I’d like to tell you about one of the most mythic entities that ever walked the face of this planet. In my opinion, he fits the description of “Strange Sounds From Beyond” in the best and most literal way possible.
I’m talking about Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount), an innovative jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher. But he would much rather be known as an angel from the planet Saturn.
“What was he on and where can I get some of it?” That is usually one of the first things people would say when they hear of this. The truth is, he had never done drugs in his life and barely drank any alcohol. So, how did he get to this point?
Sun Ra was born in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914 and was nicknamed “Sonny” really early on. As a young child he showed an interest in music, started playing the piano and by the age of 11 he was composing and sight-reading.
He was an avid reader who spent most of his time in solitude. He had a vivid imagination that he fed by learning all he could. It is said that he was reading all the time at the library of the local Prince Hall Lodge and had gone through their collection of books on esoteric concepts and Freemasonry.
Then, supposedly around 1937, something life-changing happened. Sun Ra had an epiphany: a vision of his visit to Saturn as an astrally-projected entity, where he met aliens that warned him of impending chaos on Earth and foretold that through his music, he “would speak, and the world would listen”. This view of himself as a visionary from outer space became a huge part of the mythology that Sun Ra created to go along with his music.
After this momentous experience, he moved to Chicago to pursue his goals in music. His debut recording was in 1946 when he played piano with blues artist Wynonie Harris on the track “Dig This Boogie”
On October 20, 1952, he legally changed his name into Le Sony’r Ra, which eventually evolved into Sun Ra – inspired by Ra, the Egyptian God of the Sun. He had most likely changed it for a reason not so different from Malcolm X and later Muhammad Ali, which was to stop acknowledging their “slave-name”, the white last name forced upon them by their slave masters.
He led several groups like The Sonny Blount Orchestra and The Space Trio until they evolved into his band Sun Ra & His Arkestra around the mid 50s. In total, they had more than a hundred different members, with some staying for a few months and others that never left.
Some notable personalities of the band are saxophonists John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and singer/dancer June Tyson. Their live performances quickly became notorious. The stage was often filled with 30+ musicians and dancers all dressed in outfits that were a combination of Egyptian mythology and science fiction themes.
The name “Arkestra” is a word play of both the word “orchestra” and “the ark of the covenant” in the Old Testament, as in the ark that transported the Egyptian God Ra.
Many different variations of the band’s name were thought up, like the Solar Arkestra, the Myth Science Arkestra, the Afro-Infinity Arkestra and dozens more. Ra justified the name changes by attributing them to the fact that his music was ever-changing.
Here’s an impression of what went down at their shows:
The first album they did together was Jazz By Sun Ra Vol. 1, where you can already hear his intergalactic-ness coming through.
“Sun Song” (1957)
Sun Ra and the Arkestra moved from Chicago to New York in the early 1960s and finally to Philadelphia in 1968. Many of the members lived together with Ra in his residences.
In 1972 the producers John Coney and Jim Newman, together with screen writer Joshua Smith began collaborating with Sun Ra on an 85-minute movie called Space Is The Place. Two years later it was released. This movie would fit right in the “blaxploitation” genre combined with science-fiction. It’s also the perfect example of an Afrofuturistic work, a term that was first coined in 1993 by cultural writer Mark Dery.
Nowadays, Afrofuturism is a cultural movement featuring futuristic or science fiction themes that incorporate elements of black history and culture. Some artists that fit this description are George Clinton (Parliament-Funkadelic), Afrika Bambaataa, Janelle Monae, Flying Lotus and Onyx Ashanti. Sun Ra was the afronaut that spearheaded this type of thinking and flew the spaceship.
“Space Is The Place” (1974) – movie intro
“Space Is The Place” (1973) soundtrack
Another notable movie is the 1980 Robert Mugge documentary film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.
The tracks below are some examples of Sun Ra’s artistic brilliance.
By no means are these the best tracks, they are just some of the tracks that had touched me over the years that I felt like sharing. I suggest that you go on your own sonic journey to discover what your favorites are!
“Moonship Journey” (1976)
“That’s How I Feel” (1978)
Sun Ra Quartet : “When There Is No Sun” (1978)
“Door Of The Cosmos” (1979)
I could easily share hundreds of songs, because the Sun Ra discography is one of the largest in music recording history. He recorded countless tracks and released most of it on his own label El Saturn Records. Many of them were limited to about 75 copies per album with hand-painted covers by the band members that they then sold at the next show. These rare and highly sought-after albums go for high prices on Ebay and Discogs. Luckily for the majority of us, a lot of labels are working hard to reissue these albums to make it available for everyone; and they’re doing a pretty good job so far!
Sun Ra left this planet on May 30, 1993. He was 79 years old. After his passing, saxophonist Marshall Allen took over the reins and continue to lead the Arkestra to this day! Marshall is now 92 years old and is still kicking it intergalactically with many of the original members. 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the Arkestra, so there are going to be a lot of shows this year! Take the opportunity to see them whenever they’re in your area, before it’s too late.
From the stories I read it seemed he wasn’t interested in women at all and never wanted to have kids. There are theories that he could have been asexual and/or gay. But none of these things matter, I think. He had a clear understanding of what his purpose was on planet Earth. His dedication to music was everything. It was normal in the Arkestra house to be woken up by Ra in the middle of the night to then rehearse for the next 12 hours. You always had to be ready.
I’d like to leave you with the following quote by Ra.
“If you are not a myth whose reality are you? If you are not a reality whose myth are you?”
My conclusion? Yes, he was an angel from Saturn sent here to uplift humanity, to broaden our knowledge and to share universal truths from other worlds.
And I think that’s exactly what he did. Thank you, Sun Ra.