War, Nuclear

Some years back, I forget when, certainly before the start of the new millienium, a group of Afro-dread cyberheads headquartered in a office in Hackerscher Markt, a former shtetl in the east of Berlin, an area now known for its upscale cafes, restaurants, discotesques and tall, Barbie-doll-like prostitutes, emailed an invitation to present a blaxploitation film of my own choosing at an upcoming event they were then in the middle of organizing. At the time, as I had published a book on seventies-era black action-films , I was considered something of a 'scholar' on the subject -- an appellation I found completely laughable, given my research primarily consisted of keeping my finger on the fast-forward button of my Vcr's remote. And writing sarcastic asides about such films as Blacula; Coffy; Willie Dynamite; and the deliriously strange, Welcome Home, Brother Charles -- it was not unusual to receive such invitations. I was told these films were not known in Europe (which I soon discovered was not true; when, during a screening of Darktown Strutters, a film barely known in the U.S., the cargo container serving as a makeshift movie theater was packed like a tin of sardines with a broad assortment of German-speaking transvestites). Needless to say, when I realized they were also offering Deutschmarks for my presence, I readily accepted their invitation.

The event was a weekend long conference devoted to papers, multi-media presentations, lectures, discussions and an old-fashion Harlem-styled chit'lin' switch (such as it was possible in Berlin) on the topic of 'the black diaspora in cyber-space'. The Black Diaspora usually referred to the tragic consequences of the middle passage--the uprooting of Africans from their lands and traditions and their enslavement by foreign peoples. This event, however, not only extended the 'meaning' of a Black Diaspora, but also twist it with a futurististic spin.
So, given its theme, what film was most appropriate? Bop guns and Mothership connections were inescapable. But I didn't go there. I went to the godfather. Not James Brown but Sun Ra -- the linchpin in the triumvirate of Afro-Futurism, which also includes Lee "Scratch" Perry and George Clinton -- all of whom, contrary to the conspiracy theorists among us (who believed there wouldn't be ANY black people in the future; wiped out by the genocidal madness of The Man's tricknology), created mythologies suggesting black people survived into the future.
And if not here, there. Out there.

The conference was well-attended by people who had come from all around Europe to examine the consequences of the Internet on a hybridized European black identity. To my mind, the idea of Europe, the possibilities of the Internet and blackness had always suggested a fluidity of identity -- unlike the 'fixed', 'monolithic' and ultimately false idea of 'blackness' of the 'afro-centricists. The existence of blacks in Europe spoke directly to the nature of transformative identities and culture. It not only addressed the issue of darker peoples survival into the future but also the differing means and ways survival is possible. It transformed the very idea of a 'European' identity itself (which meant, of course, to some folks, the very end of whiteness--a not unappealing idea ).
The one film in the blaxploitation genre most suited for the conference was Space is the Place, a 1974 release featuring Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. Not until pretty boy Billy Dee Williams, as Lando Calrissian, showed up in The Empire Strikes Back wearing a wardrobe worthy of Willie Dynamite, Space is the Place was one of the few 'science fiction' films of the 70s' era to feature prominant black characters (another is Abar, The First Black Superman). Space is the Place is a document of both the period and the cosmic debris floating through Sun Ra's head: teleportation through musical vibrations; black utopianism; Egyptology; cosmic duels with cosmic pimps; time travel; and the sort of black mythologizing that would make Elijah Muhammad's head spin. Perfect for Europe's futuristic Negros.
However, thirty seconds into my introduction, surrounded by a crowd of beautifully coiffed and stylishly dressed young black people, I realized they had no idea who or what I was talking about! Not a clue! Every dj in Berlin worth their vinyl collection knew who the fuck Sun Ra was. But not these folks. I was flabbergasted!
The room was thick with resentment. One thing, at least, was consistent about my experience in Berlin. Resentment was never because I was black. It was because I was an American. So much for romantic notions of solidarity.
Within moments, a young cat with a ropy head of hair twisted into what looked like a paper wasp's nest interceded on my behalf and attempted to explain Sun Ra's strange mathematics in terms understandable to the assembled. The best he could do, however, was compare Sun Ra to have own growing cultural identity.

The new millenium arrived and kicked everybody in the ass. Hard.
I was living in absolute destitution (don't ask. Suffice to say, it was some dark and crazy shit until, well, the shit got darker and crazier.) However, when circumstances seemed most dire, I was rescued at the eleventh hour by a pair fighting on the side of the angels (I also knew a pair who fought on the side of the fallen angels but that's another story). They offered a gig conceiving of and producing shows for Bootlab's new radio project (Bootlab is a hacker think-tank and public forum for artists, academics and activists in Berlin). It was while producing these shows I first conceived of a series of events in Berlin celebrating the life and music of Sun Ra. Berlin is, after all, a 'magic city' like Birmingham, Alabama, Sun Ra's birthplace.
I had just finished writing a piece for "American Monsters: 44 Black Hats, Rats and Plutocrats"; an anthology edited by the late Jack Newfield and Mark Jacobson. The piece was on Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. And I read it on an episode of Chasin' the Dragon's Tail with Doctor Snakeskin called "The White Man is The Devil". This episode concluded with a composition Sun Ra had written for Amiri Baraka's play "Black Mass" (which dramatized the story of Mr. Yacoub and the origin of the white race).
As I came out of the studio, I exclaimed to Diana and her hot-air balloon of a bleached-blonde afro we should devote twenty four hours of programming to Sun Ra and his music: interviews, lectures, dj experiments, live performances, screenings, etc. All Sun Ra All The Time would draw folks from all quarters of the city to celebrate the life and art of one of the 20th century's great musical visionaries. Twenty-fours of non-stop Sun Ra would also expose the cyber-dreads to a world outside the restricted borders of commercial Hiphop. My wildest imaginings included naming Sun Ra Berlin's new Patron Saint--for expatriot artists, immigrants and space travelers. With the city's extraordinary population of musicians, this made perfect sense. Berlin is a living museum of world music. Alas, however, All Sun Ra All The Time was not to be.
Bootlab lost its funding. Then I heard through the grapevine someone wanted to kick my ass. Some cat named Peter Dennett. I was in a fightin' mood so I dialed his phone number and said: Whaddup, muthafucka? Heard you want me to break my foot off in your ass!! Turned out our 'beef' was some silly-minded bullshit contrived by a daffy third party. We talked the problem over, bonding in friendship. Peter, I learned, through his London-based label Artyard Records, was not only re-releasing Mister Re's old recordings but also his music never pressed on wax. A light bulb flashed above my head.
Bootlab found a new situation in the Tesla building with Radio 1:1 for June and July of '06. I was given a Wednesday afternoon slot and my show was renamed Dr. Snakeskin's Hoodoo Kitchen. Then, during the course of a night of cross-eyed drinking, I made arrangements to guest chef at Urban Comfort Food on Zionkirschstrasse in Prenzeluerberg. It was set for a Sunday. Peter flew in from London. Brad Fox helped with the cooking.


* Chopped Pork Barbecue
(Swine, Esig und Rot Pfeffer)

* Collard Greens with Hamhocks
(Kara Lahanna mit Eisbein)

* Beans and Rice
(Bohnen und Reis)

* Cornbread

* And for desert:
Little Richard's Georgia Peach Sorbet!

All kinds of folks showed up. Africans. French. Greeks. Italians. Romanians. Honkie Americans. And Negroes I didn't even know were possible in Berlin.
In typically American Negro fashion, they ate up everything! Sucked the hamhock bones dry! Peter spun Sun Ra's Saturn disks. There was lively discussion. New friendships were cemented. We were even treated to Donna Brown's fine singing voice. Donna Brown, for those not in the know, is Germany's premier choirmaster of American black gospel. When you see signs reading Neger Evangelium Sängers von Harlem, Donna Brown is behind that.
The evening's twilight found me outside the restaurant lost in revery. Brad and I had done our work well. Despite the fact we had each earned only seventeen euros for all our time and effort, the launch of Operation Sun Ra was a success. It was then the next piece in the puzzle fell into place (and I had no idea I was fitting the pieces of a puzzle together).
A woman walked by with her summer dress billowing in the warm evening air. As she passed, a note fluttered to my table. It read: Ina Roter. There was a phone number and email address. I was to contact her regarding my writing workshop. As she approached the door of a neighboring building, I asked if she were a writer. She called back over her shoulder. No, I'm a singer. Later, I found out her performance name was Quio.

One thousand, six hundred and thirty words later, you're probably asking yourselves what is the basis of my obsession with Sun Ra? And what has any of this to do with War, Nuclear? I could lie and say my interest in Sun Ra began when I moved to the Lower Eastside in the nineteen eighties. It was there I met a lot of the free-jazz cats of the 'sixties. And that my best friend Khu-Cenaton Chu-Amon (aka Danny Davis) was one of his sidemen. If I wanted to lie, and tell you that, I would actually tell you Khu-Cenaton's story. He was one amazing human being. Saxophonist, flautist and stage illusionist. Could pull rabbits out of his horn. Unfortunately, Wild Irish Rose, a 'fortified wine' popular with Bowery habitues, killed that black muthafucka off. No, my present interest in Sun Ra is due to a chance meeting I had with Dr. John on New York's Lower Eastside. This meeting with the formidable New Orleans pianist initiated my next long-term project: an exploration of Voodoo's influence on American popular culture.
Another consequence of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, ceremonial Voodoo, as practiced in the west, is a mix of various African religious practices -- much of it song, dance and drumming -- combined with Catholic liturgy (and a lot of high-potency Caribbean rum) which functions as a bridge between mortal and god by inducing a state of divine ecstacy. My questions became:
How have these ancient African religious practices transformed since arriving on North American shores? What new and radical forms have these practices taken? How does its spirit express itself in contemporary American society? What new innovations have been brought to these practices? And what do these new forms bode for America's cultural future?
Sun Ra is an important figure in the transformation of the meanings of African spirituality among peoples of the African Diaspora. And is part of the key answering the above questions.

Later that same week, Peter was a guest on my show. He wanted to promote his next Sun Ra release Disco 3000. After we opened with an introductory discussion, Peter played a track he said was forbidden on London radio:

Nuclear War, YEAH!
They´re talking about
Nuclear War YEAH!

Its a Muthafucka ITS A MUTHAFUCKA!
Don't you know? DON'T YOU KNOW?

If they push that button! IF THEY PUSH THAT BUTTON!
Your ass gotta go! YOUR ASS GOTTA GO!

They blast you! THEY BLAST YOU!
So high in the sky! SO HIGH IN THE SKY!

You can kiss your ass goodbye! YOU CAN KISS YOUR ASS GOODBYE!
You can kiss your ass! YOU CAN KISS YOUR ASS!
Goodbye, goodbye! GOODBYE, GOODBYE!

I howled. Laughter reverberated throughout the studio. Electricity crackled through my brain's wine-soaked synapses. The song was a revelation. Succinct, funny and insightful in its simplicity. I had to be a part of this song's life somehow.
The Disco 3000 show was followed by an event cooked up by Diana. Sun Ra was about to meet hacker culture. Her idea? Attack the tv tower at Alexanderplatz with a swarm of mechanical cockroaches. Diana contacted Peter Dennett, Karl Heinz Jeron (an artist who hacked together tiny robots with transistor radios) and myself. I was asked to write a press release:

""Apocalypso: The Cosmic War Dance of Sun Ra's Army of Athropodial Transistors

When the composer and mystic, Sun Ra, returned to his native Saturn on May 30th, 1993, he left behind a vast and varied body of recorded musical work. Up until now, much of this music
has been unavailable to the public. But, through a series of séances conducted in the studios of Radio 1:1, Mister Re has informed us that on Sunday, July 30th, 2006, between the hours of 4-6 pm, he will be returning to this planet in astral form with a special message for the people of earth. And he will not be alone. He will be accompanied by his army of Athropoidal Transistors:
"""" We are going to invade Berlin!!!" he chuckled. " "This is a declaration of war! Kreig, baby! Don't be fuckin' with us! Y'all can kiss my black Saturnian ass! Deep Tongue that muthafucka!" Our first target will be the TV Tower in Alexanderplatz! My weapons?!! Two full hours of sonic assault—or acoustical magic--taken from my vast library of unreleased recordings. I and my Transistors will dance the cosmic dance. The cosmic WAR dance. It's the Apocalypso, baby!"

--A direct spirit communication from Sun Ra on Saturn

And so it was. Except Berlin won. The original plan was to fill Alexanderplatz with a "joyful noise" emanating from this army of mechanical cockroaches (thus bringing Berlin and its Sunday shoppers to its knees). However, the transmissions broadcasting from Radio 1:1 was blocked by the tv tower. So, despite my magical evocation of Sun Ra, the cockroaches, as if gassed by insecticide, sputtered and jerked on a sparse patch of grass in a Alexanderplatz, dying a sad and pointless death.

Sometime between Sun Ra's Apocalypso and the second edition of Dictionary of War, I resumed my writing workshop. The group was comprised of native English-speakers and English-speaking natives. I was the only 'American' (I felt 'German', though, even if the most I could do in that language was order a glass of red wine -- "Eine glas rot-wein, bitten). We met once a week. Friday nights. I was a recluse by that point so the workshop was the social highlight of my week. There was always food and wine; a practice I began in the mid-nineties with the indigent college students I instructed in my Brooklyn home. I didn't charge for my workshops. I bartered. I'm a good German socialist.
Quio was among the workshop's regular attendees. In exchange for my services, she offered to teach the proud and noble tongue of northern Germany's industrious peoples. Quio instructed through song. The meanings of the actual words were secondary. Her process was much more organic. Her focus was sound, breathe and muscle. Speaking was active, physical. It involved the exercise of mind, muscle and spirit. She taught speech was committed.
The German language, I realized, lived deep in the throat.
Quio's approach was very much like that of a singer's vocal coach. Or an actor's process. Or, actually, how I write: breaking down language into physical and psychic components of sound. Our sessions took the form of 'mantras'. Alan Watts points out it doesn't matter what one recited during these repetitious vocalizations -- Hallelujah, Allah is Great, Pass the Mogen David, Hail Satan! or Space is the Place -- its effect is the same. It brought an ecstatic alteration in consciousness. My ecstasy was German. This is how Quio and I hit upon the idea of singing Nuclear War together. And why we followed with Enlightenment. Quio is deeply religious. That was our secret. Breathe is the Voice of God. The characters on my keyboard cannot accommodate the Hebrew.
Besides, Quio swings on the Ella Fitzgerald tip. Her voice has all the tease, sass and playful defiance one hears in the rhymes sung by groups of pig-tailed girls skipping Double-Dutch jump rope. How did a white northern German hausfrau inherit that kind of funk? She got serious soul. And you can't cap that ... ! UP MUSIC: Rick James' Super Freak. Fade.

Another member of the workshop was local music promoter Ran Huber. I first proposed we organize a celebration of Sun Ra at the end of one of our Friday night gatherings. Ran took on the tasks of contacting talent, securing a venue and generating publicity. Inspired by the popular Pink Elephants clip on the web, I asked a videographer (who wishes to remain anonymous) to edit footage from various Disney films and sound-synch it to Sun Ra's tribute to Walt Disney Second Star to the Right. As it also matched footage from Space is the Place with sequences from Mary Poppins, Song of the South and other popular Disney films, the resulting mash-up was hilarious. Hopefully, it will find its way to the web one day.
Quio and I set ourselves to work on Nuclear War and Enlightenment. We decided she would sing in English and I in German. She did the translations and I contacted legendary jazz bassist Sirone Jones. He and I met and scheduled a series of rehearsals.

During all of this, I get an unexpected call from Donna Brown who tells me she needs an extra body for a music-video shoot. There's a hundred euros in it. I show up. Instantly, with a sprinkle of fairy dust, I'm a Neger Evangelium Sänger von Harlem. And the gig is this: we're backing two of the lamest pop stars on the planet. I didn't know who they were then -- a singing salt and pepper couple -- nor do I want to know who they are now. They sang the kind of kitsch that prompts ritual sex-murders. Give me Heino any day.
The wardrobe department put me in an ankle-length maroon-colored frock. Or at least I think it was ankle-length and maroon colored. In any case, I look like a character out of King Vidor's Hallelujah. Donna shows us the moves that goes along with the lip-synching track. Swaying, hand-clapping happy Negro schtick. Oh, Happy Day! When Jesus Walked! All we needed was Mahalia Jackson.
I think I finally have the all the moves down when this guy standing next to me starts fuckin' with my head. You see, to my eternal embarrassment, I'm one of those rare no-rhythmn havin' kind of Negroes. I'm off the beat and out of step with all the other Neger Evangelium Sängers von Harlem. They sway one way. I sway the other.
Where you from? Didn't yo' mama ever take you to church?
No, but she frequently made fun of my dancing...
Whole choir gets in on the act. And, let me tell you, there is nothing more humilating than being laughed at by a church full of Negroes. Everyone is mocking me.
Donna! Let's do that stiff-butt whitey dance! I betcha he be wid' it then!
Later, I find out this cat is a drummer. Says he gonna show me how to keep a beat. Rico McClarrin is his name. After the shoot, he and I go out for drinks with a bassist named Darryl Taylor. Turns out these two cats are part of the royal funk dynasty. Darryl toured with Archie Bell and The Drells. Rico drummed for James Brown. Nobody can fuck with that.

Quio and I rehearsed three times a week. Sirone, a precise and demanding taskmaster, put Quio through her paces. As I had no training in music, I had no idea what the hell was going on so he didn't bother to take such pains with me. I was a spoken-word jester---Flava-Flav to Quio's Chuck D. Ran fixed a date, a venue and a line up of talent. I supplied him with jpegs of a print of Sun Ra by P-Funk's urban guerrilla Pedro Bell. And he used it to produce a series of cards announcing:

Sun Ra Uber Alles

Saturday/ January 27th, 2007/ 9 p.m.
Zentrale Randlage
Schönhauser Allee 172
Berlin, Bundesland Berlin 10435


Quio and Darius James featuring Sirone 

SchneiderTM + Lillevän

Kücük Kanarya Arkestra (Moritz Love (Piano) Kücük Kanari (bs) 120bpm (dr) )

Beaux Gosses des Berlin (20-köpfiges klassisches Rumba Monster)

DJ aka Jens Evan

VJ Dr Billig
Boy from Brazil + Brezel Göring (spielen: Sun Ra Uber Alles - Anthem)

Everything was set for the next stage of Operation Sun Ra.
Then, one week before the show, the floor fell out from under my world.
My sister called early on a Friday morning. My father was in a coma she said. He had been in the hospital since Thanksgiving 2006. It was now two weeks into 2007.
I went into the bathroom and cried. I vowed I would return to the U.S. if my father made it through his latest crisis and be there for him in his final days. The light-bulb in the bathroom flickered and went out. My sister telephoned a few moments later. And told me what I already knew. I collapsed on the living room floor and howled like a wounded animal.
The first time I discussed death with my father I was eight years old. Death, I imagined, was something like being deaf, dumb and blind except you couldn't breathe. I would shut my eyes, plug my ears and hold my breath before I slept at night; pretending I was dead. I realized being dead meant you couldn't smell stuff either. That was probably the good part. You didn't have to smell yourself while your body rot and worms ate your corpse. The one thing I forgot was that your brain stopped working. And there was no such thing as thinking, thoughts, imaginings or dreaming anymore. I thought you just kept thinking forever and forever, one black thought forking off into another black thought forking into another while locked inside a box trapped under some dirt. I became a morbid child. I was obsessed by monsters and the putrescence of death. I watched horror movies. I read Edgar Allan Poe. I told 'sick' jokes. I turned into a 'werewolf' on the full moon. My immersion into the world of the grotesque, however, did nothing to allay my fears of death.

My father and I were riding a tram rattling through the streets of Rome. We had just spent the evening exploring the streets around the Coliseum, returning to our pension. It had been a good day with my father. He taught me parlor tricks over breakfast; escorted me through the Sistine chapel, told me about the work painted above. We went to jazz clubs. He introduced me to a woman who smoked a cigar. Her name was Bricktop.
I'm at a lost to explain my sudden change in mood during the tram ride. I felt dark, alone and afraid. What happens when you die? I asked.
My father's face became gravely serious. He squeezed my hand and held me close. And tried to quiet my fears by telling stories of Jesus, his resurrection, Judgement Day and rebirth in the Kingdoms of Heaven. He told these stories in a low discreet voice, sounding as if he were trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince me. I had no idea he thought I was going to die within the year.
Heaving with anguish on my apartment's floor, contrary to the beliefs gleaned from my own excursions into the 'forbidden', I prayed my father had finally found his place in Heaven.

I flew back to the U.S. And despite the fact I was suffering from a combination of culture shock and grief, Quio and I telephoned back and forth throughout the week trying to decide how best to fill my absence in the show. Our solution, finally, was to distribute copies of the lyrics to the audience and perform the piece in call and response fashion.
After a week of meddlesome relatives and intrusive neighbors, funeral homes and crematory urns, the night of Sun Ra Uber Alles finally arrived. And I wasn't there. This only added another layer to my grief. I was told many had a good time. There was a wacky twenty-piece Rhumba band. Ghrazi, Bretzel and Lillevan were on-hand to stir extra-pungency into the hot sauce. Sirone showed up. Unfortunately, he suddenly took ill. Quio drove him home. Sadly, she returned to Zentrale Randlage and spent the rest of the night there without having sung Nuclear War.

Another week passed by. The United States was now more twisted and depraved then when I left it. The country had become what Sun Ra and company had predicted in the opening of Space is the Place: "Its after the end of the world! Don't you know that yet?"
The Corporations ruled. And the mediascape was dominated by a mediocrity of the most base kind. It had turned into an ugly Mad Max war-zone and no one knew it.
Before I moved to Germany, I had warned friends the U.S. was going to become openly fascist. "That's why I'm moving to Berlin. Them muthafuckas can see that shit coming a mile away". I felt safe in Berlin as an 'artist'. I could write and talk all the yin-yang I wanted without worry about some jack-boot retard kicking in my door. Yes, Berlin had its share of hypocritical art-world swine who deserved to die in vats of their own feces; but, after all was said and done, I could do and say whatever I wanted. And I did. It got me into trouble with a lot of folks but that wasn't important. The work was. I had grown in Berlin in ways that were impossible in my own country. And I missed it.
The U.S. had become openly fascist in my eight year absence. I had dreaded a return. My worse fear was getting stuck in the U.S. only to be imprisoned in some barbed-wired work camp. With each new lunacy tacked on to The Patriot Act, it was more and more of a possibility every day. Now I was back.
Unexpectedly, I received an email. It was an invitation to present a concept at something called The Dictionary of War. I was intimidated. What could I possibly offer a forum that included heavy weights like Sylvere Lotringer? The man was Artuad's shrink! I'm a court jester! I can't even think about fuckin' with that!
Then it slapped me. Sun Ra. Nuclear War.
Its on! I had called Quio. I'm coming back! We're doing Nuclear War! We' gonna turn that muthafucka out! Next, I called my boy. That would be Jon Evans. I met Jon through my friend Marc Friedlander (or 'Mark Zero' to cognocenti of the anti-folk movement) when he was visiting Berlin. Jon is one of those pure cats combining madness and genius. He's an Aussie from Sydney. Composer and performer of electronic music. Comes out of the early industrial scene. Produced a lot of projects with S.P.K. (the band, not the guerillas). He played keyboards. Perfect for Sun Ra duties. This new situation required a new ensemble. I wanted Rico and Darryl. And I got them. Through Ben Wolf. He said he'd also do the gig. Solid.
We'd work out the details when I hit Berlin....

Ó2007 Darius James