Brooklyn based bandleader and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah has recently released his first album in 15 years. Abdullah’s band is Diaspora, an acronym for Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra. Abdullah was a long time member of his mentor Sun Ra’s Arkestra. On this recording, Diaspora joins forces with percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett’s Afro Horn Ensemble. The line up for the record is Ahmed Abdullah (trumpet, flugal-horn and vocals) Monique Ngozi Nri (vocals) Alex Harding (baritone sax) Don Chapman (tenor sax) Bob Stewart (tuba) Donald Smith (piano) Radu Ben Judah (bass) Francisco Mora Catlett, Ronnie Burrage and Roman Diaz (percussion).
The titular Sistas’ Place is a Brooklyn community coffee shop and music venue founded in 1995 by Viola Plummer. Abdullah is the musical director of the venue.
Abdullah began to work with Sun Ra in 1975, he explained to The Wire magazine recently that as a young man he hoped to establish himself as a band leader and was concerned about what he might himself get from the relationship with Sun Ra, in these early days he combined work with the Arkestra with establishing himself as a band leader and producing a number of his own records. Abdullah described a vivid dream from this period in which he was told Sun Ra was his mentor and he should be back in the Arkestra on a full-time basis. This he did and continued to play and tour with the Arkestra following the death of Sun Ra first under the leadership of John Gilmore then Marshall Allen.
Abdullah gives an insight into his attitude towards life when he talks about the Sun Ra composition ‘Fate In A Pleasant Mood’ ‘you’re just a puppet and a pawn in the hands of fate, but if you have faith then you can find fate in a pleasant mood and change your destiny.’ He describes changing his destiny by rejoining Sun Ra which eventually led to meeting his future wife, the writer and poet Monique Ngozi Nri while on tour in London.
The centrepiece of this album is probably the 17-minute reworking of Abdullah’s song ‘Eternal Spiraling Spirit’ which appears originally on Life’s Force, his first release as leader in 1979. The spiritual vibe is evident from the outset as muted trumpet and bass intermingle before the trumpet soars and percussive waves combine with his wife Monique Ngozi Nri’s impassioned delivery of Louis Reyes River’s poem ‘A Place I’ve Never Been’ which is dedicated to the memory of Malcolm X. ‘Did you see the bullet cry?’ asks the narrator, a witness to the murder of Malcolm X before asking, ‘was you there? Did you go to hear a poem in his every word?’ The lines are emphasized by repetition giving a vivid almost cinematic visualisation of the scene rerun in what feels like slow motion from multiple viewpoints, including that of the bullet itself. Abdullah explained the original tune was dedicated to the idea of reincarnation and he and Rivera united this theme with the poem while working together at Sistas’ Place.
There’s also a great version of Sun Ra’s ‘Love In Outer Space’ the original lyrics are sung in harmony by Ngozi Nri and Abdullah and expanded with more poetry of Rivera, ‘the womb of space unfolds in the uterus of silence’. There’s a retro feel to the music but at the same time a contemporary thread runs through with the new lines adding a mood of celestial sexual exploration.
The whole album has a narrative arc, a journey through memory via the Earthly horror of an assassin’s bullet through the spiritual optimism of reincarnation to the freedom of celestial love and the finality of ‘Terra Firma’ a brief poem by Monique Ngozi Nri towards the close of the album which concisely draws our attention to the contradictions and injustice of life on Terra Firma with lines like ‘Rooted like ancestors beside a sea of protest’ and ‘free and unfree, clear and unclear’.
There’s plenty on this album that will be familiar to fans of Sun Ra, Abdullah is certainly succeeding in his mission to keep the music of his mentor alive but his own voice is powerful in the mix and I’m guessing his younger self might be pretty satisfied with the outcome.