Myths of Existence :: Ahmed Abdullah and Monique Ngozi Nri on Sun Ra

Sun Ra understood the power of a name. “I have many names,” the cosmic composer and bandleader once said. “Names of mystery. Names of splendor. Names of shame. I have many names. Some call me Mr. Ra. You can call me Mr. Mystery.” Likewise, Ra’s ever-evolving collective the Arkestra was subject to a constant rechristening over many years. The Solar-Nature Arkestra, the Year 2000 Myth Science Arkestra, the Power of Astro-Infinity Arkestra, the Omniverse Ultra 21st Century Arkestra—these are just some of the many labels Ra applied to the group over its storied history. 

Ahmed Abdullah, born Leroy Bland, understands the significance of a name too. The New York City-raised trumpeter first met Ra on the Lower Eastside, before joining the Arkestra in 1975 and playing on and off with the group until Ra’s passing from this plane in 1993. Along the way, he led his own groups, the names of which, like his mentor’s, morphed to fit various thematic, spiritual, and philosophical mandates. His first was simply called Abdullah, then the  Solomonic Quartet (along with Quintet and Sextet formations), then Ebonic Tones, and now Diaspora, an acronym that  stands for “Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra,” which Abdullah leads with his wife and partner Monique Ngozi Nri. Originally inspired by a dream, in which Abdullah says Sun Ra appeared to him and asked him to continue the dissemination of his music and concepts, the group’s new album, Jazz: A Music of the Spirit, Out of Sistas’ Place, finds Abdullah and his band teaming with another former Arkestra member, percussionist Fransisco Mora Catlett and his AfroHorn collective. Drawing from Sun Ra’s extensive catalog, the South African Diaspora songbook, and the poetry of Louis Reyes Rivera, it’s a fine collection of cosmic jazz, exploratory, soothing, and coursing with imagination. 

Abdullah, who teaches a course on Sun Ra at the New School, and Ngozi Nri joined Aquarium Drunkard to discuss the continual recreation of Ra’s music, Afrofuturism, and the possibilities of the future.

Abdullah, who teaches a course on Sun Ra at the New School, and Ngozi Nri joined Aquarium Drunkard to discuss the continual recreation of Ra’s music, Afrofuturism, and the possibilities of the future. Diaspora meets AfroHorn, Jazz: A Music of the Spirit, Out of Sistas’ Place, is available now. words / j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Ahmed, what was it like being inducted into Sun Ra’s group in the mid-‘70s?

Ahmed Abdullah: It was quite a thing. I was all of 28 years old when I joined the band in 1975. I had met Sun Ra when I was 18 years old. I’d gone to hear his performance because my parents lived not too far away from this place, Slug’s, that he used to play at. I would go there regularly. The difference in listening to the band and joining the band is like an 180 degree difference.

The very first concert I had with the band was at a place called the East in Brooklyn. It was an all-black environment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was an amazing thing. I was like a little kid at a circus. Sun Ra was into his multimedia productions at the time, so we had dancers, a light show, music, singing. It was just fantastic. Of course when you first play with the band, when you’re initially brought in, he’d teach you. You would sit next to him and he’d play almost every song, because he’s trying to find out where you fit best within his concept. He gives you a lot of room, and you feel very special. It was a wonderful initiation and indoctrination into his band. 

AD: Sun Ra had this incredible and very layered worldview. He drew from all sorts of mystic traditions—ancient Egyptian, numerology, gnosticism, science fiction. How did he share those concepts with the band?

Ahmed Abdullah: In the early days we would have long rehearsals. We’d rehearse for 13 hours at a time. Often times, that’s how he would convey his philosophy to us. If someone made a mistake on one of the arrangements, he would stop the band and he would talk. His lectures would be about anything in the universe and out of the universe. About his background and all kinds of things. There were moments of lecture. We tried to play the music as well as possible so we wouldn’t have to deal with a half-hour to 40-minute lecture. That’s how he conveyed his philosophy to us and we got it. 

[I left the band for a stint] but when I came back, I had a dream in 1988 about[Sun Ra], and this dream told me he was my mentor. He was the person I was supposed to learn from. When I went back into the band in 1988, I really came back to get that knowledge that he had given to us so freely in rehearsals. I went to interview him and find information from him which I used in a memoir of my own that I never published, but I did finish it about 2001, just before I joined the New School faculty. That was one of the reasons I was asked to be a part of that faculty, because I had written memoirs about him, and it took me about three or four years to do it, from 1998 till 2001. I’d been working on that with poet, [the late] Louis Reyes Rivera, whose work we do on the CD.

AD: Monique, you recite Rivera’s poem “A Place I’ve Never Been” over “Eternal Spiraling Spirit,” from Ahmed’s first album, Life Force, from 1979. The poem has such a powerful sense of anguish. But the music has, at least to my ears, such joyfulness and peace. What’s it like for you to combine those extremes?

Monique Ngozi Nri: I don’t have a sense of disparity between the poem and the music. Wed had done that music at many people’s memorials: Charles Moffat, Billy Bang, a bunch of musicians, before Louis came to put the words to it. Louis may have done it one way but I was really channeling Becky Shabazz more, in the sense of my rendition of the poem. I’m very much sitting in the place of a woman sitting in the audience when her husband is shot. That’s what I’m doing in the poem. That’s the place that I’m coming to it from.

AD: I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetry of“Discipline 27,” a Ra composition featured on this record. He’s talking about remaking yourself, about the “ridiculousness of the end of the world,” which he suggests has already happened. I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction lately. It seems to me like we’ve sort of lost the ability as a culture to envision or imagine hopeful visions of the future. I can’t help but wonder if that ends up in some way stopping us from realizing hopeful visions for the future because you can only accomplish what you can imagine. Was that one of the aims of this record, for the music to impart a sense of hope and wonder? 

Ahmed Abdullah: You can’t create something that you can’t imagine. There are a few ways of creation. One is in the mind, and one is in physical reality. If you don’t have it in your mind, it’s impossible to create it in physical reality. Sun Ra was always about that. When he performed one of his songs that we do not do on the recording, “Enlightenment,” he would always tell us in rehearsal was that he came here to planet Earth from Saturn to enlighten Earthlings, because we were so dense and we needed help. 

I think we’re in real dire need of help today certainly. We do have to imagine a better place and a better time and a better world. The music is abstract enough to impart that to people from a higher level, from the spiritual level. 

This country [has a] social structure [based on] a win-lose philosophy. You are able to be a victor because you put somebody else down. That doesn’t work if you’re trying to create a better world. A better world is only created when you win and other people win, because if you win at the sake of somebody else losing, they’re always gonna be trying to get back at you. You’re not creating a better world. You’re only creating a world that’s fraught with danger of somebody wanting revenge for the fact that you have taken something from them. 

Monique Ngozi Nri: I think of two of Sun Ra sayings. One is, “Imagine the impossible/Give up your death.” And there’s a lyric from the first performance I ever heard from Sun Ra, “I could have enjoyed myself on this planet if the people had been alive.” He was in his poetry always talking about the vision, being able to imagine being somewhere or something outside the constructs that we are currently in. Of course, he reinvented his whole being, as he said, having arrived on the planet, but he really did live as if he was not from this planet and had a different vision about how life should be lived. I think he is an embodiment of the possibility of being able to step outside of your current comfort zone and imagine something wider and better. Although he was very strict. That’s one of the things that’s a paradox: He was very disciplined in terms of his music and his study and his life. His life was not a free abandonment, but he created spaces where people could be freer. 

AD: So much of Ra’s work focused on creation—on the act of continual creation. 

Ahmed Abdullah: He spent the first 32 years of his existence on this planet in Birmingham, Alabama. He yearned for literature about his own identity. He didn’t find that until he moved to Chicago in 1946 where he had access to a wealth of information, and he could really find out about Egypt. Of course people say Egypt’s the Middle East. They don’t even say that Egypt is in Africa. The whole obfuscation of the history of African people is all up in that. It was the fact that he was able to find out who he was through the research that he did which gave him an understanding of a futuristic place and time. 

He said that he could not be from this planet, a planet that would hide his history from him. He couldn’t be from here! He had to be from some place else! He had to be from Saturn because why would people do this? Why would people hide his own identity from him? His look at the past helped him to see the future, and to say I’ve got to be from someplace else. I’ve got to be from some future place where people understand things on a different level from the people here on planet Earth because they’re backwards!

AD: I think there are a lot of people now who share that feeling, perhaps people whose privilege or social standing once allowed them to not think as much about that question are now having to start to ask the types of questions Sun Ra was asking so long ago. In this moment, do you feel like his philosophy has unique insights to offer us?

Ahmed Abdullah: I think his philosophy does have unique insight to offer us. The idea that we need to be more thoughtful. You have a leader of this country that has lied 16,000 times since he’s been the president. One of the things Sun Ra said about the music is that it’s about the truth. As opposed to people who just say whatever they want to do. At the same time, because of the mythology that exists within this planet—because this is not new—the mythology that was surrounding us as African people in this country was what led Sun Ra to create a mythology about his own existence. If you can create a myth about this country, I can create a myth about my existence: “I came from another planet! I came from Saturn!” 

He created a whole story about that. The idea that we can tell stories to wake people up as well as we can tell stories to polarize people is the reality. Stories can be used either way, so hopefully people will use their judgement and find a storyteller who will actually uplift them as opposed to a storyteller who will hurt their neighbors and hurt other people. That’s the real thing. It’s win-win. There’s abundance out here!

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