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Going with the “vibrations of the day” – Marshall Allen and Art Jenkins of Sun Ra Arkestra

Friday, September 25th, 2009

We’ve been really honored here in Durham, NC to be able and host the exhibit “Pathways to Unknown Worlds” at our local art council’s building. The exhibit is memorabilia related to Sun RA’s time in Chicago, Il. With the exhibit, which is sponsored by the Durham Arts Guild in conjunction with Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center, we’ve been lucky to have a couple of high profile events related to the exhibit – namely a performance by Sun Ra Arkestra (now lead by Marshall Allen) and a discussion panel with M. Allen and Art Jenkins today at the JHFranklin Center.
I’m not going to try and describe the music of Sun Ra (if you aren’t famliar, do yourself a favor and check him out. Sun Ra Arkestra’s releases are too many to mention, but here’s a fun starting CD – Angels and Demons at Play), but there is no doubt that he and his devoted orchestra (-mmm…well, they are still playing together though he died in 1993 – so with Sun Ra that’s probably around 30 years together, 40 years together for some of these folks) are some of the most creative, visionary, and free-thinking musicians in the world.
What I want to focus on in this post is the discussion panel with M. Allen and A. Jenkins today.
They had many great stories about hangin with Sun Ra (hilarious), but what I got the most out of was their consistent attention to the idea of letting spirit create music instead of mind. Both Allen and Jenkins had stories about how Sun Ra could tell when they were playing what they thought they should play instead of what was true to their nature (spirit). Jenkins talked about doing vocals for the Arkestra and his frustration when Sun Ra asked him to create “impossible” vocals. This drove him nuts – nothing was what Ra was asking for, until he found a ram’s horn with 2 holes bored in to it in a duffle bag of Ra’s. With nothing to lose, he held the wide part of the horn to his mouth and cupped his hand over the holes, creating a vibratory effect when he sang and moved his hand on and off the holes. Upon hearing, Sun Ra exclaimed that this vocal effect was perfect – it became a signature sound of Jenkin’s on many Sun Ra recordings (Strange Strings and I think Angels and Demons were both mentioned). Jenkins talked about how holding the horn reminded him of his childhood – amazingly enough, he could not speak when most children start talking. There was a folk remedy that his parents heard about in which a child who can’t talk should drink water from a cow’s horn. Though this didn’t help his problem, it came in to play later in life, as it brought meaning to the ram’s horn for Jenkins.

Jenkins and Allen both reiterated over and over how playing what they knew was not acceptable in Sun Ra’s band. Sun Ra made them reach deep in to their souls to manifest the the spirit that made their music so unusual and beautiful. When someone from the audience asked what strategies they used to keep from repeating themselves when playing their tunes over and over on tour, Allen said “I just go with the vibration of the day”. This was a recurrent theme – we are energetic beings who can tune in with the vibrations of all that is going on within and around us (because we are part of everything). We can turn those vibrations in to audible sound if we are sensitive to them.

When asked how being of African descent affected their music, Jenkins replied again that we are all part of everything – we can learn from the birds, from nature, from everything surrounding us, and in fact he says that he learned to speak from listening to the birds.

The discussion was incredibly meaningful. Allen and Jenkins talked of the idea of “failure” and how they had to seek to be failures so that they could start all over again. In the end, they came to realize that if you are going with the vibration of the day, nothing you create is a failure. It is a perfect manifestation of the moment.

I hope I can carry this through in my own music making. The commodification of music, and the survival needs of those making music for a living are detrimental to the pursuit of authenticity in art and in life. It is always a great temptation to make music that you know everyone will appreciate, but in doing so, we create stagnation and hold back the natural progression of one of humankind’s most sacred art forms.

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