Sagittarius A-Star is the follow up label to Qbico and has quickly unleashed a good number of LPs. This particular gem was retrieved from the archives of Hartmut Geerken and finds him in a quintet recorded in the city of Heliopolis, Egypt during the month February of 1972, also known as the month Muharran in the Muslim year 1392. Joining Geerken are Michael Ranta, Hubertus von Puttkamer, Omar el Hakim, and Salah Ragab. Apparently this was a one off meeting of the minds as the group name seems to have only been applied now that this music is being published on vinyl 40 years later. It is an interesting grouping and probably one whose members do not ring a lot of bells unless you read lots of little details on various records. So a little background…
Hartmut Geerken is German born, but widely travelled and thoroughly educated. Because of his great learning and mastery of languages he worked for the Goethe Institute in Cario (1966-72), Kabul (1972-1979), and Athens (1879-1983). The years in Egypt seemed to be particularly musically significant as he brought Sun Ra there in 1971, and also co-founded the Cairo Jazz Band and Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble. Over the decades he has also worked with Michael Ranta (on an extensive tour of eastern Asia), Embryo, a trio with John Tchicai and Famoudou Don Moye, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sunny Murray, Don Cherry, Peter Kowald, Takehisa Kosugi, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Sainkho Namtchilak. His involvement with sound and visual poetry also has seen him collaborate with Robert Lax, Carlfriedrich Claus, and Valeri Scherstjanoi. However, it has only been in the last decade or so that the floodgates have really opened up and allowed much of this work to be heard on record.
Michael Ranta is an American percussionist based in Germany who has worked with heavy weights Harry Partch, Mauricio Kagel, Helmut Lachenmann, Josef Anton Riedl, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Jean-Claude Eloy, Takehisa Kosugi, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and of course Hartmut Geerken. He blew many heads as part of the group Wired whose sole release was the third LP in the Deutsche Grammophon box set “Free Improvisation” and which was produced by Krautrock legend Conny Plank. His trio with Takehisa Kosugi and Toshi Ichiyanagi from 1975 was captured on a very obscure private LP that almost no one had even heard of until it was bootlegged in recent years. Since that time people have gotten a little better about digging up his work including the overlooked “Mu V / Mu VI” LP that he self released in 1984. In 2010, the Belgian label Metaphon rescued the earlier numbers of the Mu series of works performed by a line up similar to Wired.
Hubertus von Puttkamer remains a rather obscure figure although released the double CD “Weltmusik” in collaboration with Johannes Schmölling in 2004. He apparently lived in Egypt around the period of the Muharran 1392 recordings and met the members of Agitation Free during this time and filmed them at the pyramids of Sakkara. It was this band, as well as Sun Ra and Tangerine Dream that awoke in him the potential for the synthesizer which has used to create multitrack recordings over the ensuing years. But music appears to just be his hobby as his professional proficiency is in laser measurement.
Omar el Hakim is an Egyptian architect and Tai Chi teacher. According to Geerken, “he had crazy ideas, for example to construct half underground mud houses in the desert for cultivating fungi.” He seems to have long since disappeared from the music scene and was last heard of teaching architecture in the United Arab Emirates.
Salah Ragab is considered one of the founders of Egyptian jazz. Among other things he was co-founder of the Cairo Jazz Band and Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble with Geerken, and was also in a quartet with Geerken and Puttkamer called The Cross which has apparently never released anything. Ragab also had a connection with Sun Ra, but unlike the other characters mentioned above appears on a quite a few of Ra’s LPs. As his music ventured out of the avant-garde, he’s had a number of other records out and like the others mentioned above, his work is slowly appearing on more releases these days. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2008.
So now that the history lesson is over, what does the music sound like on Muharram 1392? It is quite a free form affair that does not draw much from jazz, classical or Egyptian music. The two sides constantly evolve overlapping textural sounds with a wide variety of instrumentation. None is listed on the cover, but I think I hear piano, guitar, horns, maybe an electric organ or synthesizer and lots of different percussion. It does seem to be a blend of European and Egyptian sources, but it could also be the approach to playing that lends certain things a little Arabic color. Like I said, the playing is very open and languorous which makes me think of the very out moments of L.A.F.M.S. characters. Panned heavy left and right it is possible to focus in on the individual elements of the ensemble as only a couple instruments will be heard in each channel with little bleed through. As anarchic as the music is, it never veers into over the top aggression not lapses into ambient background. There is always something going on and if you focus on one of the patterns for too long, you find that someone else has meanwhile changed instruments and varied the overall picture. The rather minimal musical material and lack of a specific direction makes for a beautiful hazy atmosphere which rewards close attention.
I’ve only seen one source mention an edition size and that was 200 copies, which kind of makes sense as just about all of the Sagittarius A-Star releases sell out immediately upon release. Despite that tiny run, the LP does come in color jacket. The labels are plain white (side A) and black (side B) with the A side marked by a rubberstamped letter. I think it is mastered a bit low, but in the end that seems to suit the flavor of the music. 26 copies of this were also included in “The Geerken Box” which additional contains the LPs “Brasilia in Waitawhile” (with Famoudou Don Moye, Edison da Luz, Junior Cardoso, and Valmon Rodriguez da Silva) and “Stalllife” (with Russian sound poet Valeri Scherstjanoi) with some extra inserts, artwork and photographs. Unfortunately I have not heard either of these other two LPs nor a lot of the other recent SAS releases, among which there seem to be a lot of winners.
Sagittarius A-Star – SAS #17