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Sun Ra/Henry Dumas: The Ark and the Ankh

Whatever it was Sun Ra was trying to tell us during his 79-year visit on planet Earth, he meant it-that much I know. But no matter how many interviews with Ra I read, no matter how many times I watch his bizarre fable-cum-blaxploitation flick Space Is the Place, his finer points remain too complex to define.

In the short interview with Sun Ra on The Ark and the Ankh poet/writer Henry Dumas probes the pianist’s Egyptian-headdress-capped brain for thoughts on the usual Ra-fare (outer space, astro-infinity, equations, etymology, Christianity, the black man’s plight, etc.) and receives answers typical of any other Ra interview: vague ones. Like the adventurous music he created with his Arkestra (who are heard in the background on this lo-fi disc), Ra’s worldview comes from a combination of ideas both traditional and unexplored, but he’s uninterested in explaining that worldview to Dumas in logical, concrete terms. Were Ra a college student writing papers with the absurd analogies he feeds Dumas, including a comparison of mortality to a presidential election (apparently death isn’t certain, we choose to die) he would have found himself on academic probation.

Still, the interview reveals that Ra had a heartfelt concern for mankind. He was happy to tell Dumas what we Earthlings are doing wrong and that by listening to his music we can correct our situation, but with his freak-out music and cryptic speeches, most folk were just too befuddled to believe in him.

In gaining the rights to release the Ra/Dumas disc, Ikef Records owner Dawson Prater contacted Dumas estate executor Eugene B. Redmond, who told Prater he had a tape from 1973 of himself performing spoken word poetry with jazz accompaniment. A more jaded label head might well have quipped back at Redmond with, “Who doesn’t?” but Prater asked to hear the tape and Prater’s curiosity rewards us all.

Redmond isn’t like those goateed poets who hang around in coffee shops and try to impress with flashy turns of phrase and diarrheal streams of consciousness. He’s good, weaving folk-myth with personal anecdote and impassioned proclamation with joyful humor and delivering it all with dynamic personality and no pretense.

Even though he aims at capturing the hearts of black Americans, Redmond’s unpredictable and inspired flow pokes at the spectrum of human emotion and is capable of tapping empathy from people of any color. The studio audience howls with delight during the performance and closes the disc by chanting, “We want more! We want more!” Yes we do.

Originally Published