What we are waiting for, ask two acquaintances on Friday evening before the Kampnagel culture factory in Hamburg. “Sun Ra Arkestra is playing here.” Unbelieving looks: “Here plays Sun Ra?” Behind the curled forehead, the question: Does he still live? Not a bad question.
Herman Poole Blount, called Sonny, who turned into Sun Ra in the 1950s, was out of this world during his lifetime. He was the self-chosen sun god of black jazz, coming from ancient Egyptian past and at the same time from distant future arrived from Saturn. He recorded albums such as Pictures of Infinity, The Nubians of Plutonia and We travel the Spaceways, was a philosopher and pianist, lyricist, big band leader and inventor of cosmic sound generators such as the Sun Harp and the Space Organ. In 1993 he left the planet. His band, the collective of musicians he had gathered around, lives on earth and keeps renewing itself over the decades. Arkestra called it its founder, an artificial word from Orchestra and Ark, as the ark of the Ra. This ark is still touring through the cosmos. Last Friday, she actually made in Hamburg.
Few of the 200 visitors who are waiting for admission at the Kampnagelfabrik are likely to have recognized the musicians who are sneaking past them at around 10 pm. Marshall Allen, 94 years old, who has been directing Arkestra to Ras since 1995, wears a baseball cap over the gray hair he has tied into a stubby pot, and a crumpled beige blazer. Sports backpacks, sneakers, cotton bags: The interplanetary entourage of the Saturn Envoy knows how to make himself invisible. But one should not be fooled: they are among us. And while a little cloud of dry ice fogs up the stage a little later, as is the custom for decades, they suddenly appear among the spectators. Now without everyday disguise, in shimmering robes and cloaks, with golden turbans and sequined fez; At the front of the pianist’s hat-brim, a shining cobra spreads the neck-skin.
Twenty-seven musicians are currently populating Ras Arche, twelve are on their way, a bassist, several winds, two drummers, a guitarist, a singer, a pianist. The official website, which seems so utterly futuristic, as if it had been programmed in a moment of visionary foresight in the 1970s, makes their short-lives a quick run through the band’s history. Several members from the early and middle Ra years are there: Danny Ray Thompson, flute, saxophone, “joined the Arkestra in 1967”. When he is enthroned on stage in Hamburg with his two-pointed-nib, he looks like a revenant to Sonny himself. Abshalom Ben Shlomo, alto saxophone, clarinet, in the collective since 1970, repeatedly changes to percussion, the lifted head imposing, eyes twisted inwards.
Sixty years on duty, in spirit
Then there are the younger ones: pianist Farid Abdul-Bari Barron bows in front of Sun Ra with his cheerfully tilted game as well as Thelonious Monk, whose portrait adorns his T-shirt. Trombonist Cecil Brooks sets aside his instrument here and there for a dance. The charismatic singer Tara Middleton, who has inherited the legacy of Sun Ras’s great chanteuse June Tyson, purses her darkly painted lips.
From his position at the front left of the edge of the stage, the 100-member Marshall Allen in a red-glittering cloak holds everything together. It is said that he is a gentle man, unlike the sometimes domineering Sun Ra, who often rehearses the musicians he shared a house in Philadelphia seven days a week. Marshall Allen “joined the Arkestra in 1958”. Sixty years on duty, in Spirit, in Groove Sun Ras.
A flying carpet of space sounds.
A little bent but happy he stands there. He can be heard on the gong and the saxophone, always ready to blow sharp dissonances into the band’s fire. With looks and gestures he conducts the musicians. He mumbles, calls, sings. And intervenes in between the EWI, an eight-octave Electronic Wind instrument that sounds like you play on a discarded 56k modem flute (now these things are also available with a USB port). The ensemble is thus underpinned by a flying carpet of deep-bubbling and fuzzing space sounds. “Get out of the square”, he likes to quote the master, “get into the spiral”. Get out of the right angle, into the spiral.
The music of Arkestra is deeply rooted in Afro-American history, in New Orleans jazz, in swing, in blues, in gospel in all sound futurism. She does not want to leave tradition behind, but announces a future that draws heavily from the past.
Herman Poole Blount, aka Sun Ra, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, a few months before the start of the First World War, a boy from the deep south of the United States. He was imprisoned for refusing military service during World War II. He hired as a young man in the big band of the legendary Fletcher Henderson in Chicago. The founding father of Afrofuturism, whose visual and sound worlds spelled out musicians from Parliament Funkadelic to techno-pioneers Jeff Mills and Carl Craig to current soul artists such as Janelle Monáe, this innovator and outsider misunderstood over many years is in the first half of the 20th century Century grew up.
Seen from space next to Louis Armstrong
This Friday night in Hamburg in the year 2018, you hear it only too clearly. After a few bars, the group is in full swing. Interplanetary Music is a typical ra-tune. A beguiling melody between Duke Ellington and Thousand and One Nights, including a half hardbop, half afroroove rhythm. You know it from Sun Ras more than a hundred LPs. Yes, that’s Swing, you think, but something is alien, something is different. As if the musicians circled each other in weightlessness in complex orbits, as if their harmonies and melodies twisted into a Möbius band. It may be that you can tackle the matter musically. But you can also dance in front of the stage.
In this whirling continuum, free jazz forms the natural continuation of the older ways of playing, not their overcoming or destruction. Pulsating bass and piano motifs, embraced by a network of polyrhythms, spiritual chants and freely modulated soundscapes: Seen from space, this is right next to Louis Armstrong. The Hamburg audience – Herrendutt and hipster beard, ladies with feather on hat, a lot of gray hair, but also blue and neatly parted – understands it immediately.
At the top of the stage, there is effortless confusion. There they get up and sit down again, change instruments, put on and take off headgears, put on and off costume jackets. And under the colorful robes are always black everyday pants, shirts, shoes to recognize. The Arkestra show works like a science-fiction movie, with each shot showing the strings that float the spaceships. While the big stars of the pop business offer perfect illusionist theater, everything is in full view here. Into otherworldly realms alone relieves the music. The space-age costuming serves only as a visual support to show us the existence of higher spheres for Earthlings.
“What color are you?”
Even familiar-banal Sun Ras mythology even the source of enlightenment – when Tara Middleton praises the beauty of the sunrise or with the melancholy of a classic jazz diva of a journey across the sky. Even the sunglasses that some wear in the ensemble as a cool Assessoir, suddenly shine before meaning: Do you protect the eyes of these musicians really only in front of the bright headlights?
The alienation game is, of course, with all the jokes, not just a game. This becomes clear at the latest when Middleton, bearer of awe-inspiring Afros, insistently asks the predominantly white audience: “What color are you?” In Sun Ras’s best-known composition, “Space” is celebrated as “the place”, and in addition to all optimism, there is also the depressing realization that only the sky remains if, as a black man, one wishes to escape racism on earth.
Herman Poole Blount freed himself from his slave lineage by conferring a cosmic lineage as Sun Ra. In his appearance as an alien, however, the painfully suffered alienation, alienation, was also reflected in American society. With the same ambivalence Arkestra imagines the black, American music history as a culture “from outer space”.
The ensemble is ticking for other meters
You have to imagine this universe as a friendly place. “Friendly galaxies are waiting to welcome you,” promises Tara Middleton. For just under two hours the sky is open on Kampnagel – without revealing its secrets. With a hippie-faced freakout and indiscriminate warmth, as is the resentment against free jazz in general and Sun Ra in particular, it has nothing to do. The Sun Ra Arkestra not only swings and has the blues, it’s also funky, as in the furious rendition of Rocket Number Nine take off for the Planet Venus, which taps the 74-year-old Abs Shalom Ben Shlomo to a break dance performance on the sidelines. Even in the freest passages, the ensemble plays precisely like a clockwork – even if it certainly ticking for other meters, as the local timekeeping knows them.
In general, Sun Ras crosses musical ark in dimensions that may be unique in jazz and pop. Groups that have survived their founders, such as the recently 50-year-old world music collective Embryo from Munich, are rare enough. The Arkestra has managed not to be a ghost revue even a quarter of a century after Sun Ras Ascension. From performance to performance, it reinterprets the erratic work of the man of Saturn, out of the square, into the spiral, supplemented by compositions from Allen’s pen in Sonny’s mind.
It will, if it goes on, have enough to do in the next 100 years. Anyone who missed out on the sold-out Hamburg concert on 10 August and in Berlin the day after does not have to follow the twelve interplanetary ambassadors through Europe and the USA, but can simply be patient. They are among us. They will reappear. But they are not that young anymore, probably the most exciting big band on the planet. One should not reach higher: who knows what Sun Ra has done out there in the past 25 years, everything on the legs.