The Story of Sun Ra’s Egyptian Adventure

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In 1971, Sun Ra took his Arkestra to Cairo for a series of concerts, broadcasts, and recording sessions. It was a necessary pilgrimage for the experimental pianist and his equally eccentric band. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala., he had been fascinated with Egypt for decades, and the trip was a chance to commune with hallowed ground. A pioneering Afrofuturist, he wore garments that mixed Egyptian finery with intergalactic touches and composed progressive blends of jazz that imagined space travel as a means of Black liberation. As he saw it, Black people would never find freedom on Earth; true emancipation resided on Saturn. He had become infatuated with the planet in college after an out-of-body experience that, he said, beamed him into the cosmos. “My whole body was changed into something else,” the artist reported, according to John Szwed’s biography, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. “I could see through myself.” He said aliens spoke to him: “They would teach me some things that when it looked like the world was going into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, then I could speak, but not until then. I would speak, and the world would listen.”

The music performed in Egypt was especially vibrant; connecting with his spiritual center, Sun Ra refined a sound he had been developing for many years. He started playing professionally in 1940s Chicago, as a pianist for singer Wynonie Harris and bandleader Fletcher Henderson. By 1952, he was leading the Space Trio with saxophonist Pat Patrick and drummer Thomas “Bugs” Hunter, who became cornerstone members of his ever-evolving Arkestra. Sun Ra was writing more psychedelic songs around this time, beginning his trek into avant-garde jazz. The recently released Egypt 1971 captures a significant moment in Sun Ra’s journey. Across more than three hours of music on five LPs—largely recorded by Hunter—listeners can hear Sun Ra play in the streets of Giza, near the Mena House Hotel in Cairo, in the Heliopolis home of German musician Hartmut Geerken, on a show for a Cairo TV channel, and in the capital’s Balloon Theatre.

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The Egypt jaunt was impromptu. While on tour in Europe, Sun Ra had found some cheap plane tickets to Cairo and set up a few extra gigs in Denmark to pay for them. He landed in Cairo on Dec. 7, 1971, with his 21 bandmates—a fleet of singers, instrumentalists, and dancers called the Astro-Intergalactic-Infinity Arkestra. Despite his cultlike following in America’s underground jazz scene, Sun Ra was virtually unknown in the African nation. That is, until he left his room at the Mena, a boutique hotel near the Giza pyramids where he and the band stayed. “He was sitting on a chair in [the] entrance hall, wearing a silver helmet and a floor-length, striped, synthetic robe and a tunic covered with hieroglyphics,” Geerken and his coauthor, Chris Trent, wrote in the 1994 book Omniverse Sun Ra. “Musicians in bright robes and exotic turbans scattered all over the hotel hall, alone or in groups. The hotel guests were in awe. They tried not to stare but they stared anyway…. A theatre group about to rehearse a play? A magician? Someone shooting a historical film? Sun Ra wanted to demonstrate that he was different from the other hotel guests…. He kept aloof—in his clothing, in his gestures and when he talked.” His music was a different story: As a bandleader, Sun Ra’s style was wildly expressive, and he pushed his jazz to astonishing depths, charting new territory that few have approached since.

He was aided by Salah Ragab, an Egyptian jazz drummer and chief of military music in Heliopolis, who in 1968 formed the country’s first big jazz band and became 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 lent him instruments (Sun Ra’s hadn’t made it through customs) and booked his gig at the Balloon Theatre, which, according to Geerken, didn’t go well at all. “Only the first four rows of the huge, round and ice-cold tent were occupied,” he writes in Egypt 1971’s liner notes. “Shortly thereafter, the Balloon Theatre went up in flames and burned down to the ground.” Still, the music Sun Ra played there was some of the best from the tour. “Have You Heard the Latest News From Neptune,” with its rhythmic drums and muted horns, might be the most accessible track on the album. Another performance from the Balloon gig, “Angels and Demons at Play,” delves into frenetic free jazz, the subgenre Sun Ra seemed most comfortable with.

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Egypt 1971 hits its stride 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 these moments, when the racket is stripped away, we’re reminded that he wasn’t just a jazz ensemble leader; he was an innovator, pulling strident noise and novel sounds from his instrument that were not only captivating but also revolutionary. To that end, Egypt 1971 sounds best when things are seemingly out of whack, as on the songs “Shadow World,” “Third Planet,” “Space Is the Place,” and “Horizon.” Sun Ra opens the 13-minute “Shadow World” with a harsh seven-minute organ solo, which evokes the feeling of needles on skin or being probed on an alien spacecraft. Indeed, Sun Ra’s cacophonous music is an acquired taste, but devotees and curious listeners alike will appreciate the din, even if it doesn’t lend itself to repeated listens. The arrangements Sun Ra crafted in many of these songs are as aggressive as a speeding locomotive—the entire band plays at a pummeling pace, driving forward in unison. “Horizon,” on the other hand, isn’t music as we normally imagine it. Continuing the themes of “Nidhamu” and “Solar Ship Voyage” from earlier in the box set, Sun Ra manipulates the Moog synthesizer, producing static and clatter to convey an eight-minute cosmic voyage. When played in succession, these performances represent the best of Sun Ra: Defying a staid, more traditional vision of jazz, he invented a genre all his own.

The back half of Egypt 1971 offers a more intimate look at Sun Ra and his Arkestra. At a December 12 show they played at Geerken’s home—a small affair with about 25 guests who paid $75 per ticket (many of whom had never seen a Sun Ra show)—the bandleader didn’t scale back for the smaller venue. Instead, he ramped it up, making full use of the house, giving newcomers the full Sun Ra experience. The band members, Geerken wrote,

would seek eye contact with different people and leaned way down to the guests, repeating the word ‘intergalactic,’ and there wasn’t a single person present who could resist the magic of the moment. The wind section grouped around the people sitting on the floor and charged them with screaming overtone orgies. The staircase leading to the upper part of the house became part of the action; shreds of shrill saxophone tones emerged from various rooms of the house. A group of six transverse flute players marched out into the garden and around the house while other acoustic elements evolved inside the house. But everything seemed to have a connection.

The music elicits a sacred atmosphere: “We’ll Wait for You” begins with the kind of ominous drones you’d hear in a black-and-white monster movie before building to a gospel-centered plateau of chiming bells, chants, and torrential drums. If the subsequent songs—“Discipline 27” and “They’ll Come Back”—were meant to relax the crowd, the rousing “Imagination” is a jolt back to church: “If we came from nowhere here,” Sun Ra exclaims, doubling down on his mantra of cosmic Black liberation, “why can’t we go somewhere there?” The question induces yelps of affirmation from the Arkestra; raucous horn blasts and cascading percussion join the arrangement, as if this were the closing benediction.The years following the Egypt tour were very fruitful for Sun Ra; he’d been creatively invigorated by the experience. In 1973, he released his most widely recognized album, Space Is the Place, which served as the soundtrack to his science fiction film of the same name, released a year later. He also released several live and studio recordings through Impulse! Records and his own label, El Saturn, as well as a poetry book and reissues of his older work. Sun Ra went back to Cairo in 1983 and ‘84 and reconnected with Ragab. The ‘83 meeting produced The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab Plus the Cairo Jazz Band, in Egypt, a straightforward combination of jazz and traditional Egyptian music. A year later, during Sun Ra’s final trip to Egypt, Ragab played drums in the Arkestra at the Il Capo Jazz Club in Cairo. Though they created impressive work, it doesn’t match the sheer force of the previous decade’s performances. Egypt 1971 represents a watershed moment for Sun Ra, the moment when his cosmic jazz finally made contact with the source of its creation. In Egypt, Sun Ra found a creative home. Forty-three years later, Belgian artist Tom Bogaert opened an exhibition in Cairo’s Medrar for Contemporary Art to commemorate the trip. That his journey still resonates is a testament to its importance. Egypt 1971 finds Sun Ra at the height of his power, invigorated by this spiritual homecoming and its exultant beauty.

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