrong setting his first foot on the moon. Much of the critical narrative around Sun Ra ever since has portrayed him as a space-spouting nutter in a glittery sequined gown, entirely glossing over the rich diversity and complexity of his music in the process.
Ra is often cited as the founding father of afro-futurism, a tangent of thought which extends through the mothership connections of Parliament-Funkadelic, to the astral techno of Underground Resistance, to the aquatic, lardossian narratives of Drexciya; his work examines racial identity and the black experience in America through the eyes of an alien visiting humanity. The language of this deconstruction is peppered with his own neologisms, like the “astro-black” of outer space, the “myth-science” or “solar-myth” of creation, right down to the name he chose for his band, “the Arkestra”, a linguistic riff on Noah’s biblical safe haven. A scholar of so-called “forbidden books”, and a lecturer at Boston in his later years, Ra fused influences from literature, antiquity, religion and popular culture together to form his aphoristic “equations” and vocal chants, such as “History is his story; my story is mystery!” and “you made a mistake, you did something wrong, now make another mistake, and do something right.”
Following Sun Ra is a lifelong religion of sorts, with a truly endless universe of music to explore.
Hopefully you’re starting to get the gist of how large this iceberg really is – following Sun Ra is a lifelong religion of sorts, with a truly endless universe of music to explore. Here are 10 records worth checking out, and if you want to go in further, get yourself a copy of John F Szwed’s excellent biography Space Is The Place, watch the legendary blaxploitation flick of the same name starring Ra as himself, and make the first preparations for your moonship journey. His music will take you to other worlds they have not told you of, that wish to speak to you. Despite Sun Ra passing in the 90s, the Arkestra are still touring under the direction of Marshall Allen, and their annual performances at London’s Café Oto are the stuff of legend.