May 23, 2020

Sun Ra & Africa

By Tam Fiofori

 

 

 

 

 

It may have been due to what he personally described as his “duality,” but while Sun Ra always acknowledged the root-source of his cosmic philosophy and Space Music as Ancient Egypt; he was paradoxically never too comfortable with modern Black Africa; south of the Sahara.

Arkestra at Jazz Centre 1980…Photo by Leni Sinclair

Africa is a very old, vast and mysterious continent. As some sort of consolation however; even many Africans themselves, in good faith, still find it quite difficult to decipher and fully understand Africa as it has evolved over the ages!

          In an interview with me in Cairo, Egypt, in December 1971 [Sun Ra’s African Roots, Melody Maker, February 12, 1972, p. 12.]; I asked him whether it would be right to say that the roots of his music were in Ancient Egypt? “Yes it is in Ancient Egypt which is really a pivot point as far as Africa is concerned. So everything that the world knows today about Black Culture is in a sense coupled over in Egypt.”

          How have you been able to retain your roots in Africa musically and otherwise whilst, say, some Black musicians in America have been moving towards Western [European] music, I next asked him? “That’s because I am sincere in everything I do,” he answered, going further to say that, “And I’m sincere in the wish for Black people to make progress and to do everything that is more profitable to them mentally, spiritually and physically. When you have an idea like that, well there isn’t really anything greater than that.”

Sun Ra liked to say, in utter seriousness, that Nkrumah missed a great opportunity by not accepting his offer and, that, Nkrumah may have survived the military coup that ousted him and, done much more for Ghana and Africa

           In fairness to Sun Ra and, on record; as far back as the mid-fifties in Chicago he had composed and recorded compositions with rather exotic titles like “Nubia,”  “Africa,” “Ancient Aiethopia” and with innovative African-flavoured multi-rhythms much different from the norm then in jazz music. Musically, he was indeed undoubtedly and proudly an Africa lover! Or was it just a case of nostalgic romanticism viewed in another context?

Sun Ra Arkestra at the Detroit Jazz Center 1979, Photo by Leni Sinclair

           But then, five years earlier than my Cairo interview; in New York City when we first met in 1966 and, six years after his first-ever visit to Egypt and Africa in 1971; Sun Ra was in Lagos, Nigeria to attend and perform at the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture [FESTAC ’77]. And on both occasions; in New York City in 1966 and Lagos in 1977, Sun Ra expressed his discomfort and profound disappointment in his historical memories and personal dealings with modern-day Black Africa.

           In New York City in the sixties, Sun Ra talked to me many times about the extensive research he had personally carried out from the archives of the University of Louisiana on the dehumanising business of the Slave Trade. It was obvious he wanted me and other Africans to feel great guilt and unreserved remorse for the business of the Slave Trade; conducted by our forefathers; and to also have a permanent sense of betrayal towards our own historical blood brethren.

          Whenever this delicate and culturally painful topic of the Slave Trade arose, I was always embarrassed and lost for excuses if there could be any. It could not be ignored, that the political dynamics of the Slave Trade had an added dimension beyond coercion; that is, the reality of the superior armament of the invading slave traders. But then, the other side of the arguments remains that Africans; even in the face of this danger and seemingly overwhelming odds, were socially not entirely unwilling collaborators in selling their own brothers and sisters into slavery!

         As to whether Sun Ra raised the disturbing issue of slavery with the Nigerian musician Olatunji and the other African musicians he closely interacted with in America and later in Europe; before and after we met, I never asked him or them and, so, I don’t know.

         However, soon after I met Sun Ra in New York City and, started working with him, he proudly showed me a letter he had written in the late fifties to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the then Prime Minister of Ghana; the Black Star of Africa and, the first Black African nation to have secured her independence from Britain in 1957.

Sun Ra presides…Photo by Leni Sinclair

         In the letter Sun Ra had asked Nkrumah to invite him and his Arkestra to Ghana; because they had something very important, different and special to offer; something that was urgently needed for the true development of Black people! Sun Ra liked to say, in utter seriousness, that Nkrumah missed a great opportunity by not accepting his offer and, that, Nkrumah may have survived the military coup that ousted him and, done much more for Ghana and Africa if Nkrumah had accepted his offer to help.

Regulars at Afifis included Olu Akaraogun, a top journalist and features-writer for the Daily Times group of newspapers; he had a habit of listening to his rare recording of Magic City every day, “to clear my mind,” as he put it! Philip Phil-Ebosie, a British-trained filmmaker who worked for the Nigerian Television Authority-NTA, closely guarded his copy of When Sun Comes Out …

        He did get to meet a new generation of Black Africans; modern socio-political products of Nkrumah’s world view from an African perspective; during his European tours in 1970 and 1971. These were articulate African students who were part of the larger Diaspora Blacks who had hosted him and the Arkestra in London. These young Africans appreciated African-American music; jazz and popular music, but were politically not in favour of or fans of America’s world view and foreign policy of the sixties and beyond. Sun Ra; to his discomfort, found out that with his Ancient Egyptian philosophy and related Space Music, he was definitely not on the same wavelength; in terms of priority, with these modern Black Africans in Europe.

       The African musicians that Sun Ra absorbed into his Arkestra during his European tours of 1970 and 1971 were recruited more on the basis of their cultural collaboration than intellectual co-operation or assimilation. Both of these musicians interestingly were percussionists from West Africa. Matt Samba, a master drummer was a former star member of the world-famous Guinea National African Ballet and Roger Hazoume from Dahomey [now the Republic of Benin] played the African wooden xylophone-balafon.

        When I asked him [Sun Ra’s African Roots, Melody Maker, February 12, 1972, p.32] whether the presence of these two Africans in his Arkestra meant that he planned to include more musicians from different parts of the world; he simply answered, “Yes.” Do you see any difficulties in their being able to adjust to your music since they are not exposed to the synthesiser and some other western instruments you play, I further asked? “No, there won’t be any problems,” he replied, “because there are never any problems where Nature is concerned. Anybody can understand or feel Nature. That’s what the music is about.”

          Sun Ra and his Arkestra visited and performed in Africa for the first time in December 1971 when they toured Egypt in North Africa. It was a visit that meant a lot to Sun Ra; spiritually and culturally. Naturally, his visit to Egypt in Africa, was assuring and fulfilling in that he had for more than three decades before the visit; anchored his philosophy and music on the ideas of Ancient Egypt as he personally and scholarly understood and translated them.

Festac 77 Opening Procession, Photo by Tam Fiofori

              His first visit to Black Africa as against Egypt and Arab Africa was in January 1977 when he and his Arkestra came as part of the African-American contingent to participate in the one-month long FESTAC ’77, hosted mostly in Lagos by the Nigerian government.

Compared with the first Festival of its kind, named the World Festival of Negro Arts, and held in Dakar, Senegal in 1966, FESTAC ’77 was a very huge festival that brought together national contingents from all member states of the then Organisation of African Union [OAU, now AU], Liberation Movements, Africans in Diaspora and people of African origin; to strengthen their cultural and spiritual ties, rediscover their roots and establish ties with Motherland Africa. Fifty-nine contingents and over 17,000 people eventually participated!

           Most of the events were held in Lagos State; in the main arena, conference and cinema halls of the National Theatre; specially built for FESTAC, the National Stadium, Surulere [specially built for the ’73 All-Africa Games], Tafawa Balewa Square and Lagos City Hall. The participants were housed in the specially-built FESTAC Town a housing estate on the outskirts of Lagos. A special Dubar involving 3,000 horses took place in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria.

          The specific aims of FESTAC ’77 were, to present Black and African culture in its highest and widest conception and, to promote Black and African artists, performers and writers. The disciplines involved included Dancing, Music, Drama, Cinema, Literature Recitals, Popular Dressing and Exhibitions. It had to take the oil-rich Nigeria with a foreign policy that was centred on Africa; to spend billions of petro-dollars to host such an important and prestigious festival. Thirty-seven years on, no other African country has been able to afford the hosting of a 3rd FESTAC.

         I had been back in Nigeria for four years by FESTAC ’77 and Thomas Hunter had been working with me as a partner in my film company in Nigeria since 1974. Much to my pleasant surprise Sun Ra’s music was fairly well-known and admired by quite a few of the new friends I had made since coming back. These were the rare jazz fans who in a sense had progressed beyond bop.

         Femi Olunloyo, an MIT-trained Aeronautical Engineer, was the most avid Sun Ra fan of the lot. He had procured the ESP recordings Nothing Is, The Heliocentric Worlds Vols 1 and 2 and, just after FESTAC, Solo Piano, Volume 1-Improvising Artists 123850; which were regularly played on the amplified turntable at Afifis, a Jazz Bar owned by his sister Iyabo who was also a jazz fan.

Regulars at Afifis included Olu Akaraogun, a top journalist and features-writer for the Daily Times group of newspapers; which at that time was the largest-circulation newspaper in Black Africa. Akaraogun had a habit of listening to his rare recording of Magic City every day, “to clear my mind,” as he put it! Philip Phil-Ebosie, a British-trained filmmaker who worked for the Nigerian Television Authority-NTA, closely guarded his copy of When Sun Comes Out [with my sleevenotes] which I had given him as his wedding present. My other filmmaker friend Frank Okonta who had hosted me in Stockholm when I was arranging the 1971 Sun Ra European tour was also now back in Nigeria with his favourite Sun Ra album The Night of the Purple Moon which I had given him back in Sweden. Another regular at Afifis was Frank Ahabue and, there must have been other Sun Ra fans around I didn’t know.

         Thomas Hunter and I drove nearly five hundred kilometres from Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta to Lagos to see Sun Ra and members of his Arkestra at their FESTAC Town quarters and, later watch one of their performances at FESTAC ’77. For me it was a reunion with Sun Ra and my friends in the Arkestra six years after we were together in Egypt. They were also happy and relieved to see Hunter again; safe and bubbling with job-satisfaction in Black Africa. But it soon became obvious that something was amiss and Sun Ra was unhappy!

         In fact, he was sulking. Hunter and I were not aware that Sun Ra and his Arkestra were coming to FESTAC ’77 until the list of members of the American contingent was announced in the Nigerian media just prior to the start of the festival.  Apparently, Sun Ra had sadly become a victim of a combination of circumstances beyond his control; and also in many ways not deliberate.

Because of the sheer magnitude of FESTAC ’77 with over-17,000 participants it was administratively impossible to give Sun Ra his due respect and rightful place. This perceived lack of proper recognition was however not the fault of the host country Nigeria. To make matters worse, he had been embroiled in the cultural politics of hierarchy and protocol within the American [United States] contingent even before they came to FESTAC ’77!

       For convenience and cultural correctness, it was the Local Organising Committee in America that had selected those to represent the African-American community at FESTAC ’77 and, those to be the ‘leaders and spokespersons’ of the American contingent. The Nigerian government and organisers of FESTAC ’77 had no hand in choosing the members of the 59 participating contingents and, were solely responsible for the transportation, housing and feeding of all the over-17,000 participants in the various contingents. Put another way, Nigeria as host country was offering the same platform of welcome and participation to all contingents irrespective of their size, origin and supposed world status!

        The ultimate idea of FESTAC ’77 was for all participants to take-in other performances during their own performance-free days!

        Unfortunately, Sun Ra missed out on the great opportunity to participate [even as an observer] and present his ideas to the international intellectual Colloquium that collected blueprints and solutions from the many Black scholars and thinkers that had gathered in Lagos.

In the 14 days between 17th and 30th January 1977, 200 Black scholars read papers, engaged in debate and prepared reports on Arts and Pedagogy, Languages and Literature, Philosophy and Religion, Historical Awareness and Science and Technology.

Sun Ra’s valued intellectual ideas on mental emancipation and the futuristic direction towards the Space Age and beyond could well have been one of the most advanced ideologies on offer. It would now have become part of the precious permanent collection of CBAAC – Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation; that was set up in Lagos in 1978 by the Nigerian government to house the FESTAC ’77 papers and archives. CBAAC is now a great source of research on Black Civilisation! 

          Musically, at a festival that featured Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu, Stevie Wonder, Mighty Sparrow, Randy Weston, Osibisa, Peter King and his Afro-Jazz, to name just a few, the Arkestra’s neo jazz-based music, with marvellous expansive horn ensemble voicings and outstanding virtuoso instrumental solos, was well-received and applauded by the few who chose to attend their performances. Olu Akaraogun wrote a favourable review for the Daily Times and Sun Ra definitely won some more converts, however few, at FESTAC ’77 with his musical performances.

           I virtually lost touch with Sun Ra after his FESTAC ’77 visit to Nigeria. However, more than twenty years after the festival; and after his departure from planet Earth in 1993, I was a bit surprised and quite let down when I read some controversial comments attributed to Sun Ra on his personally disastrous FESTAC ’77 experience.

          In John F.Szwed’s book Space Is The Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, p. 341-342, Sun Ra claimed that it was important for them to go and help destroy the African stereotype of Black Americans. “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 report continues, “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 large numbers 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.”

           When I read this I had my doubts; that Sun Ra had felt that bad about his first and only visit to Black Africa; and FESTAC ’77. I had always known that Sun Ra could be mercurial with his sense of humour and his tongue-in-cheek ability to put-on. He liked to embellish stories and create a mystery about events in which he was involved; even to the extent of contradicting himself. Was he not aware that his comments were going to be put on record permanently or was he deliberately courting high-level controversy as he sometimes relishes in? It would seem that Sun Ra simply underestimated the cultural magnitude and power of FESTAC!

            Sun Ra was also breaking one of the cardinal tenets he always preached about; and this was, giving “credit where credit is due”!

           Nigeria, the biggest Black nation ever in the history of the world; was a country where as of 1977 Black Nigerians were in the absolute majority and wielded total power in government; and were also in charge of running their Air Force, Navy, Army, Civil Aviation, Merchant Marine, Train Transportation, Hospitals, Universities, Banks etc. It was a full member of the United Nations like Japan, Germany, Britain, the USSR and the USA and, had literarily fully bankrolled and hosted the biggest-ever World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. Surely the country more than deserved some more respect and credit from even Sun Ra!

Festac 77 Crowd at Nigeria’s National Stadium in Surulere, Photo by Tam Fiofori

    There was worse to come in the report. “The trip ended on a bitter note when the Arkestra was not allowed to march in the final grand parade because Sun Ra would not agree to give the raised fist salute of Black Power.” Sadly, this incident fairly explains but does not fully justify why Sun Ra finally took his anger well beyond his disagreements with the African American contingent and, extended it to his hosts; Nigeria and Black Africa.

         The African Liberation Movements at FESTAC ’77 were actually simultaneously engaging the imperialistic armies of Portugal and South Africa in fierce battle for the liberation of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. Meanwhile Nigeria was the major supporter of these Liberation Movements, including MPLA, SWAPO, FRELIMO and the ANC in cash and kind as well as on the frontline of the political push and lobby against Apartheid and the colonisation of Southern Africa at the United Nations Organisation.

          The United Kingdom and America were in full support of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and were also vehemently opposed to sanctions against South Africa and the colonial regimes in Southern Africa. The Liberation Movements in Southern Africa were fighting for real Black Power through the barrel of the gun!

          Nigeria did eventually send; and keeps sending its own satellites into space, but not at Sun Ra’s prompting. The impact and influence of his music however, has happily been growing appreciably since his ill-fated participation at FESTAC ’77. Select record shops in Lagos stock music by the various aggregations of the Arkestra as the fan base for his music steadily gets bigger. Kunle Tejuoso’s Jazz Hole in Lagos has stocked Sun Ra’s music and, books and video DVDs on him for decades. Many more young Nigerians are discovering Sun Ra’s music and the Arkestra’s performances on YouTube; much to their delight!

The Biggest Cultural Showcase on the Planet, Photo by Tam Fiofori

           In terms of performing musicians, Nigerian pianist Funsho Ogundipe, leader of Ayetoro; the most progressive Afrobeat band in Africa that has successfully incorporated neo-bop jazz inflections into their music is a great and practising Sun Ra fan. Influences of Monk’s and Sun Ra’s piano approach; the use of unexpected intervals, sound textures and contrasting tonality, are prominent in Ogundipe’s Ayetoro music, together with Sun Ra’s unique rich ensemble voicings; as well as Ogundipe’s own successful research that have brought in Yoruba [bata and talking drums], Ghanaian and Cuban rhythms to give a fresher rhythmic flavour and throbbing pulse to his unique Afrobeat music.

         Musically, Sun Ra’s music is gradually ‘conquering’ Black Africa, especially Nigeria! This has made up quite a bit for his somewhat unsavoury comments about FESTAC ’77 and Black Africa.

TAM FIOFORI…This is a Chapter from his book SUN RA : SPACE. MUSIC. MYTH

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