Sun Ra Arkestra @ The Forum
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Sun Ra Arkestra @ The Forum

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100 years ago, Sun Ra was born. Throughout his lifetime, he became the manifestation of jazz evolution, touching on swing, hard bop and fusion, all the while perpetuating an avant-garde edge. He was a pioneer of electronic music, space music and free jazz, experimenting with synthesisers and electronic keyboards. 21 years after his death, his faithful Arkestra are still playing his music and sustaining his traditions.


A student of cosmology, Sun Ra’s music was devoted to the mysteries of space and the universe. Re-naming himself after the Egyptian God of the Sun (Ra), it came as no surprise when the entire Arkestra arrived on stage dressed as Pharaohs; complete with gold and silver drapes and fancy headdresses. If Ancient Egypt was ever re-discovered as a happening planet and then chosen as a base for reality television, the Arkestra would be the unquestionable house band. Led by the 89-year-old Marshall Allen, the 13-piece Arkestra performed a two-hour catalogue of Sun Ra classics, taking us on a sonic journey through space music and free jazz.

The virile Allen, who proved that age and stamina aren’t mutually exclusive, swapped between playing alto sax and a peculiar supersonic instrument called an EVI, creating eerie sonic sound scapes (think of the atmospherics in Dark Side Of The Moon). Many of the other musicians played multiple instruments as well. One guy was on baritone sax and flute and another was on bongos, snare and sax. Even the pianist – who played some great New Orleans boogie woogie stuff – swapped between keys and percussion, often hitting the high hat with his right foot in the middle of a piano solo.

The solos were brilliant, showcasing a variety of western and eastern influences, the latter perpetuated through the flute and bongos. The female vocalist – whose tone was not dissimilar from Ella Fitzgerald’s – sang us stories of magic carpets and flying saucers, adding a voice-over to the strange, yet optimistic cosmic jazz. One of the sax players – a man definitely over the age of 60 – attempted to do a sort of Elaine Benes dance thing, following on with some amazing acrobatics. The music was cluttered and all over the place, probably not appropriate for extensive record listening. What made it so good live was the consistent animation and virtuosity of the players. It was colourful, noisy and lush. The routine often got a little disorganised, due to a number of confused faces trying to remember who the next soloist was. But hey, doesn’t an unorthodox performance go hand in hand with the avant-garde? An amazing celestial show from a loyal following, let’s hope Sun Ra’s music can survive another 100 years.

BY DINA AMIN
Photos by Richard Dodson 

Loved: The appropriate Bitches Brew meets The Best of Sun Ra DJ picks during intermission.

Hated: That I didn’t wear some kind of celestial outfit.

Drank: Space Juice.