The story of Sun Ra’s Egyptian adventure
In 1971, Sun Ra took his Arkestra to Cairo for a series of concerts, shows and recording sessions. It was a necessary pilgrimage for the experimental pianist and his equally eccentric group. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he had been fascinated by Egypt for decades, and this trip was a chance to commune with a sacred land. A pioneering Afrofuturist, he wore clothes mixing Egyptian adornments and intergalactic touches and composed progressive mixtures of jazz that envisioned space travel as a means of liberation of blacks. According to him, blacks would never find freedom on Earth; the real emancipation resided on Saturn. He had become infatuated with the planet in college after an out-of-body experience that he said had thrown him into the cosmos. “My whole body has been changed into something else,” the artist reported, according to the biography of John Szwed, Space is Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. “I could see right through myself. He said aliens had spoken to him, “They would teach me certain things that when it looked like the world was going to fall into complete chaos, when there was no hope of anything, then I could talk, but not. before. I would speak and the world would listen.
The music played in Egypt was particularly vibrant; Connecting to his spiritual center, Sun Ra refined a sound he had been developing for many years. He began performing professionally in the 1940s in Chicago, as a pianist for singer Wynonie Harris and conductor Fletcher Henderson. In 1952 he led the Space Trio with saxophonist Pat Patrick and drummer Thomas “Bugs” Hunter, who became the founding members of his ever-evolving Arkestra. Sun Ra was writing more psychedelic songs during this time, beginning his journey into avant-garde jazz. The recently released Egypt 1971 captures an important moment in Sun Ra’s journey. Over the course of over three hours of music on five vinyl records — much of it recorded by Hunter — listeners can hear Sun Ra perform on the streets of Giza, near the Mena House hotel in Cairo, in the house of Heliopolis. by German musician Hartmut Geerken, during a performance for a Cairo television channel and in the capital‘s Balloon Theater.
The trip to Egypt was impromptu. While touring Europe, Sun Ra had found cheap plane tickets to Cairo and had arranged a few more concerts in Denmark to pay for them. He landed in Cairo on December 7, 1971, along with his 21 band mates, a fleet of singers, instrumentalists and dancers called the Astro-Intergalactic-Infinity Arkestra. Despite his cult following on the American underground jazz scene, Sun Ra was virtually unknown in the African nation. That is, until he leaves his room at the Mena, a boutique hotel near the Pyramids of Giza where he and the group stayed. “He was sitting on a chair in [the] entrance hall, wearing a silver headpiece and long synthetic striped dress and tunic covered in hieroglyphics, ”Geerken and co-author Chris Trent wrote in the 1994 book Omniverse Sun Ra. “Musicians in bright dresses and exotic turbans scattered around the hotel lobby, alone or in groups. Hotel guests were amazed. They tried not to look but they looked anyway…. A theater company about to rehearse a play? A wizard? Is someone making a historical film? Sun Ra wanted to show that he was different from other hotel guests…. He stood aside, in his clothes, in his gestures and when he spoke. His music was another story: as a conductor, Sun Ra’s style was extremely expressive, and he took his jazz to amazing depths, tracing new territory few have since approached.
HWe were helped by Salah Ragab, Egyptian jazz drummer and head of military band in Heliopolis, who in 1968 formed the country’s first major jazz group and has become something of a legend himself. He and Geerken had been devoted fans for years, and during Sun Ra’s two-week stay in Egypt, Ragab loaned him instruments (Sun Ra had not gone through customs) and booked his concert at the Balloon Theater, which, according to Geerken, did not go well at all. “Only the first four rows of the huge round and icy tent were occupied,” he writes in Egypt 1971liner notes. “Soon after, the Balloon Theater caught fire and burned to the ground.” Still, the music Sun Ra played there was some of the best on the tour. “Have You Heard the Latest News From Neptune”, with its rhythmic drums and muted brass, might be the album’s most accessible track. Another performance from Balloon’s concert, “Angels and Demons at Play,” delves into frenetic free jazz, the subgenre Sun Ra seemed most comfortable with.
Egypt 1971 climaxed on the second LP, where, on the tracks “Space Loneliness No. 2”, “Discipline No. 11” and “Discipline No. 15”, Sun Ra is more of a soloist, using deep chords on the organ to play meditative drones. In those moments, when the racket is removed, we remember that he was not just a jazz ensemble conductor; he was an innovator, extracting screeching noise and new sounds from his instrument that were not only captivating but also revolutionary. To this end, Egypt 1971 sounds best when things seem out of whack, like on the songs “Shadow World”, “Third Planet”, “Space Is the Place” and “Horizon”. Sun Ra opens the 13-minute “Shadow World” with a hard seven-minute organ solo, which evokes the sensation of needles on the skin or being probed on an alien spaceship. Indeed, Sun Ra’s cacophonous music is an acquired taste, but enthusiasts as well as curious listeners will appreciate the din, even if it does not lend itself to repeated listening. The arrangements Sun Ra has crafted in many of these songs are as aggressive as a high-speed locomotive – the whole band play at a breakneck pace, moving forward in unison. “Horizon”, on the other hand, is not music as we normally imagine it. Continuing the “Nidhamu” and “Solar Ship Voyage” themes from the beginning of the set, Sun Ra manipulates the Moog synthesizer, producing static and clicking to convey an eight minute cosmic journey. Performed successively, these performances represent the best of Sun Ra: defying a stilted and more traditional vision of jazz, he invented a genre of his own.
The backs off half of Egypt 1971 offers a more intimate look at Sun Ra and his Arkestra. At a December 12 show, they performed at Geerken’s home – a small affair with around 25 guests who paid $ 75 per ticket (many of whom had never seen a Sun Ra show) – the chef de orchestra did not reduce the size of the hall. Instead, he stepped it up, making full use of the house, giving newcomers the full Sun Ra experience. The band members, Geerken wrote,
was looking for eye contact with different people and leaning towards the guests, repeating the word “intergalactic”, and there was not a single person present who could resist the magic of the moment. The wind section gathered around the people sitting on the ground and charged them with screaming harmonic orgies. The staircase to the top of the house has become part of the action; shreds of high-pitched saxophone sounds emerged from various rooms in the house. A group of six transverse flute players walked through the garden and around the house while other acoustic elements evolved inside the house. But everything seemed to have a connection.
The music sparks a sacred atmosphere: “We’ll Wait for You” begins with the kind of menacing drones you’d hear in a black-and-white monster movie before transforming into a gospel-centric set of bells, songs and torrential drums. If the following songs – “Discipline 27” and “They’ll Come Back” – were meant to relax the crowd, the lively “Imagination” is a comeback to church: “If we came out of nowhere here”, s’ exclaims Sun Ra, doubling down on his cosmic black liberation mantra, “why can’t we go somewhere out there?” The question elicits cries of affirmation from the Arkestra; hoarse horn blasts and cascading percussions join the arrangement, as if it were the final blessing. The years following the tour of Egypt were very fruitful for Sun Ra; he had been creatively invigorated by the experience. In 1973, he released his most famous album, Space is the place, which served as the soundtrack for his science fiction film of the same name, released a year later. He has also released several live and studio recordings via Impulse! Records and his own label, El Saturn, as well as a book of poetry and reissues of his older works. Sun Ra returned to Cairo in 1983 and 1984 and reconnected with Ragab. The 83 meeting produced Sun Ra Arkestra meets Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band, in Egypt, a direct combination of jazz and traditional Egyptian music. A year later, on Sun Ra’s last trip to Egypt, Ragab was playing drums in the Arkestra at Il Capo Jazz Club in Cairo. While they created an impressive job, it doesn’t match the strength of the previous decade’s performance. Egypt 1971 represents a defining moment for Sun Ra, the moment when his cosmic jazz finally made contact with the source of his creation. In Egypt, Sun Ra found a creative home. Forty-three years later, Belgian artist Tom Bogaert opened an exhibition at the Medrar for Contemporary Art in Cairo to commemorate the trip. The fact that his career still resonates is testament to his importance. Egypt 1971 finds Sun Ra at the height of his might, invigorated by this spiritual return and his exultant beauty.