Sun Ra and The Search for The Sacred
Due to the ambiguous and often comical or seemingly ridiculous nature of Sun Ra’s persona and statements/claims (one of the most notorious being that he was not from this planet but outer space), many critics, writers and musicians have deeply misunderstood or dismissed him. As cited in Graham Lock’s Blutopia, following his death in 1993, Benny Green in the Daily Mail referred to his ideologies as “Galactic Gobledegook”1. Although opinions on Sun Ra may have been re-assessed withinacademic writing since the 90’s (with the support of writers such as Szwed and Lock) he has still continually been portrayed as a “nutter” within mainstream culture. The problem then has sometimes been of an abstraction from the music to the phenomenon that is the man himself – that is, when his contribution to music (often confined to the “Avant-Garde”/ “Free” jazz traditions) is appreciated.
The article by Benny Green in the Daily Mail however shows no such appreciation. Titled “Angel in a Noddy Bonnet Wanted to Save the Planet”, he elaborates further: “The trouble has always been to know where to draw a firm line between the tomfoolery of an entertaining Charlatan and the sincere missionary beliefs of a considerable musical pioneer.”2 Interestingly, the type of attitude and language used in this comment alludes to certain conservative religious ideals of what is considered to be “sincere” and sacred, opposed in its polarity to notions of secular.
The boundaries between the Secular and Sacred have always been blurred within African American church and musical traditions making the drawing of a “firm line” indeed always troublesome. However, Teresa L.Reed in “The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music” argues that this dichotomy did not always exist: “Sacred and secular were entirely foreign concepts to African slaves arriving in the Colonies. They did not distinguish between music for secular use and music for sacred consumption.”3 Often scholars have pointed the reason for this towards original
1 Graham Lock, Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, DukeEllington, and Anthony Braxton. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 13.
2 Ibid, 13.
3 Teresa L.Reed, Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music. (Lexington: University of Kentucky
Press, 2004), 5.
African “Animist” traditions and practices. Taking Levine’s indication of the spirituals as evidence for this lack of distinction,4 Reed paraphrases his words: “They (the slaves) did not confine their religious singing to the church, but used the spirituals as rowing songs, field songs, work songs, and social songs”.5 It seems to Reed that only after a process of absorption and participation in Western/European modes of worship (such as church attendance) did tendencies arise to make distinctions between the “sacred” and “profane”. 6 Reed’s use of “profane” here implies behavioral codes towards the sacred. From the Latin, “sacer” (“set off”/restricted”)7, church would have “maintained a clear line of separation between practices that were either appropriate or inappropriate for church use”. 8 This is probably the case (at least partly) because while Christian worship wasconfined to the time and place of Church services, the spirituals remained “appropriate to almost every situation”9.
Other practices and beliefs independent of what Levine deems the slaves “formal” (Christian) religion, were often considered as being “superstitious”. But Levine argues for the validity of those “folk beliefs” (notably using the word “sacred” to describe them), by saying that while they may not have been part of the slave’s “formal religion”, “they were still religious beliefs nonetheless.” He uses Alexander Krappe’s definition of superstition to support hispremise: “any belief or practice that is not recommended or enjoined by any of the great religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.” 10 Conclusively, notions of secular and sacred within African American worship are complex due to ;the nature of cultural assimilation.
The spirituals did however offer re-occurring ideas of a heaven separate and transcendental of the world. Levine describes some of the songs as reflective of a “desire to release their hold upon the temporal present”,11 with lyrics such as “why 4 Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery To Freedom. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 30.
5 Reed, Holy Profane, 5.
6 Ibid, 5.
7 “Sacred,” Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed January 13, 2014.
8 Ibid, 6.
9 Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 30.
10 Ibid, 31.
don’t you give up de world?” Consequently feelings of alienation were prevalent as well: “This world is not my home”. Levine summarises the role of spirituals: “The slaves created a world by transcending the narrow confines of the one in which they were forced to live. They extended the boundaries of their restrictive universe backward until it fused the world of the Old Testament, and upward until it became one with the world beyond.” 12
Although Sun Ra criticized many aspects of the Christian tradition in general and the Judeo-Christian ideologies, he took the ideas of the spirituals, and their “mythic past” and transcendental “future” in heaven, as a template for his “space chants”13. His appropriation stylistically involved call and response patterns between members of his
Arkestra, “brief, repetitive”14 melodic patterns in the framework of phrases, dancing
and clapping, and an intense involvement with audience members. It seems that there
is something inherently resonant in the ideas of the spirituals to Sun Ra. Szwed writes
of Sun Ra’s experiences as a young musician in the 1930s, in heavily segregated
Birmingham in Space is the Place. The other musicians on tour with him recall him
“writing down his thoughts on segregation and the indignities he suffered” in a diary.
One of the musicians, J. L. Lowe, comments: “We were not bitter and didn’t carry a
chip on our shoulder. But it didn’t sit well with him.”15 Sun Ra’s constant claims of
not being of this earth reflect the ideas of alienation presented in Levine’s cited
spiritual (“This world is not my home”). However, in my opinion Sun Ra did not want
accept his lot by placing himself in a position of helplessness and sorrow. In a booklet
of notes alongside a record (under the title “The Aim of My Compositions”), he
explains that: “All of my compositions are meant to depict happiness combined with
beauty in a free manner… The mental impression I intend convey is that of being
alive”.16 As Lock demonstrates, “it is worth noting that Ra’s space chants often
explicably disavow sorrow” (one of the chants lyrics being “we sing this song for a
new tomorrow / we sing this song to a abolish sorrow)17. The “chant” as it appears in
11 Ibid, 32
12 Ibid, 32-33.
13 Lock, Blutopia, 34.
14 Ibid, 34.
15 John F. Szwed, Space Is The Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. (Edinburgh: MOJO books,
16 Szwed, Space Is The Place, 155.
the Sun Ra film, Space is the Place18 (1974) and as sung by June Tyson, offers some
interesting resemblances to spiritual melodic patterns. The most obvious of these
being a descending minor pentatonic scale on the phrase “abolish sorrow”.
Interestingly though, the phrase preceding it (“we sing this song to”), ascends from
the root note – to the fourth – then to the major sixth, which doesn’t follow the normal
modal conventions. The last interval therefore, being a major third, really sticks out
and breaks out of the minor feel (perhaps this can be taken as breaking out of the sad
feel these spirituals often had).
Beyond these “space chants”, Sun Ra offered an “Astro-Black mythology” as referred
to by Lock in Blutopia (originally taken from one of his song titles). His reasoning for
using this conception as representative of Sun Ra’s narrative is that: “it emphasizes
Sun Ra’s conscious creating of a mythology, and it conveniently encapsulates the two
dominant facets of that mythology, the Astro of the outer space future, and the Black
of the ancient Egyptian past.”19 .
His interest in ancient Egypt can be seen in a multiplicity of ways. If his Astro-Black
mythology is seen as a template taken from the spirituals, Sun Ra seems to have
replaced the Exodus myth with an Egyptian one in the act of reviving it’s
significance. Lock speculates that for Sun Ra, the slaves’ identification with the
Israelites as a chosen people to be saved into a promised land was based upon their
“common heritage of enslavement”.20 Also his interest in revisionist ideas of Black
history as represented by “white cultural and academic establishments”21, (not
Ancient Egyptian, but Greek and Roman civilizations were normally revered at the
time) and attacks on the hypocrisy of Moses as held as a heroic figure,22 aim to
disclaim the historical held truths. The mythological significance of a “common
heritage of enslavement” for Sun Ra didn’t “deal with progress”: “They back there in
the past, it’s not their history.”23 The resurgence of the Exodus story as a metaphor
17 Lock, Blutopia, 37.
18 Space is the Place, 1998
19 Lock, Blutopia, 14.
20 Ibid, 21.
22 Ibid, 21.
23 Ibid, 20.
for social freedom in the times of the Civil Rights struggle24 in particular probably
provoked Sun Ra’s cynicisms further. Therefore, Ancient Egyptian mythology
specifically replaced Judeo-Christian ideals, that for Sun Ra were limited. However,
ancient Egypt also became symbolic in that it represented a Black civilization that had
art, culture, beauty and specifically “truth”25 (they’re mathematics were advanced –
only now are we unraveling the mysteries in their building of the pyramids in
alignment of the stars26). Tyrone Hill (trombonist in the Arkestra) sums up the
cultural significance of learning about Egypt: “Knowing about Egypt makes me feel
better as a person, ‘cause those were black people. Our race don’t know very much
about ourselves. In America, education and the mass media tell you black people got
nothing to offer, but we’ve done many beautiful things. Sun Ra made me aware of
If Sun Ra replaced the Exodus myth with an Egyptian one within his “Astro-Black”
Template, it can be educed that heaven once representative of the slaves salvation and
transcendence was replaced with the space metaphor that Sun Ra also countlessly
drew on. Szwed summarises it significance well: “Space was another one of Sonny’s
efforts to relocate himself so as to embody all time and nature and to escape the
confine and limits of life on earth.” I’d like to draw a parallel here with the sacred and
secular ideas of what is earthly and what is a part of the divine, as I feel that these
notions held some meaning for Sun Ra. He showed aspirations towards divine ideals
(in the forms of the eternal, pure and truth) and was unarguably dissatisfied with the
ways of the world in that it showed no or almost little reverence to these things.
In the entry on Sacred in the Encaeclopidia Britannica (and under the subtitle
“Ambivalence in man’s response to the Sacred”) one of the ambiguities expressed is
that: “The sacred manifests itself in concrete forms that are also profane. The
transcendent mystery is recognized in a specific concrete symbol, act, idea, image,
person, or community. The unconditioned reality is manifested in conditioned
form.”28 When Sun Ra challenges ideas of righteousness and un-righteousness (in A
24 Ibid, 20.
25 Lock, Blutopia, 20.
26 http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn174-pyramid- precision.html
27 Lock, Blutopia, 16.
Joyful Noise) it is exactly the attitudes of the Christian church in their fixation of a
heaven and hell (and it’s correspondence to moral behaviour) that he is coming up
against. He jokingly contests: “They can’t get into my band that way” and says “that
won’t help them with me”.29 It is my opinion here that space as a metaphor offers a
notion of “Sacred” that is beyond even our understandings of Sacred, leading us then
completely into the “unknown” regions of space (representative of a metaphysical
realm as well as an “unimaginable” one).
Sun Ra’s representation of himself as a living myth is probably one of the most
complex or as Lock describes “evasive” aspects of his character. As Lock admittedly
states towards the end of the chapter in Blutopia, that he has attempted to trace some
of his mythology and ideas back to African-American tradition, but much still “awaits
further elucidation.”30 I would argue that much of his “self-made mythology” defies
“elucidation”, especially from the perspective or rational reasoning. At the most basic
level of his mythology, one might ask how can he be from Saturn? It is all too easy to
take a skeptical approach either of a type of escapism on Sun Ra’s part from a dire
reality or one such outlined by Benny Green of an “entertaining Charlatan”, when his
claims and comments seem purposefully either contradictory or so irrational. Szwed
writes bluntly: “He seemed to be flirting with non-sense, but it could worry you for
James Jacson seemed to recognise a Zen-like quality to Sun Ra’s “paradoxical
communication”32 in his teaching. Particularly in his poems did his writing seem to
adhere to the koan’s role of provoking doubt and of being a “mind exercise” to
exhaust the “analytic intellect” and “egoist will”.33 As cited by Szwed, “Art Jenkins
recalls one day, Sonny said something like: Sometimes you could be someplace and
be out of place. But when you’re somewhere you don’t have to be out of place
because you might lose your place, and be last, or be left out.”
28 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/515425/sacred/66484/Ambivalence-in- mans-
29 A Joyful Noise, 1998
30 Lock, Blutopia, 73.
31 Szwed, Space Is The Place, 386
32 Ibid, 385
I would disagree with Benny Green’s doubting of Sun Ra being sincere in his music
and spirituality. He lived for much of his life with his Arkestra under the same roof
almost like a religious commune, dedicating whole days to rehearsing and hearing
Sun Ra talk about his ideas. In A Joyful Noise, the musicians comment of giving up
pleasures or social enjoyments/”social life” elsewhere from the house and one of them
comments that: “Sometimes it’s tough but the sincerity of wanting to be a part of the
music really matters.” He goes on further saying: “But once you get into the music,
you forget about the other thing that was happening. Because the music has you so
into it – it doesn’t matter.”34 The concept of being so entwined with the music at a
level of egolessness (“losing oneself” and losing track or having warped perceptions
of time), I would argue is not an entirely foreign concept to most musicians (even
those who do not see themselves as particularly religious). Also, plenty of people
have decided to take the course of being a musician vocationally, despite the promise
of any money or of money having any direct relation to creating music of
personal/artistic “worth” (this again does not seem to be because of any religious
persuasion to give up “earthly things” but more inherent with the nature of music).
Szwed presents an approach to music: “Music could provide a metaphysical
experience through which one could enter the sublime, and come to know the
One of Sun Ra’s statements about music in A Joyful Noise seems to allude to music as
serving a sacred purpose as opposed to the secular: “The chaos on this planet is due to
the music that musicians are playing – that they’re forced to play… by some who just
think of money and don’t realise that music is a spiritual language and it represents
the people of earth.” However what he says next; “When musicians are compelled to
play anything, it goes straight to the throne of the Creator of the universe and that is
how he sees you – according to your music”, does not seem to allude to ownership or
a setting aside of music as sacred and untouchable. Instead it’s as if music can offer a
bridge between the gap of the humanly and the divine.
34 A Joyful Noise, 1998
Here, music in terms of a bridging a gap between the humanly and divine can be seen
in terms of mystic commune with the Creator. Within the confines of monotheism
(where often there is a personal God) notions of sacred and secular can be divided,
whereas mysticism tends to involve almost pantheistic ideas of God/ the cosmos and
everything being one and all, allowing not a division but a humanly connection with
the sacred in the ideas of the “absolute”, “eternal” and “order”/harmony/unity. This
idea of the absolute and eternal can be seen as reflected in Pythagorean mathematics,
especially of “the music of the spheres”.35 Sun Ra was undoubtedly aware of a
connection between music and mathematics. His was widely read and had a
fascination with knowledge in a holistic view. “Sonny thought of his conceptions not
as a matter of religion, philosophy, or politics, for they were not about belief, but a
kind of science”. 36 In Space Is The Place there’s a monologue that seems to almost
directly refer to the “music of the spheres” and the idea of music and sound being
ubiquitous with constant movement: “Why doesn’t the earth fall? How can you walk
upon it? It’s the music. It’s the music of the earth, the music of the sun and the stars,
the music of yourself, vibrating. Yes, you’re music too. You’re all instruments.
Everyone’s supposed to be playing their part in the vast arkestri of the cosmos.”
In A Joyful Noise Sun Ra exclaims: ‘Those of the reality have lost their way. Now
they must listen to what myth has to say. Those of the reality have been bruised and
beaten by the truths. Those of the reality have been slaves of a bad truth. The myth is
neither bad nor god – its potentials are unlimited.”37 It is hard (or impossible) to
understand what Sun Ra’s mythology actually was apart from his direct
personification of the “impossible” and of being a part of the bigger “Mystery” (his
story being a play on history and my story being a play mystery). His preference of
myths over fixed truths was evident, as absolute and self-evident truths don’t mould
around our imagination to rediscover knowledge and understandings of the world
around us (and our relationship with it) as myths do. Our realities get stuck within
historical timeframes and the possible and therefore do not live or have potential to
develop. Sun Ra’s cynicisms of white narratives of history (with their “self-serving
35 Flow Motion, “Astro Black Morphologies: Music and Science Lovers,” Leonardo 29 (2006): 23-
36 Szwed, Space Is the Place, 131
37 A Joyful Noise, 1998
myths that were enveloped in the name of scientific fact) and their limitations for
Black people perhaps first provoked him to create his own mythology in response to
these fixed truths. However, towards the 80s, his disillusions towards Black people
increased as they accepted their “given” reality: “I couldn’t approach black people
with the truth because they like lies. They live lies.. At one time I felt that white
people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets
and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them … Some force is having
a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking, enjoying itself up in
a reserved seat, wondering, "I wonder when they’re going to wake up."38
So in Sun Ra’s search for the Sacred, he was not interested in defining things or
setting things within earthly realms and limits but much more interested in the
metaphysical, the impossible and irrational. (His constant statement always being that
“it’s the need unknown we need to know”). But I think he had a concept of Sacred
and an ideal of the Creator as a supreme and pure force that went beyond
normal/tradition notions of God. Szwed remarks: He preserved a few absolutes from
attack: beauty, discipline, space, the Creator, infinity, even while he left them
undefined and empty of fixed meaning, floating independent of each other, and in any
case always in a kind of future with a dreamlike horizon.” Music seemed to be the
only way of bridging the planet and humans with these absolute ideals.
38 Szwed, Space Is the Place, 313.
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. DVD. Directed by Robert Mugge. Los Angeles: Direct
Cinema Limited, 1998.
Space is the Place. DVD. Directed by John Coney. Rhapsody Films, 1998.
Szwed, John F. Space Is The Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. Edinburgh: MOJO
Lock, Graham. Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work
of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton. Durham; London: Duke University
Reed, Teresa L. The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music. Lexington:
University of Kentucky Press, 2004.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk
Thought From Slavery To Freedom. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press,
Flow Motion. “Astro Black Morphologies: Music and Science Lovers.” Leonardo 29
New Scientist. “Pyramid Precision.” Accessed January 13, 2014.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Religious Experience.” Accessed January 13, 2014.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Sacred.” Accessed January 13, 2014.