Music Monday: Theo Croker and James Brandon Lewis

This past week, I’ve been enjoying Theo Croker’s latest album, BLK2LIFE || A Future Past. For anyone not familiar with Croker’s work, he’s a young(ish) jazz trumpeter (the grandson, it would seem, of Doc Cheatham. Thanks Wikipedia!) whose last few albums have embraced certain elements of both Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism. 

His most recent album cover is perhaps the most blatant in this regard. Croker, seated an Egyptianizing throne, butterflies, lotus flowers, and surrounded by magical and historical landscapes (including, I believe, Giza and Los Angeles) and a field of stars. According to Croker, the album was inspired by “psilocybin meditations and astral travels” while in COVID lockdown.

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The themes present in the album cover parallel the the titles of a few of his earlier albums, including Afrophysicist, Escape Velocity, and Star People Nation. It is clear that Croker is keying into themes present not just in work of jazz predecessors such as Sun Ra, but the Black culture more broadly. The idea of a future past is perfect for me these days as I’m writing about time, the present, and contemporaneity in archaeology.

The music itself is perhaps less adventurous than the album cover. Croker draws on a wide range of inspirations from fusion era Miles Davis, to Donald Byrd’s soul jazz (who was apparently a mentor to Croker while they were at Oberlin), and, of course, the current trend toward exploring the intersection of jazz and hiphop and R&B. The cameo by Wyclef Jean is pretty fun and appearances by Ari Lennox, Charlotte Dos Santos, Iman Omari, and Kassa Overall create a range of sonic textures and opportunities for engaging with a wide range of listeners. I find the album pretty insistent without being forced and this is either a good or a bad thing, depending on your feeling about the future. 

I usually listen to an album five or six time in various settings before writing about it, but last night after a weekend when I worked too much (more on that later this week) and probably didn’t get enough rest, I put on on James Brandon Lewis’s 2019 album, An UnRuly Manifesto.

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The album cover is a bit less adventurous than Croker’s but still compelling and the music might offer a deeper provocation. Lewis is a tenor sax player who apparently cut his teeth with Charlie Haden. In fact, the album is dedicated to Haden, Ornette Coleman, and Surrealism. It is appropriate, then, that the rhythm section on this album is Luke Stewart on bass and Warren Trae Crudup III. Crudup and Stewart and tight (in a good way) and driving and provide a great foundation for Lewis, Jaimie Branch (on trumpet) and Anthony Priog on guitar to explore. While there is a lot on this album to remind one of Ornette Coleman, the places I found the album most compelling is when it evoked just a bit of Albert Ayler (such as on “Haden is Beauty”… although maybe I’m hearing mid-1960s Coleman and Cherry).

In any event, the album is UnRuly and clearly offers a pre-COVID manifesto of sorts. I’m looking forward to digging more into it this week and spinning (well, virtually at least) Lewis’s two 2021 albums Code of Being  and Jesup Wagon (with the Red Lily Quintet and William Parker on bass!) as well.   

Music Monday: Science Fiction, Jazz, and Urban Myth

This weekend, I listened to Nicole Glover’s latest album, Strange Lands. It’s pretty great. I wasn’t particular familiar with Glover’s work, although I knew her as part of the Eric Dolphy inspired group Out to Dinner and have found the music of that group intriguing, but not particularly compelling (but I’d have to listen to it more to say for certain).

Glover’s album is more interesting to me. She not only shows off her saxophone playing chops throughout — and a number of critics have associated her tone with late Coltrane — but more importantly and interesting she demonstrates a pretty deft hand a lyrical passages. From the sound of dusky smoke filled bars on “Twilight Zone” to agile and attentive playing with George Gables on Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and the lyricism of her version of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” Glover’s performances are just fantastic.

More importantly, for my current projects, she’s an huge science fiction fan and her most recent album is full of allusions to science fiction classics. The title of album, of course, is a nod to the Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land. Her reference to “Strange Land,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Hive Queen,” evoke classic science fiction motifs. The result is an album that blends an occasionally nostalgic sound with glimpses of a future that now feels just a bit threadbare.

While enjoying this album (and Play On by the aforementioned Out to Dinner) I read Yusuf Nuruddin’s 2006 article titled “Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology” in Socialism and Democracy 20.3. I don’t usually blog about 15 year old articles, but Nuruddin’s piece brought together a bunch of loose ends that I had been struggling to tie up lately. He explores the development of various kinds of urban myths that involve science fiction, UFOs, Afrocentric themes, and various interpretations of Islam and Christianity starting in the early 20th century. For Nuruddin the persistence of certain themes in Black urban culture for over 100 years suggests more than just a set of recurring popular ideas, but the emerging structure of an urban mythology that consisted of a “scathing social critique” that sought to redress many of the longstanding inequalities that face Black, poor, urban residents. The Moorish Science Temple (1913), for example, the Nation of Islam (1930), and (I’d add) various strains of Black Masonic experiences, contributed to the development of the Five Percenters (1964) and Nuwaubian Moors (1970) in the post-war period which attracted both formal acolytes and a whole range of more casual adherents who have adopted various aspects these groups’ believes and cosmology. While it is easy enough to dismiss these groups, and particularly troubled history of the Nuwaubian Moors, whose former leader is now serving a prison term for a range of sexual and financial misconduct, Nuruddin makes it clear that these groups continue a process of re-imagining Islam by incorporating science fiction motifs including ancient aliens to create a new form of urban mythology. For Nuruddin, these ideas did not exist in a vacuum, but drew on long-standing motifs, stories, and ideas shared across the Black urban experience. Their status as myth was not meant to dismiss their importance, but to validate their formal significance as a set of religious ideas worthy of formal study. Just as ancient myths derive meaning, in part, through the social milieu in which they circulated, so did these Black urban myths which seek to offer hope and history to communities alienated from their past first by the Middle Passage and the Great Migration in the 20th century and enduring poverty, racism, and political disempowerment in the present.    

David S. Anderson’s far more recent piece in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religion, “Crafting a Mysterious Ancient World: The Effects of Theosophy and Esotericism on Public Perceptions of Archaeology,” likewise takes the experience of mystical, esoteric, and New Age searchers seriously as a way to engage with a public whose interest in archaeology is often met with contempt and ridicule. More significantly, Anderson suggests that some of our ham-fisted efforts at re-education reflect fundamental ignorance of the values, practices, and interests of these groups. This, in turn, obscures the relationship between long held beliefs among these groups and popular culture which both reflects and, as Nuruddin argues influences, their attitudes toward antiquity.   

The value of these two articles to my work on Sun Ra (see here for a recent summary) is that they bridge the gap between popular culture, especially science fiction, esoteric beliefs, and the antiquity in the contemporary world. Against this backdrop Sun Ra becomes less of an idiosyncratic (pseudo?) intellectual and more of a fellow traveller who makes visible world views that academics rarely encounter, much less understand. The fruitful intersection of jazz (and more popular music, as the influence of the Five Percenters on hiphop is widely known), antiquity, religion, and Afrofuturism (or more broadly science fiction, as in the Nicole Glover album) represents one avenue through which Black, poor, and otherwise disenfranchised groups presented a social critique of academic, religious, and social institutions that they saw as repressive.

As archaeologists we should be aware of these connections and they should make us a bit more careful and deliberate with how we talk about ancient aliens and other popular beliefs in public.

Writing Ra for Real

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a project that considers how the idiosyncratic musician, intellectual, writer, and visionary, Sun Ra fits into the our understanding of both popular and academic archaeology. It’s a weird and rambling and emergent project that tries to make sense of my interests and my eclectic reading.

For most of the last year or so, I was a lost project, wandering around in some blog posts, reading notes, and play lists. This last month, however, the little dust up between Flint Dibble and the directors of a new documentary on Atlantis gave my work some new life. Here are two blog posts that I wrote in response to the Dibble Dust Up: here and here. You’ll notice some recycling (and some revision on a factual level) in what I’ve written below, but this just shows you how the sausage is made.

Here’s the first 2500 words or so of what I’m working on. I’m not sure what this will be exactly, but more and more I think my goal is to recover the stories of ancient alien visitors from the “enormous condescension” of academic archaeologists. 

Working Title: Not All Ancient Aliens

In 1971 Sun Ra arrived in Egypt for the first time. This is not an early example of the repatriation of some artifact looted in the colonial past nor is it a metonym for a future archaeological discovery. This Sun Ra was an American jazz musician, poet, philosopher, and filmmaker. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, by 1971, Le Sony’r Ra or Sun Ra, had already spent over 20 years developing his view of the Black past and future. During a brief time as a student at Alabama A&M, he experienced an alien visitation or abduction and visited Saturn where he had a meeting with a group of extraterrestrials and, at least in one account, given a vision of his own future (Szwed 2000: 29-30). This encounter initiated a transformation in Herman Blount’s life which led him to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra and to a successful career as a musician and band leader in Chicago, then New York, and finally Philadelphia. While he remains best known for his career as a jazz and avant-garde musician, recently scholars have turned their attention to his literary career which served to inform his larger than life personality and musical legacy. Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, melded flamboyant stage shows with free and avant-garde jazz, recordings and performances in which futuristic sounds conjured equally futuristic visions, and poetry, film, and public statements that appear to represent Egypt as the wellspring of global Black culture. At once committed to utopian Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism, Ra mid-century attempts to articulate a vision of a Black past combined the social and technological optimism of the post-war space age with long-standing efforts to imagine a Black past freed from the stains of colonialism and slavery.

The views of Sun Ra, and his fellow travelers, offer a distinct counterpoint to the recent spate of popular documentaries purporting to reveal hidden or suppressed archaeological knowledge. In many cases these documentaries, especially the History Channel’s Ancient Alien series, argue that contemporary archaeologists have overlooked evidence that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in ancient times and constructed monuments in Egypt, Central America, and elsewhere. According to these program, aliens may have contributed to the development of sophisticated technologies, science, and culture. In other cases, these programs revealed how archaeological sites unlocked profound mystical or spiritual truths or revealed previously unrecognized connections between cultures. In general, the claims made by these programs follow predictable trajectories and rely on a blend of real archaeology, conspiracy theories, flashy production values, and fuzzy conjectures (Turner and Turner 2021 for a recent survey of these ideas). More damning still, these programs often both rely upon and reinforce racist assumptions that various past societies, especially those that emerged in what is sometimes called the Global South, could not have developed technology or monumental structure without outside assistance. Many of the ideas trotted out on these programs rely on theories developed over the first half of the twentieth century and rejected by generations of archaeologists.

In the last decade, with the growth of social media, efforts to counter pseudo-archaeology and alternative archaeologist have redoubled. Some of this stems from a growing frustration with pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Archaeologists see this as related to the declining status of experts and higher education at a moment in history where the problems facing human society are not only complex, but also existential. Racial injustice, political and economic inequality, forced migration, and, most of all, climate change present a formidable slate of global challenges only exacerbated by the contemporary pandemic and the rise of conspiracy-driven anti-science. Archaeologists have seen nefarious consequences to the tendency for pseudo-archaeologists to simplify complex situations by offering monocausal explanations, such as the influence of ancient aliens, against a backdrop of often racist assumptions about the capacities of ancient people. Oddly enough, the eagerness to counter the most visible examples of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media has led to a tendency among professional and academic archaeologists to simplify some of the complex contexts where the idea that extraterrestrials introduced ancient technology or architecture developed. In particular, this paper will explore the appearance of alternative archaeologies and histories in mid-20th century Black culture with a particular emphasis on the work of Sun Ra. In some mid-century Black contexts, arguments for extraterrestrial interventions and other unorthodox imaginings of the Black past represented efforts to adapt traditional knowledge to the modern world, to subvert contemporary racist power structures, and to construct identities independent from the painful legacy of slavery and colonialism.

There is a growing realization among archaeologists that the discipline of archaeology has not served Black communities well. This has contributed to a sense of urgency behind calls to recognize the distinct character of a wide range of Black knowledge of the past as well as to reform archaeology as a discipline. In many cases, distinctive Black reinterpretations of the past developed alongside similar white understandings, but had fundamentally different goals. Ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media and on the internet, however, have often failed to recognize the diverse legacies of ideas associated with ancient extraterrestrial visitors and mystical homelands. These same ideas produced different legacies: in one context they lent support to racist and far right ideologies, and in another fueled utopian visions of racial justice and real gains in social, economic, cultural, and political power in Black communities. This article will excavate a test trench through the work of Sun Ra with the goal of sampling some of the roles that ancient aliens and the myth of Atlantis played in certain Black alternative archaeologies that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Sun Ra’s personal account of abduction by extraterrestrial did not produce an entirely consistent set of beliefs or understandings. It appears, however, at various times that he understood that ancient Egyptians were not only the wellspring of Black civilization, but that Black people and possible Black Egyptians were also extraterrestrials. This conflation of Afrocentrism and ancient aliens informed Ra’s onstage personal where he combined futuristic jazz and outfits that evoked both a pastiche of ancient Egyptian motifs and futuristic garb that hinted of space travel, UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. It seems certain that Ra developed his interest in the origins of Black society in Egypt, often called Afrocentrism, the work of authors such as George G.M. James, whose book Stolen Legacy: the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians appeared in 1954, but who had taught at Alabama A&M for a time before Sun Ra’s arrival there as a student. James was not the only scholar making claims that Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern civilization, so privileged by white scholars, derived from Egyptian civilization, but his book appeared in Sun Ra’s library and was widely enough to read and republished to attract an attack from no less than Mary Lefkowitz some 40 years after its appearance. In late 1940s and 1950s Chicago, Sun Ra gathered around him a group of seekers who called themselves the Thmei Society and this group read voracious and discussed ideas found in works as varied as the 19th century anti-Catholic Alexander Hislip’s The Two Babylons, or Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship o f Nimrod and his Wife (1853), various diffusionist and hyperdiffusionist world views such as Grafton Elliot Smith’s The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe (1911) and Children of the Sun (1923) by his sometime collaborator W.J. Perry, and Albert Churchward, who wrote Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1920) and whose brother would advocate for the lost continent of Mu in the Indian Ocean. Also present in his library were the works of E.A. Wallis Budge, William M. Ramsay, and James Henry Breasted as well as the mystical writings of Helena Blatavsky, Egar Cayce, and others who sought to reveal the undiscovered capacities of human intelligence from past cultures (Szwed 2000; Youngquist 2016). The Thmei Society produced a series of provocative broadsheets which they circulated in Chicago’s Washington Square Park where a cross section of the city’s Black community congregated to enjoy the outdoors, socialize, proselytize, and engage in debates (Sites 2019). In this space, Sun Ra and his Thmei Society colleagues would have had conversations with a wide range of groups including members of the Nation of Islam who frequented the park after their transfer of their headquarters from Detroit to Chicago in the late 1940s.

By the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band, dubbed the Arkestra, had started to perform and record their unique form of interstellar jazz across the city. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inaugurated the Space Age and drew the Ra’s alien abductors even closer to Earth By the early 1960s and Ra and the Arkestra’s relocation to New York City, where he and his band continued to work the probe the ambiguous origins of both Sun Ra himself and Black people. This was an incredibly active period for Sun Ra who not only continued to release music from his Chicago days, but also rehearsed, performed, and recorded almost continuously with the Arkestra. As a sample of significant albums released during the 1960s that demonstrate Sun Ra’s interest in both cosmic and mystical. For example, in 1966, tracks recorded in the late 1950s in Chicago were released as the Nubians of Plutonia in 1966. From 1961-1963, Sun Ra recorded albums such as Bad and Beautiful, Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, and When the Sun Comes Out which combine improvisational music inspired by cosmic themes often marked by electronic instruments with exotic percussion and instrumentation. The names of tracks likewise reveal a blend of Egyptian and cosmic inspiration: “Ankh,” “Solar Symbols,” “The Nile,” and “Infinity of the Universe.” This massively productive period in the Arkestra’s history culminated in their 1965 album Heliocentric World of Sun Ra, which many consider Sun Ra’s masterpiece and the most concise introduction to his distinctive form of cosmic jazz.

In 1969, a number of recording made toward the end of the decade were released as Atlantis. The B side consists of a 21-minute long track titled “Atlantis” that was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji was a Nigerian immigrant who came to the US for college and became immersed in the vibrant Black music and cultural scene in New York City while studying at NYU. His influential use of drumming and African rhythms had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his album The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views.

 It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis.  This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent”  (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).

Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that academic archaeologists have condemned. He argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, this argument sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world. 

In this context, the 1968 English translation of Erich von Däniken’s Erinnerungen an die Zukunft which appeared in the year of its publication as Chariots of the Gods, seems almost superfluous, as does the fleet of late 1960s and early 1970s books on Atlantis that spurred Impulse! records to re-release of Sun Ra’s 1969 album of the same name. Sun Ra’s impromptu 1971 tour of Egypt where he encountered an Egyptian audience that was as ambivalent regarding his views on history as they were enthusiastic about his music, did little to discourage his theatrical explorations at the intersection of the space age and antiquity. Ra and members of the Arkestra filmed themselves in full regalia dancing among Egyptian ruins. During a visit to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid the electricity failed, but Sun Ra was able to lead his party back to daylight. One of the members of his party, the German musician, poet, and philosopher Hartmut Geerken recalled Sun Ra saying: “Why do we need light, Sun Ra, the sun is here“ (Szwed 2000: 293). Earlier in the same year, Sun Ra was living in a house in Oakland provided to him by the Black Panthers and teaching a class at the University of California-Berkeley titled “The Black Man and the Cosmos.” The course featured a combination of esoteric readings, lectures, and musical performances and attracted more Black community members than Cal students. It would appear that Sun Ra’s ongoing performances, teaching, and travels complemented the growing interest in alternative archaeologies in the mainstream media, but did not appear to derive from them. They nevertheless combined to form a compelling backdrop Sun Ra’s 1974 cult classic film Space is the Place. In this film, Sun Ra clad in Egyptianizing costumes and flying a spaceship comes to Earth to save Black people from the daily injustices and inequality by transporting them to another world through the use of music. At once campy and breathtakingly earnest, Space is the Place reveals that Sun Ra’s blending of futurist and ancient iconography is more than just the playful juxtaposition of opposites, but part of a wider view of Black culture existing outside of the boundaries of time and space.

Music Monday: Sun Ra, Pseudoarchaeoogy, and Atlantis

This weekend, I listened to Sun Ra’s great 1969 album Atlantis while I thought about the recent twitter dust up between Flint Dibble and the director of a new documentary for the Discovery channel that purports to reveal the location of the lost continent. 

Dr. Dibble does a masterful job unpacking the problems with this documentary and moreover argues that this kind of pseudo-archaeology is harmful to society. I am not particularly interested in addressing the particulars of this documentary (and probably won’t watch it) and share some of his concerns about pseudo-archaeology. At the same time, over the last few years I’ve struggled a bit to understand pseudo-archaeological arguments as inherently racist. To be clear, Dr. Dibble doesn’t make the claim that pseudo-archaeology is inherently racist, but he clearly connects pseudo archaeology surrounding the myth of Atlantis to any number of contemporary white supremacist groups and racist lines of thinking. Moreover, the connection between pseudo-archaeology, white supremacy, and racism is so regularly made by well-meaning scholars that it has taken on the character of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos’s famous meme: I’m not saying it’s racist, but it’s racist. 

Of course, I realize that most archaeologists understand that pseudo-archaeology is a big tent and includes a wide range of ideas, methods, and theories that mimic the practices of academic and professional archaeology to greater and lesser extents. Moreover, the reception of pseudo-archaeology needn’t lead directly to views of the world that are, say, anti-Black, for example, even in cases when authors advance arguments with obvious racial intent. That said, the dangers of parroting or reconfiguring ideas derived from authors with racist intentions is real especially if it encourages others to explore their work and absorb their ideas. I’d also gently contend that this is a risk that academic and professional archaeologists take every day as we seek to disentangle the origins of our discipline and sometimes legitimate disciplinary knowledge from its original social, political, and intellectual context.  

All these caveats and equivocating leads me to Sun Ra’s Atlantis. If you haven’t listened to it, you should. Originally recorded in 1967 and released in 1969, this album is in many ways the culmination of the Arkestra’s seven-year residence in New York City. John Szwed, in his definitive biography of Sun Ra, argues that the mid-1960s were a crucial time for the musician as he sought to reconcile the tension between his Southern past was his hopes for a future. While he had always been reluctant to discuss his childhood and early professional life in Birmingham, Alabama, by the late-1960s Sun Ra had started to deny the existence of Herman Blount and to attempt to erase his connection with Birmingham, particularly after the 1963 Baptist Church bombing in the city. He also had become more involved in the Black Arts Movement in New York and its radical efforts to transform the meaning and purpose of Black art in the aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965.  

Ra’s Atlantis was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji’s influential use of drumming which sought to evoke African rhythms  had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views of the world and paralleled his own disinclination to publicly discuss his own early life and career. In other words, Ra’s music and personal representation embraced new forms of continuity that sought to erase the painful experiences of Black people during their enslavement and ongoing struggle in the American South. More than that, he used his music and his persona as Sun Ra to imagine the deep roots of the Black experience in Africa and the potential for the liberation of Black people in the future.  

It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis.  

This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent”  (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).

It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).To be clear Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that Dr. Dibble seeks to root out of the popular discourse. Schwaller de Lubicz argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world. 

At the same time, it is worth pointing out that Sun Ra’s reading of Schwaller de Lubicz could hardly be seen as conventionally racist. In other words, the reception of these arguments among different groups produced different reading. For Sun Ra (and a certain strain of Black readers), the mystical (or even alien) origins of Egyptian society did not sever contemporary Black culture from an African past, but anchored it in a technologically, intellectually, and spiritually superior civilization that white society had sought to suppress. When set against the narrative of the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade which severely compromised Black ties to an African past, the story of Atlantis and alien interventions in Egypt create an alternative legacy that overwrites the painful legacy of their time as an enslaved and marginalized group.   

I’ll blog more on the recent controversies on Atlantis and pseudo-archaeology tomorrow, but as a kind of warm up, I wanted to put something together that makes an effort to unpack one little sliver of the complex ways that pseudo-archaeology and the myth of Atlantis has played in American culture.  

And, as his band sings at the end of the album, I hope that “Sun Ra and his band from outer space have entertained you here.”

Music Mondays: Seasonal Parker, Roy Campbell, and Yellow

It’s the calm before the storm. The semester starts tomorrow, our campus has a mask mandate, my syllabi are ready, and cool fall weather has settled in town as if on cue. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited. The long purgatory of summer is finally over and it’s time to get back at it.

I’m also excited because I have a little gaggle of good music to share. Some of this is really new and some of this is pretty old, but all of it inspired me over the last week as I prepared for the new semester.

First, I can’t recommend enough one of William Parker’s latest albums Painters Winter. It is evidently a complement to his 2001 album Painter’s Spring which likewise features drummer Hamid Drake and all arounder Daniel Carter. William Parker is a bassist and a distinctive one at that. So both albums are not only locked down in terms of bass lines, but also showcase Parker’s distinctive style of both plucked and bowed base as well as his ability to create tonal contrasts with by playing some kind of pocket trombone thing. Daniel Carter who is capable of flight of remarkable intensity as well as passages of tonal exploration which complement Parker’s bass, is a new voice to me. Both albums are typically classified as avant-garde or free jazz, but they’re not the often crass or impulsive displays of technical bravado that folks often associate with this genre. Instead, the offer thoughtful and at times quiet music that draws the listener into the interplay between musicians. What these albums do (at least for me) is force me to think about relationships between the musicians, between the sounds, and between the instruments. Maybe it’s the recent vogue for so-called “relational ontologies” and the like that has me thinking more and more about how relationships create meaning and looking deeper into the relationships between events, individuals, objects, and sound. Maybe it’s that Parker creates a sufficiently solid foundation that almost all his albums have the kind of groove that I need to motivate and inspire me (check out “Happiness” on Painters Winter and if it doesn’t generate feeling in you, I’m not sure what will). Maybe it’s Drake and Carter can follow and play around and with Parker in a conversational way. 

Parker and Carter’s rapport got me exploring Carter’s discography a bit more fully and this led to me Other Dimensions in Music where Parker and Carter collaborate with trumpet player Roy Campbell, drummer Rashid Bakr. This album is four tracks of remarkable grooves and inspired music. If the trio format of the pair of Painters albums could sound a bit spare where space is as much part of the conversation as the notes being played, the addition of a trumpet in Other Dimensions in Music offers the potential for a denser soundscape which the musicians build slowly and deliberately. Roy Campbell’s trumpet may well be the star of this album. He coaxes a range of tones, textures, and melodic lines from it and it dances along with Carter’s reeds in a personable conversation. Parker’s wisdom punctuated by Rashid Bakr’s restrained but never hidden drum work anchors the sets. The opening track “Tradition’s Traditional Omissions Suite/Sailing Toward the Dark Happy Voice” is among the best things that I’ve listened to lately (apparently, there are those who think this group’s next album Now! is even better. I haven’t heard it yet).

Enjoying Campbell on this album drew me to some of this other work. I found what some regard as his best album It’s krunch Time to be a revelation. It features Khan Jamal on vibes (Wilber Morris on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums). Unlike the long, simmering grooves and soundscapes that constitute Other Dimensions in Music, It’s krunch Time plays like a pop album with songs rarely extending beyond 6 minutes. The result is a less organic feeling. In some ways, it feels like conversations begin, but then get cut off before they begin to wander and explore. There is, however, something to be said for its diversity of sonic textures. I like vibes and Khan Jamal and his ability to move between laid back etherial tonality and punctuated intensity makes him a natural complement to Campbell’s trumpet. Morris who I don’t know alternates between bowed and plucked bass and Brown tries to keep things moving along without stepping on anyone’s toes. Check out the cover of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and the “The Star Spangl’ed Banner” for two of the more accessible tracks. This album is a great afternoon listen and evokes a semester’s worth of classroom conversations in its 40 odd minute run time.

Finally, as readers of this blog know, I was drawn to William Parker through his association with Sun Ra. Of course, Sun Ra’s legacy goes beyond those who played with him and is particularly visible in certain branches of the jazz scene in the UK. Last week I started Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow. Synths, groovy electric bass, voices, horns, reeds, free experimentation alternate with tight scores. If the Shabaka Hutchings’ project, The Comet is Coming is about the days before the end, Thackray’s Yellow prepares the way. It feels like the continuation of Sun Ra’s late-1970s explorations (especially Lanquidity and On Jupiter) for the 21st century. It’s not only listenable, but also complex enough to reward repeated visits. Less of a conversation that the works I’ve discussed in already in this blog and more of a proper concert. Let the music wash over you and challenge you to get out of your comfy chair and experience the world differently.  

Photo Friday and a Few Random Links

It’s the start of the “Frog Days of Summer” when it’s so hot, we all become a bit amphibious to beat the heat. 

The dogs are doing their best to keep cool and hydrated.

The Barge in Summer

and to endure the terror of summer thunderstorms.

IMG 6312

I still don’t have quite enough energy for a full on “Quick Hits and Varia,” but a few links to some late-summer reading never go astray. Do check out Carl Schiffman’s essay posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog or reminisce about a summer on Swan’s Island with the late Donald Junkins.

If you have a digital project that you love, do consider nominating it for the AIA Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology

If you’re looking for something at the intersection of poetry and photography, check out Kyle Cassidy’s Optimized for Likes: Kerning the Human Altered Landscape. It’s $3 and you can get the PDF here.

If you have itchy writing figures, do consider submitting something to this coming fall’s pilgrimCHAT conference. You can read the CFP here.

This is a neat little piece on jazz violinist Billy Bang.

I’m reading Rosemary Joyce’s The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material. Oxford 2020.

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 4)

This weekend, I read and enjoyed two recent books on Black utopian thought that included chapters on Sun Ra: Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia 2019) and Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and Music of Other Worlds (Duke 2021). The two books follow a very similar organization and survey major Black thinkers of the 18th, 19th and 20th century who engaged with utopian themes: Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, as well as Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and Sun Ra. 

You can read part 1, part 2, and part 3 here, and below, the next part of my somewhat flailing effort to write a review of some recent contributions to our appreciation of Sun Ra.

Graham Locke’s Blutopia (1999) which considers the utopian visions in the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton, noted that Ra’s journey to space and his cosmic claims had parallels in African American experiences of heavily journeys associated with Christian revelation. Ra’s spaceship finds a scriptural parallel in Elijah’s chariot on which the prophet escaped escape from the earthly realm. Locke also recognizes allusions to spirituals and in the chants and dances of the Arkestra during their performances parallels to rituals in the Black church which evoked the Exodus or the incantations that brought down the walls of Jericho. Sun Ra, of course, was uninterested in explicit references to the Bible which he considered, at best, a book laced with secret knowledge accessible through cryptic readings and wordplay and, at worst, an obsolete icon in an age where spaceships replace flaming chariots (Locke, 41). His broadsheets from his Chicago days reflected a sustained effort to find new meaning in scripture on the basis of substitution and numerology, and he dismissed Christianity and organized religion as meaningless. At the same time, the often mystical references to scripture, parallels between his cosmic journey and Christian spiritual experiences, and the Afrocentric impulses that celebrated the accomplishments of the Egyptians create a public personal that simultaneously looks toward both the space age and a Black past. For Locke, the contradictory and ambiguous character of Ra’s utopian vision reflects part of the genius of his “Astro Black Mythology” situated at the intersection of specifics of history and the past and the universals of myth and the future.

Jayna Brown’s recent book on Black Utopia’s noted that Sun Ra once quipped “Me and time never got along so good—we just sort of ignore each other” (Brown 2021, 158). She goes on to argue that, for Ra, time represented a linear understanding of human experience and progress. For Ra’s utopian view, the concept of utopia as literally placelessness complements its timelessness. This created space for Ra’s commitment to the impossible and the potential for “radical alterity” (Brown 2021, 159). Nowhere is this embodied more clearly than in Ra’s identity which regularly defied definition. He was neither human, nor alien, he was not living in the past, present, or the future and his poetry, in particular, continuously sought to . This radical conceptualization of his own existence finds parallels in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany which feature creatures that defy our notions of personal identity and who exist outside of conventional time. For Alex Zamalin Ra’s willingness to operate at the level of impossible paradoxically pushed his audiences to ponder the limits and potential of new possibilities that could transcend the restricted notions of Black experience, planetary existence, and humanity itself. 

Kara Keeling’s starts her 2019 book Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), with a study of Sun Ra’s cult 1974 film, Space is the Place. Her chapter begins with a quote from an Arkestra performance in the middle of the film: “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” In the film, an extraterrestrial visitor played by Sun Ra arrives in late-1960s Oakland intent of leading Black people to a new planet in a spaceship powered by music. A mysterious antagonist called the Overseer, however, works to thwart Sun Ra’s efforts both in the present and in the past where he appeared in a Chicago club in the 1950s only to be vanquished by the power of Ra’s music. Scenes of Ra and the Overseer playing a kind of cosmic card game in a timeless and spaceless setting punctuate the film and have clear consequences for Ra’s efforts to rescue Black people on Earth. Throughout the conflict, the power of Ra’s music neutralizes the efforts of the Overseer as well as other forces, including NASA scientists, who seek to disrupt his plans. Ultimately, he manages to save Black people in Oakland by teleporting them onto his spaceship and departing the planet. Keeling notes that Ra’s vision a Black future is laced with impossibility from the music-powered space ship to the dream of colonizing another planet. Keeling’s discussion of Space is the Place opens the door onto critiques of the world anchored in progressive trajectories tied to capital and narratives political development which so often serve to deny Black people equality. By queering the tidy linearity of time, Ra creates space for new impossibilities and new pathways that are limited neither to the present nor the future. 

Sun Ra’s contributions to Black utopian visions find their embodiment in the Arkestra’s performances which were often simultaneously unstructured and highly disciplined, futuristic, yet anchored in the tradition of improvised and jazz music, and both humorous and sincere. The Arkestra’s recordings continues to combine music from across Sun Ra’s career demonstrating in practice how the rules of time need not apply. 

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 3)

I continue to work away on my review essay on recent work on Sun Ra (and you can read part 1 and part 2 which I posted earlier this week). At this stage, I’m mostly trying to marshal my ideas into something loosely coherent. It lacks a hook or lede and a consistent organization, but has given me a chance to write about jazz music, Afrocentrism, Afrofuturism and the complex legacy of Sun Ra and its place in contemporary society. 

At some point, I’m going to have to pull all these sections and try to coordinate them into a cohesive review, but this will also have to come to terms with both some classic efforts to understand Sun Ra’s intellectual contribution and more recent contributions. 

But for now, here’s more: 

Swirling’s emphasis on the Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s Afrofuturist vision, Lanquidity captures a perspective on Sun Ra’s Afrocentrism. The release of an expanded version of this 1978 classic includes the late Danny Ray Thompson’s reflections on the album. The baritone saxophone player notes that the title track, “Lanquidity” evokes an ancient Egyptian stargazing ceremony, “Where Pathways Meet” is “a funky version of an Egyptian march,” which “when the other army heard this they ran the other way, proclaiming ‘Here comes the Pharaoh Ra and his army of musicians. Time to get outta here!”, and “That’s How I Feel” includes Marshall Allen’s “snake charming oboe.” The final two tracks “Twin Stars of Thence” and “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)”  return to more cosmic themes.

Egypt 1971 is another recent re-issue that draws attention to Sun Ra’s interest in Egypt and Afrocentric narratives. It constitutes a massive collection of tracks recorded during the Arkestra’s visit to Egypt in 1971 which were previously issued under various names in the early 1970s (including Dark Myth Equation Visitation and Nidhamu/Horizon). John Szwed’s provides an account of Sun Ra’s visit to Egypt which was apparently a spontaneous detour at the conclusion of a European tour. Hartmut Geerken, a German Orientalist and jazz aficionado, and Egyptian musician and military officer, Salah Ragab, helped organize a scrappy series of concerts for the Arkestra in Egypt, which included some recordings made in Geerken’s home and some for Egyptian public television (Szwed 292-294). While the sound quality often reflected the improvised character of the Arkestra’s tour, Sun Ra’s visit to Egypt embodied his long-standing interest in Africa and the Egyptian roots of Black culture. According to Szwed, Sun Ra was disappointed that Egyptians did not appear to be descendants of the Hamitic race. 

Sun Ra’s interest in Africa and Afrocentrism represents a persistent counterweight to his more cosmic musings. Egypt 1971 provides a good window into the repertoire of the Arkestra in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like so much of Sun Ra’s catalogue, the tracks on Egypt 1971 combines new and much older compositions including compositions from his Chicago days (“Space Loneliness” and “Angels and Demons at Play”), his time in New York (“We’ll Wait for You”), and his time in Philadelphia where he and the Arkestra relocated in the late 1960s. A series of tracks titled “Discipline” represented compositions developed during the Arkestra’s European tour in 1971. Intriguingly, the track titled “Nidhamu” is discipline in Swahili.

The twin visions offered by Sun Ra, of Afrocentrism and Afrofuturism, in many ways define his ambivalent engagement with the post-war world. His continuously developing Afrocentric view of history sought to connect Black people’s past with the history of ancient Africa and Egypt in particular. These ideas, refined by such thinkers as the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop and Molefi Kete Asante at Temple University, are part of a longstanding effort to locate the origins of a global Black culture on the continent of Africa. This supposes that African culture has a kind of historical continuity often associated with its origins in Egypt, Nubia, or Ethiopia and capable of sustaining ideas both of African nationalism and of global Blackness. It also provides Black people with a history that predates the experience of enslavement and colonialism and serves as a response to whites who saw Africa as a continent without history. The close association of Afrocentrism and various forms of mystical, theosophist, and esoteric thought reinforced the notion that white European scholars sought to suppress the glorious achievements of African people, preserved especially in the ruins of the Nile Valley, as well as powerful secret wisdom possessed by these societies.

Sun Ra’s interest in Afrofuturism inspired as much by his extraterrestrial encounter as the public fascination with the space race provided a profoundly modern perspective on esoteric Afrocentric knowledge. In many ways, Ra’s Afrocentrism draws on his own experience growing up in the industrial city of Birmingham and his deep (and often explicit) commitment to an almost industrialized discipline among his musicians. The result is a complex utopian vision that is both mystical and modern, esoteric and public, and with eyes to the past and the future. In this way, it echoes his music which often juxtaposed classic jazz compositions and traditional instruments with more futuristic sounds that drew not only on electronic instruments and keyboards but also improvised and free forms of composition.  

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 2)

Yesterday, I began to work on a little review essay that considers some of recent work on Sun Ra including last year’s Arkestra album Swirling, the re-release of Sun Ra’s 1979 classic Languidity, and the recordings from the Arkestra’s 1971 tour of Egypt. Today, I turn to William Sites’ book Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) as a way to give some background to Sun Ra’s career and personal philosophy and set it against the backdrop of mid-century American urbanism and the Black experience.  

Sun Ra’s legacy, in many ways, is split between his idiosyncratic, larger-than-life personality and his music. Born Herman Blount, he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra in the 1940s when he moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Chicago. William Sites’ book Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) traces Herman Blount’s journey from the steel town of Birmingham to Chicago. Sites suggested that Blout’s upbringing and early career in Birmingham provided one key for understanding his later development as a musician and thinkers. In that city, Blount developed musical discipline at the city’s industrial high school designed, in part, to prepare Black youth for jobs in Birmingham’s industrial sector. From these encounters Blount developed his famous commitment to discipline which shape the expectations that he had for his musicians. It also instilled within him a commitment to personal betterment and advancement that was consistent with efforts in the Black community to leverage industrialization as a way to develop social, economic, and political power.

During his time in Alabama, he also had his first encounters with Afrocentric thought. Sites notes that Birmingham had Moorish Science Temple with its connections to the Masons and its distinctive blend of Afrocentric mysticism and Near Eastern lore. After high school Blount briefly attended Alabama A&M, whose founder and longtime president, William Hooper Councill (1848–1909), composed several tracts tracing the history of the Black race during his time as president of the institution. Bount’s time there may have overlapped with the Guyanese writer George G. M. James, whose Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (1935) was a rather widely circulated Afrocentric text that appeared in Sun Ra’s personal library.

It is also during his time at Alabama A&M that he was abducted by aliens and experienced an epiphany. While the exact details of his abduction remain unclear, it appears that his encounter confirmed in his own mind that he was set apart for special things. In some accounts, this encounter make him recognize that he is from outer space. Whatever the precise details of this event, it transformed Blount’s view of himself and it shaped his musical identity as well.

By the time he relocated to Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood in the late 1940s, he had has begun to develop his interest in an Afrocentric view of the world which he ultimately melded with his distinctive form of Afrofuturism. In collaboration with Alton Abraham his longtime business partner with whom he co-founded Saturn Records, Sun Ra developed the Thmei Institute. This loosely organized group of intellectuals published a series of partly mystical and partly historical broadsheets that blended theosophy, Egyptology, numerology, Christianity, and philosophy. These works set out a path for enlightenment and liberation for Black people by appealing not only to the potential of an expanded spiritual life which often drew on mystical readings of the Bible, but also to various stripes of pan-Africanism and more conventional Garveyite overtones. 

Sites argued that Sun Ra’s philosophy in the 1950s and early 1960s developed in the spatial context of post-war Bronzeville, Chicago. Concepts of urbanism changed in the post-war period as white cities increasing viewed with suspicion the growth of a prosperous and independent Black communities of the interwar period. At the same time, an increasingly disillusioned Black population realized that the promises of post-war prosperity and expanded rights grounded in the shared sacrifice of military service would not be forthcoming. In fact, Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s was characterized by aggressive efforts to limit the expansion of Black neighborhoods, through urban renewal projects that often targeted low-cost housing and Black businesses. This complemented the growth of new ideas and expectations of middle class life anchored in a rapidly developing halo of suburbs. For Sites, the growing discontent played out in Washington Park where various groups, from the Nation of Islam to Sun Ra’s Thmei collective, offered new visions of a Black future as well as new perspectives on the Black past.

Swirling draws heavily on Sun Ra’s legacy as an Afrofuturist thinker highlighting his vision of the future more than a vision of a Black past. Sites connects “Rocket No. 9” with a series of pieces that traces the route of a futuristic version of Chicago’s elevated railway across an interplanetary landscape (Sites 198-199). The call “Rocket No. 9 take off for the planet Venus” mimics the departure call of a future shuttle complete with departure tones that would sound appropriate on a modern subway. The version of the song recorded toward the end of Sun Ra’s time in Chicago included a final verse with the chant “The second stop is Jupiter” that further reinforces the connection between the rocket and a railway. Sites suggests that these pieces superimpose intergalactic imagery on the expanding suburban landscape of Chicago with the El taking Black riders not just out of the increasingly circumscribed Black neighborhoods but outward toward the newly emerging middle class suburbs. The absence of the final verse in the most recent arrangement of the piece perhaps reflects a bit of pessimism in the current situation and circumscribes some of limitlessness of the outer space and perhaps the aspirations for a contemporary Black middle class.   

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 1)

I’m taking a partial holiday today and working on a kind of odd ball side project. I have decided to start a review of recent work on and by Sun Ra. I don’t have a very clear idea how this review will go, but I know I’d like to include the most recent album by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Swirling, as well as the two most prominent re-releases Egypt 1971 and Languidity. I’d also like to note the Corbett vs. Dempsey republication of a four of Sun Ra’s poetry volumes. 

William Sites’s Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) and some recent treatments of Sun Ra’s output in scholarly literature (e.g. in Kara Keeling’s Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia 2019) and Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and Music of Other Worlds (Duke 2021). 

That all said, I want to start with Swirling, I think. Here goes:

Sun Ra’s music looked forward and backward. Swirling is the most recent release from his eponymous Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s longtime alto saxophone player and is no exception. It not only featured many of the long-time members of the Arkestra —  including the late Danny Ray Thompson and Atakatune along side Michael Ray, Vincent Chancey, Knoel Scott, and other Arkestra stalwarts — but also dug deep into the Arkestra’s vast repertoire. The result was an album that embraces the expansive Arkestra catalogue and projects it into the future though its polished production quality, disciplined performances, and new arrangements.

For connoisseurs of the seemingly infinite discography of Sun Ra’s Earthly work, Swirling requires a trip through Robert Campbell and Christopher Trent 800-page effort to document Sun Ra’s recordings. This is more than simply a forensic exercise. The works performed on Swirling connects the 21st century Arkestra to traditions of performance that stretch back to Sun Ra’s days in Chicago when he blended jazz made standard by the great swing bands of the interwar period with new forms of music that drew inspiration from the emerging space age.  

The opening track “Satellites are Spinning” flashes back to 1968, and the very end of Arkestra’s tenure in New York City. The earliest recordings of the next track, “Seductive Fantasy,” dates to 1979 during a time when the Arkestra had a modicum of popular success including an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1978. “Swirling,” the third track, is a new piece composed by Marshall Allen, but the fourth and sixth tracks dates to Sun Ra’s days in Chicago. The fifth track is apparently a piece discovered by Allen in Sun Ra’s archive. “Astro Black” was first released on one of Sun Ra’s dates for the Impulse! lable in 1973, whereas the very next track “I’ll Wait for You” harkens back to the Arkestra’s most experimental period as part of the Choreographer’s Workshop soon after their arrival in New York in 1962. “Unmask the Batman” is a pastiche of the Batman theme by the Ventures from the mid-1960s with the Arkestra original “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman” from the early 1970s. This piece served as playful reminder of when Sun Ra and some members of the Arkestra recorded a novelty album of music from the Batman television series in 1966 at the same time that they held down a regular gig at the infamous Slug’s Saloon. “Sunology” and “Space Loneliness” date to Sun Ra’s Chicago days with the former appearing on the very first album released by Sun Ra and Alton Abraham’s Saturn Records. “Queer Notions” evokes an even earlier time in Sun Ra’s musical career as the earliest recordings of this piece were by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (featuring the great Coleman Hawkins) in the 1930s. When Sun Ra first came to Chicago in the 1950s, he found work arranging music for Fletcher Henderson and when Henderson decamped for California, Ra took over his band. He continued to perform pieces from this era even at such bastions of free and improvised music as Slug’s in New York (Szwed, 224). The final track, “Door of the Cosmos/Say” returns to the late-1970s. 

The point of this long and perhaps tedious tedious archaeology of the Swirling track listing is not to finally make full use of my copy of Campbell and Trent’s The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd Edition), but instead to demonstrate how Swirling provides a distinctive introduction to Sun Ra’s rich catalogue, the Arkestra’s diverse repertoire, and most importantly, the approach to music taken by Sun Ra during his nearly half-century of performing and recording. The Arkestra’s ability to juxtapose songs made famous by the interwar big bands with music set on the bleeding edge of contemporary jazz in the 1960s and 1970s spoke to Sun Ra’s tendency to blend the past and the future in his view of the contemporary society as well as his disarming practice of combining recordings made over the course of a decade in the same album.