Glimpsing the Ra Ship

[Sun Ra Arkestra @ Cafe Oto, London. 18/08/15]

I’m having a pint by myself in the Wetherspoons on Brixton Road, scribbling to-do lists on the back of a gas bill envelope when I get a call from one of my friends. She says she has a free ticket to see the Sun Ra Arkestra and that the show starts in half an hour. I hop on to the Victoria Line and back out into the late-summer drizzle, arriving at Dalston’s Cafe Oto damp and flustered, the lady at the door eventually letting me in after spending several minutes unable to find my name on the list. I buy a beer from the bar and immediately spill half of it down my leg when a woman bashes into me.

I was hoping the first time I witnessed the Arkestra would be a transformative experience, lifting me out of myself and delivering me to alternate realms. Instead, I’m drenched and dying for a piss, getting dirty looks from everyone I stumble past on my way to the toilet in the furthest corner of the venue, which is crammed with people, clouds of sweat condensing over their heads.

I’ve arrived just before the interval, but as the Arkestra retake the stage, my mind is in the way of the music. I have trouble deciphering the sounds I hear and can’t find any words to describe them. I sometimes find that is a problem with jazz music in general, and with the timbres of the saxophone in particular. It is almost too pure an instrument. It is as though the player spits their soul through it, and into the ears of the listener. It is, at first, a jarring and bewildering experience. But then perhaps that is the point of the music of the Arkestra, deriving from Sun Ra‘s intention half a century ago to uproot us from Earthly consciousness and to take us somewhere altogether different, utilising whatever frequencies are necessary.

Much as I try and get lost in the music, my frazzled mind can’t help but get distracted by my surroundings and the reactions of the crowd around me, which my friend later describes as ‘a mixture of Afropunks and conservative jazz farts’. I start to wonder: if Sun Ra were still with us on Planet Earth, what would he make of all this? What would he make of this trendy venue, nestled amongst the social contractions and violent juxtapositions of gentrified East London? What hope would he offer beleaguered citizens living under the corporate junta of modern Britain? What would he make of rent rises and benefit cuts? Of smart phones and dating apps? Of civil wars and migrant crises? I imagine he would laugh it off. That he would tell me I’m looking at it all wrong; that there’s other way of perceiving it if I would just listen.

Two hours later and the band, led by the magnificent 91 year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen, is still playing. Not only are they still playing, but they are slowly dismantling the expectations of the audience: members of the brass section keep breaking away from the stage and snaking through the crowd, arriving in the middle of huddles of listeners, wielding trombones and trumpets like alter-dimensional weapons, blaring snippets of riffs before carrying on. The energy and stamina of the band, all dressed head to toe in Afrofuturistic reds and greens, is breathtaking. And slowly the logic of the music starts resonating with my jangled brain waves: the music is a life force in and of itself, simultaneously euphoric and peculiar. In tunnelling through the crowd it is almost as thought they are tunnelling through our perceptions, reminding us that there is always another way of looking at things.


For my previous post on Sun Ra, Space is The Place and Afrofuturism, click here.


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