Robert Mugge’s film A Joyful Noise is like stepping into a time machine. He has captured a unique insight into a particularly mystical bubble of 1980s African American counter-culture. Although, thinking about it, our main protagonist Mr Mystery, AKA Sun Ra, might not be too interested in limiting himself to any earth-based ethnicity. When he was attending college he claimed to have a visionary experience which took him to Saturn, where he was informed by his fellow Saturnians that “I would speak [through music], and the world will listen. That’s what they told me.”Throughout recent history, there have been a few individuals that have told tales of being whisked away to other planets by some kind of extra-terrestrial life and come back with stark warnings of humanities looming extinction. Usually, they get widely ignored or pointed in the direction of the nearest insane asylum. Sun Ra however, has the magic of music on his side, which has earned him such accolades as being invited into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame as well as being appointed as artist in residence at the University of California.
The film includes an interview with jazz saxophonist John Gilmore where he tells us why he was so compelled to play and live with the masterful Sun Ra. He reflects on an epiphany he had while playing for six months in his company: “My God, this man is more stretched out than [Thelonious Sphere] Monk!” he exclaims, later going on to say, “I think I’ll make this my stop”. Gilmore lived and breathed Sun Ra, taking residence in a commune household in Germantown with the rest of the Arkestra where they would rehearse for what seemed like 24 hours of the day:
Sometimes it’s tough, but the sincerity of wanting to be a part of the music, you know, you don’t really mind, you know… you have to give up pleasures like maybe going out to enjoy yourself. You can’t do it because you have to stay here and rehearse, you know, but once you get into the music, you forget about the other thing that was happening because the music will have you so into it that the rest of it doesn’t even matter”A Joyful Noise allows us to hang-out with Sun Ra in various high-vibration locations such as the Egyptian Room of the University of Pennsylvania’s anthropology museum, Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom and on the roof of Philadelphia’s International House to name but a few. In each of these locations, Sun Ra’s energy spills out, whether it be through his music, his Arkestra dance routines or his poetry. You get the impression Sun Ra spouted this mystical spiel even when the cameras weren’t rolling. As he’s doing so, we can see a joyful smirk on Mr Ra’s face, almost as if he’s brushing off the confusion or perhaps getting into the deeper truth that’s unravelling out of him. I have to say his words and perspective make a thousand times more sense after receiving the teachings of psychedelics, specifically ayahuasca. Let’s dig deep; I’m going to have to get all me me me here, but don’t worry, it all relates.
From the last ten years or so of interacting with the ever mutating, throbbing pulsing, organic entity that we will call the global underground music scene, whether it be, playing in bands, putting on shows or making films, various artists that I’ve come across have tipped their hat to Mr Ra, including most recently Richard Dawson, who pointed out to me “There’s a reason why those costumes are ridiculous”. While I’ve come across many signposts pointing to Mr Ra and I might have dipped my toe in his cosmic pool, I have to be honest it’s only recently that I’ve become drenched in the stuff. Trying to write this article has helped.It’s as if everything he’s spouting comes from a deeper place than Herman Blount (his rejected birth name). One of the vibes you get from this guy is that his consciousness is not only spilling out into his music, but his way of being too. Danny Thompson, sometime Arkestra member, is interviewed in his grocery store Pharaoh’s Den (which has an image of Sun Ra as a pharaoh on the shop sign) and talks with pride about the impact he has on the place he lives and works, illustrating that there wasn’t just a music career and legacy to preserve, but a community to serve.
“Of all the churches you’ve got, of all the schools you’ve got, of all the governments you’ve got, you’d suppose that they’d have a better planet than this… Well then, man has failed, spiritually, educationally governmentally… he’s failed… Well, I’m right here as a bridge for him to get help,” Sun Ra proclaims on a roof-top. On paper, this reads like the workings of a cult leader, a leader that produced hundreds of records and bought a community together that stills thrives today decades after his death in 1993 (the Arkestra will be touring the UK this summer).One of the sentences captured in this film that keeps on ringing in my ear is “…music is a spiritual language and it represents the people of planet earth.” In the world of practising shamanism, working with the sacred plant-medicine ayahuasca, they use what is known as an ícaro during scared healing ceremonies, which are melodies that are given to indoctrinated shamans from plant spirits that are then sung by the shaman to help guide the struggling participants through the spirit world. The Peruvian artist and shaman Pablo Cesar Amerigo (1938) was reported to have said “ [the ícaro] is the sound of the universe — the planets, stars, comets and supernovas”.
Something that you might need to experience your self to truly appreciate, nevertheless there’s a clear correlation between Mr Mystery and these indigenous cultures. When you look at the tin-foil hat wearer group, you can’t say that many of them have had such influence on the wider cultural spectrum as Sun Ra. Saying that one of the most notable things that comes to mind when glancing at the long list of artists that are influenced by Sun Ra is that although he comes from a world of jazz, Sun Ra’s influence on modern artistes doesn’t seem to be a direct musical relationship; more a mindset, a way of being. After all, they say real jazz isn’t like any other “jazz” that came before.
There’s one ride in this life-time and that’s it — well, there’s an infinite amount of after-rides, but there’s one thing for sure: there’ll never be another Sun Ra. We are blessed Robert Mugge spent those two years getting all this on celluloid. If you don’t dig his spiel, keep listening to the music and one day it might click.