Friday, April 23, 2010

Black Man in the Cosmos

Sun Ra is responsible for some of the strangest music I’ve ever heard. To me, this avant garde jazz artist was from another planet with some of the stuff he came up with. And if you asked him, he was. According to Ra, his music was the product of a visionary experience during prayer, in which his non-human form was whisked away to Saturn. The planet’s inhabitants apparently instructed young Sonny Blount to quit school and concentrate on music to educate people. Nearly twenty years later, the vision was realized when Sun Ra and his Arkestra began donning costumes with either an Egyptian or sci-fi theme. This guy was out of this world for sure.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Sun Ra was making regular trips to the Bay Area and eventually taught a course at UC Berkeley called The Black Man in the Cosmos. This led to the production of the film Space is the Place, somewhat based on the Berkeley lectures and starring Sun Ra and His Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra. Filmed in Oakland and San Francisco, Space is the Place is a bizarre, confusing piece of cinema that ought to be seen at least once. It is a vision of black salvation and white apocalypse. The righteous Sun Ra returns to planet Earth to battle it out against The Overseer, an evil pimp, for the future of the black race. Ra intends to collect his black brothers and sisters to whisk them to a faraway planet that he has deemed suitable for the resuscitation of the community, with no interference from honky devils. But he must first win the tarot card game that decides their fate.

Cosmic Hearse uploaded the film’s soundtrack, which was recorded in 1972 and went unreleased until 1993. But we’re looking through The Evil Eye at the actual album that was recorded earlier that same year. The title track is a real endurance test, clocking in at over twenty minutes long. When I first got this album some years back, I brought it to Gilman and made the sound girl put it on between bands at a Locust show. Just to say “fuck you” to the hipsters. My friends at the show thought it was pretty funny, and so did I. But other people were getting visibly irritated, so the sound girl turned it off after a few minutes of “spaaaaaace is the plaaaaaace” repeated like a mantra. If they’d waited it out, perhaps they would have enjoyed the rest of the album. The rest of the songs are at a more conventional length and are quite excellent. Sun Ra’s discography is vast and wide, but it’s generally recommended that you start with either version of Space is the Place when delving into his work. You can do that here, or here for the soundtrack.

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