“It’s for a certain time and place of mind. It’s the only (music)…done as a possible gift from a part of a certain head to a few others. Most of you won’t like this and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not for you“.
By every indication the music shouldn’t have happened. And it nearly didn’t. The result of one quick decision that would ordain the creation of a complex and poetic new language. A musical communication well beyond the words, gestures and symbols we call music and language today. The performaces recorded on Sun Ra Egypt: Heliopolis and Cairo, December 1971 resurrects the power of ritual, belief and ceremony within music. A Sun Ra performance tapping into the truest purpose of music; a deeper communication between the human family and the gods that we reach. These recordings are a testimonial to that resurrection. As much a mythology as reality, these recordings have become a historic document from which a legend has grown.
In December of 1971, the Sun Ra Arkestra had just finished the second leg of a European tour that took the musicians through Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany and the UK. A small but fanatical cult of fans enthusiastically greeting the musicians at each stop on the tour. A creative and financial success, the tour provided Sun Ra with a unique decision to make; should the Arkestra take a last minute detour to Egypt? Or simply returning to the United States as originally planed? In reality, two additional factors played a pivotal role in Ra’s decision; 1) a willingness of Egyptian drummer, Salah Ragab (The Godfather of Egyptian Jazz) to arrange a performance and radio broadcast at the Ballon Theatre for Sun Ra. And 2) the sudden availability of inexpensive tickets that made it possible for the entire assembly of 21 musicans, dancers and performers to travel together from Denmark to Cairo. Whatever the final reason for the decision, the visit to Egypt would be much more important to Sun Ra then a working vacation. As far back as 1952, Herman Poole Blount found inspiration from the ancient Egyptian culture. Exchanging his western given-name for that of the Egyptian God of the Sun; Ra that same year. Thereafter, making his identity, Le Sony’r Ra or simply Sun Ra to the general public. From that moment forward, Sun Ra based his future on the artistic inspiration he took from Egyptian culture. For Sun Ra, this journey was nothing less then a pilgrimage to a holy place.
On December 7, Sun Ra and his Arkastra walked off their flight set to explore and create their unique brand of experimental music in their spiritual homeland. In addition to the Ballon Theater show in Giza, the band performed in the open city streets around the Mena House Hotel and at the frontdoor of the great pyramids. Typically these shows weren’t well attended with fewer then ten or twelve people watching a show. It didn’t matter, the musicians pulled their inspiration from atmosphere on the streets. Playing with a vitality and confidence in their improvisational skills. Audience members reacting cautiously to the wild street-music being played by musicians dressed in long robes and odd amulets. Arkestra also performed at the private residence of Hartmut Geerken in Heliopolis. At the time, Greerken was the Director of German Language Studies at the Goethe Institute and had invited Sun Ra to be his guest in Heliopolis. His reasoning seemed true enough; Greerken wanted to show Sun Ra the “constellations in the sky over Heliopolis” for inspiration. Again, a small but curious audience accompanied the breathtaking performance. The music and playing rich with detail and complexity. The power of the Arkestra’s live performance was buildIng with each show. The heavy touring allowed the musicians to take their music to another dimension of clarity and synchronization.
It’s easy to get lost in all the imagery with Sun Ra. And I admit to an affection for the symbolism of the Orbit of Ra; the spiritual Afrofuturism, space travel, the interstellar costumes and the narrative of exploration of the galaxy. That visual, philosophical and musical aspects of the Sun Ra mystique coming together during these live shows in Egypt. Creating music unlike anything we have heard before or since. And I maintain that the music recorded in Egypt was more then jazz music.The definition is too restrictive and limiting to define the musical language found on these recordings. Sun Ra having moved well beyond any sound associated with straight jazz very early in his career. This music was never meant to be viewed “under glass“. Or deferred to in hushed tones as a museum document. The music is a living, breathing part of life. Even calling the music “historic”, which this article has already done, presents a inaccurate narrative . Sun Ra’s music was not meant for protocols or to be frozen and fixed in the past. To call this music free-jazz or big band or hard bop or blues limits the very essence of the vision. These are musicans and performers playing across and beyond styles and forms. And we are all better for it.
Throughout Egypt 1971 the music is alive improvisation; molten hot and borderline violent and, at times, remarkably tender and beautiful. The musicians producing a combustible combination of sounds, colors and textures. The energy of the music is viseral and exploding with experimentation and the power of performance. All of this unfolding visually for the listener in the theater of the mind. Midway through the first-disc, the full Astro-Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra delves deep into a black smokeless intensity of Cosmo-Darkness. This segment of the music moving slowly, building layer upon layer of shading until the darkness cooks with intensity. Pulling the listener deeper into an atmosphere that threaten to envelop us. The mood and emotion of the performance desolving within only a few minutes. The environment drifting and shifting between chaos and beauty. On Space Loniness No. 2 the music takes a strong, futuristic turn. Sun Ra mining a complex keyboard interlude that ignites his travel into the deeper galaxy. The track’s wild orchestration feeling increasingly unhinged as the brass section wails like a haunted siren.
Have You Heard The Latest News From Neptune? Egypt 1971 is instinctual. And if the music does not touch your soul, that’s OK. Lou Reed stated as much in the liner notes of his difficult Metal Machine Music; “It’s for a certain time and place of mind. It’s the only (music)…done as a possible gift from a part of a certain head to a few others. Most of you won’t like this and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not for you“. As with love, trying to force music onto your soul makes little sense. Or pretending to hear something that isn’t there for you. But here’s a warning; this sweeping orchestra of color and sound has a power. Don’t underestimate what can happen. Music can open door to your thinking, feeling and understanding. The point is this, remain open to these performances and the sound could change your definition of music and language. Egypt 71 captures Sun Ra and his assembly during a period when the spacey language was, let’s say it, pregnant with a musical dialogue that was (and remains) organic, avant-garde and spiritual.