Sun Ra: “There’s a lot of strange stuff that goes on around the pyramids – why don’t you bring a tape?”

Egypt, Afro-futurism and the making of "Space Is The Place"

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VAL WILMER: I first met Sonny – everyone who knows him calls him Sonny – in New York in the late ’60s to interview and photograph him. I started off by asking, “When were you born?”, and he said, “Well, we are trying to do away with the idea of being born. I’ve developed an equation which will show that if we were never born we will never die.”

KNOEL SCOTT: The more I study the cosmology of ancient Egypt the more I understand Sun Ra, because I realise that it really was as if he was an Egyptian priest, the concepts that he’s talking about.

WILMER: I remember their house in New York was just total chaos. There was so much stuff. There were instruments hanging everywhere, there was silk from a parachute hanging to stop bits of plaster falling off the walls, a rubber ball suspended from the ceiling. You could hardly move for drum kits and everything. The back room was full of books and various literature about black history and everything under the sun.


DANNY RAY THOMPSON: We were in Denmark in 1971, just before “Space Is The Place”. We’d just done a ten-month tour or something, and Sun Ra said, “We going to Egypt.” We stayed in the Mena House Hotel, the most beautiful hotel. It was right by the pyramids. We danced on the Sphinx, and I met the minister of culture, and the minister of antiquities for the region – Zahi Hawass, he’s really big now. He told us, “There’s a lot of strange stuff that goes on around the pyramids – why don’t you bring a tape?” So he opened up a tomb for us that had just been excavated, the mummy was still in there, all the hieroglyphics were still on the wall. He took me and another fella in there, and we recorded this song called “Along Came Ra”. About halfway through us playing, we heard something go “Mmm…” So we played it again, and got to the end and heard “Mmmm…” So Zahi told us, “Let’s go.” We found out it was the keeper of the secrets. It was his tomb. We also went deep inside the Great Pyramid, said the name “Ra” nine times, and the lights went out and it was unbelievably dark. I told the BBC this story when they came to Philadelphia, and the lights went out in the hotel we were in. I said, “I told you it was a true story!”

SCOTT: I think Sun Ra was a representative of the culture of African-Americans in its correct depiction as descendants of the ancient Egyptians, the Nubians who built the Pyramids and created science and mathematics. When the Blues Brothers say “We’re on a mission from God”, amplify that a thousand times and you have Sun Ra. He was on a mission, and he was totally consumed with this mission to spread enlightenment. These are the concepts within “Space Is The Place”.

WILMER: Sonny never stopped talking, he ran the band like an army. He was very firm with them and restrictive on their activities. Some people went along with it when they were recovering from problems like drugs and drink, that’s how they survived, but other people wanted to go out and live a normal life and he said, “No, we have to rehearse at the drop of a hat.” He really worked them hard. He would have them rehearsing from, for example, four in the afternoon to six in the morning non-stop.


THOMPSON: We used to rehearse with Sun Ra seven days a week when we were at the house on Morton Street in Germantown [Philadelphia]. It could be any hour he could call a rehearsal, he didn’t really sleep too much, he just cat-napped. I lived in the house, John [Gilmore] lived in the house, and a couple of other guys too.

MARSHALL ALLEN: I’m still living here, on Morton Street, yeah. Of course we lived together, and we had to rehearse because we had all these numbers we had to learn. It was all day, everyday, or any time of night. I didn’t like it because I liked to run out sometimes. But I see why he did that. He’d have thousands of numbers, piles of music that we hadn’t even played yet. He wrote so much, he was a 24-hour man, he was always writing something. He was fast, so he didn’t linger on a number. Each time you played it, he’d play it differently, or switch your part. To us it was like, ‘Ah, we gonna take all day doing this!’ I always had to take notes. It’s difficult stuff, you gotta study it when you go to bed, and then the next day he’d probably give you a new part, change yours or give you someone else’s!

WILMER: It was just an ordinary house. It belonged to Marshall’s father and he gave it to them – sold it to Sonny for $1 or something. It was quite a nice place, though a bit Spartan. No-one was making any money out of this music, let’s face it. That’s why he kept them on a firm leash and made them eat beans and rice and corn bread all the time.

SCOTT: When I auditioned for Sonny, he said, “Look, I work for the creator, and my band is the creator’s band. If you want money, fame or fortune, you don’t wanna work with me, because I work for the Creator.” And he went on to talk about a few other things, then he repeated, “If you want money, fame or fortune…” That was the first time I sat with him, but I found that whenever you talked to Sun Ra you would hear about the Creator.


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