Spring 2004

The Eight-Fold Path to Knowing Ra

Space is the place

Greg Rowland

Film still from John Coney’s 1974 film Space is the Place. Courtesy Plexifilm.

Sun Ra was the most far-out cat that ever lived. He led a large band that made a joyful Space Jazz Noise Vibration from the early 50s up until Ra’s planetary departure in 1993. He was from the planet Saturn.

Ra knew that time was on his side. He didn’t run about town chasing a record deal or getting record pluggers to hype his records into the charts. This would have been kind of difficult anyway, as most of Sun Ra’s 7-inch singles—produced by his own independent record company Saturn—had runs of a few hundred copies, sometimes just fifty. Often, the covers to his many singles and albums would be hand-painted. He said:

In my music there’s a lot of little melodies going on. It’s like an ocean of sound. The ocean comes up, it goes back, it rolls. It might go over people’s heads, wash part of them away, reenergize them, go through them, and then go back out to the cosmos and come back again. They go home and maybe 15 years later they’ll say “Whoa, that music I heard 15 years ago in the park ... it was beautiful!”

In one earthly prosaic version of events, he who is Ra was born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. You can forget this, because Ra did. He was actually a messenger from the planet Saturn, like Elijah blowing Gabriel’s Horn, to inform and prepare us for serious cosmic shit. He described himself as The Jester of the Creator.

His mission can be best explained by the business plan sent to register his company Ihnfinity Inc.—which can still be found amidst the dusty files of Chicago’s Board of Trade—and distinguished by its cosmological aura of space-peace and optimism:

To perform spiritual-cosmic-intergalactic-infinity research works relative to worlds-dimensions-planes in galaxies and universes beyond the present now known used imaginations of mankind, beyond the intergalactic central sun and works relative to the spiritual advancement of our presently known world. To awaken the spiritual conscious of mankind putting him back in contact with his “Creator.” To make mankind aware that there are superior beings (Gods) on other planets in other galaxies. To help stamp out (destroy) ignorance destroying its major purpose changing ignorance to constructive creative progress. To use these spiritual-cosmic values for the greater advancement of all people of earth and creative live beings of the galaxy and galaxies beyond the central sun. To establish spiritual energy refilling houses where people can come to refill themselves with spiritual energy and to seek their “natural Creator” (God). To perform works as the “Creator” wills us, “Ihnfinity,” to perform.

Sun Ra and space go together like Shakespeare and a convoluted metaphor. The Solar-Myth Arkestra, one of about 60 different names that the band performed under, was like a crew for a heliocentric space-ship that had only been invented in the quasi-dimensional world of harmony and timbre. But they were well trained. Romantic involvement was frowned upon, and drugs of all kinds absolutely forbidden. They had more important stuff to do. They had to prepare the world for the coming of the Spaceways. Ra was a True Fundamentalist of Modernism.

Through one important Percepto-Lens, Ra made an enormous contribution to the aestheticization of black resistance to oppression. Africa, and especially Egypt, via the Cosmo-Sun Connection, the heliocentricity that put the Sun in Ra and the Ra in Sun, became a powerful floating metaphor. Yet, within the free-floating domain of non-causality, the Cosmic-Egypt-Creator complex serves as an exploration of an ultimate Otherness drawn to the centre of our experience. 

Though Ra’s music had an arcane meaning, it also spoke to anyone who wished to change dancing partners in the Eternal Waltz of Self and Other.

Ra was like a Medieval Kabbalist, playing both sides of an argument with equal force and passion. He encouraged his band to play “the wrong way,” because any old bunch of schmucks could play music the right way. He once told his bassoonist James Jacson: Jacson, play all the things you don’t know! You’ll be surprised by what you don’t know. You know how many notes there are between C and D? If you deal with those tones you can play nature and nature doesn’t know tones. That’s why religions have bells, which sound all the transient notes. You’re not musicians, you’re tone scientists.

Ra explored every conceivable musical genre, and many that defy earthly classification. He always used a big band, embracing the whole jazz tradition from swing to the avant-garde to the blues to classical. It was all music—and it was all good.

Sun Ra released the single “Disco 3000” in 1975, 20 years before Pulp made “Disco 2000.” This puts things in an appropriate perspective.

While Kraftwerk were still wearing short lederhosen, Ra was experimenting with early electronic instruments. Electric Pianos, Moog synthesisers, theremins, strange homemade clavinets, found objects and an African Space-Drum all found their way into the band. He also used a lightning drum, a space harp, a space-dimension mellophone, a space master piano, an intergalactic space organ, solar bells, a sunhorn, Egyptian Sun Bells, an ancient-Egyptian Infinity Drum, a boom-bam, and a cosmic tone organ. Some of these were regular instruments transformed by intentionality into a new cosmic purpose. Others were altogether more mysterious.

Sun Ra was the most mystical a human can get before transmogrifying into a Pure Cosmic Trace. Perhaps because of his love of jokes and conceptual conflict, many saw him as something of a kooky guy. Yet his cosmological philosophy was steeped in learning, comprising intimate knowledge of Egyptology, Biblical exegesis, Rosicrucianism, African myth, numerology, and crypto-linguistics. Ra was as much Yeats as Blavatsky, a modernist squeal through the brass tubes of mysticism, a clinker and a clanker in a junkyard that doesn’t exist here yet. Ra brings us back to everything that was far out in that first blast of the modern, the sense of the automatic, the inversion of leftover histories, the exploration of “an uncertain borderland for which ordinary language is not shaped.”

You should never choose to buy a Sun Ra record—it should choose you. Go to a record shop and find the section marked Sun Ra. Shut your eyes and slowly flip through the covers. Stop when a strange heliocentric sub-pulse wave vibration emanation occurs. Select the record you were touching at that precise moment and purchase in the normal manner.

But you should read John F. Szwed’s brilliant Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. It’s one of the best books ever written about anything.

Greg Rowland is contributing editor at the Idler magazine. He also sells semiotics to multinational corporations. He is based in London, England.

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