Sun Ra ‘77
1977 was a busy year for Sonny.
On January 6, the Arkestra appeared at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, Maryland again under the auspices of the Left Bank Jazz Society. No recording exists, but “[a]ccording to a review by Ken Buford, reprinted in the Baltimore Jazz Scene 1977, the program included ‘Along Came Ra,’ ‘Calling Planet Earth,’ ‘When There Is No Sun’ and ‘Space Is The Place’ along with blues, swing numbers, an ‘outer space dirge,’ and a flute duet” (Campbell & Trent p.230). Then, at the last possible minute, Sun Ra was asked to participate in FASTEC 77, a four-week-long “World Black and African Festival of the Arts and Culture” in Lagos, Nigeria scheduled to begin at the beginning of February. Performers from sixty-two different countries were invited, all representative of the Pan-African diaspora, with Sun Ra’s Arkestra representing black Americans. It was contentious from the outset:
With only a few days’ notice and no money up front, the band thought it was ridiculous to even consider it, but Sonny was adamant: “Your ancestors came into America without a cent. How much money do you have?” When one of the musicians answered fifty cents, he said, “That’s fifty cents more than your ancestors had.” They were going.
Sun Ra noticed that very few musicians had been invited to the festival—a mistake, he thought—and he assumed that having been asked at the last minute meant that music had been an afterthought, and that “only those who weren’t tied up to the white man could make it.” Still, he said it was important for them to help destroy the African’s stereotype of the American black man. From the moment of their arrival he was in a combative mood. When a Nigerian at the airport called out, “Welcome home, Sun Ra,” Sonny answered, “Home? Your people sold mine. This is no longer my home!” At each performance the artists displayed flags from their own countries; but when Sun Ra got on stage he raised a purple and black banner that he called “the flag of death.” He was annoyed that they were only allowed to play at the festival twice, and it was made worse when the Arkestra played overtime as usual and a large number of people left to catch the last buses back from the hall: misunderstanding their exit for rejection, Sonny saw it as typical of blacks to not respect one another. But at their second performance the lighting man was so impressed by the music that he lowered the lights after they left the stage and refused to turn them back on as the Miriam Makeba set began: “The Master has spoken!” he proclaimed. Sonny interceded and insisted that she, too, was an artist, and should be treated with respect.
Over the four weeks, there was time to visit outside the city, to hear local music and to play for Africans and see them dancing to the Arkestra’s music at informal performances. The band was invited to visit the flamboyant and politically rebellious Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at his house and nightclub where he was staging a counter-FASTEC, but Sonny thought it unwise and told the band not to go—a decision which he said was justified later when Fela’s place was attacked and burned down by troops of the Nigerian army. The trip ended on a bitter note when the Arkestra was not allowed to march in the final grand parade because Ra would not agree to give the raised fist salute of Black Power. Then afterwards, when National Public Radio reported on the festival, one woman interviewed said his music didn’t represent black people in the United States.
After the festival was over they returned by way of Egypt, and this time traveled in that country more widely, and wound up playing for the multinational troops in the Sinai Peninsula (Szwed pp.341-342).
According to Tommy Hunter, tapes exist from the African sojourn but are not available (Campbell & Trent p.231). By February 26, the Arkestra was back in the states and an audience recording from their performance in East Lansing, Michigan apparently circulates but I have not heard it. Additionally, live performances of two old-timey numbers, the Dixon-Henderson standard, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” were recorded around this time for a Saturn single that was never released. These tapes were later broadcast by WKCR-FM during their 1987 Sun Ra Festival but I don’t have a copy of this either. According to Prof. Campbell, the rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird is “slow and dozy and, if one does not listen carefully, sounds like a straggler from Ra’s Discipline series” (Id.).
At this point, concert “bootlegs” begin to proliferate as Sun Ra’s reputation as a spectacular live performer became more widely known and miniaturized recording technology (slowly) improved. And it is at this point where I had to take a break from the poor sound quality and somewhat repetitive setlists and give Sun Ra Sunday a rest for a little while. But the fact remains: Ra made a bunch of good-to-great albums in 1977, including several rare solo piano recitals, the classic Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue (Saturn/Atavistic) and the first of the legendary Horo LPs. I’m actually very excited to get to these; so, having rested my ears, I’m ready to tackle the dodgy “bootlegs” in order to get to the good stuff. Not that there isn’t “good stuff” to be found on these amateur concert recordings—it just takes a whole lot more effort to discern.
Up next: a sprawling, two-and-half hour set recorded (badly) at the Showboat Lounge in Silver Spring, Maryland on March 18, 1977. I’ll take a listen so you don’t have to!