Center for Art,
Research and Alliances
October 26, 2023

A Strange Celestial Road: Book Launch and Conversation with Ahmed Abdullah, Basir Mchawi, and Marilyn Nance

Publication Cover

Please join us on Thursday, October 26 for the launch of A Strange Celestial Road, published by Blank Forms. The evening will include a conversation between Ahmed Abdullah, activist and educator Basir Mchawi, and artist Marilyn Nance, both of whom contributed photos to the book and documented Pan-Africanist cultural spaces in Brooklyn and Lagos.

In A Strange Celestial Road, the first full-length account of life in the Sun Ra Arkestra by any of its members, Harlem-born trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah recounts two decades of traveling the spaceways with the inimitable composer, pianist, and big-band leader Sun Ra. Gigging everywhere from the legendary Bed-Stuy venue the East to the National Stadium in Lagos, Abdullah paints a vivid picture of the rise of loft jazz and the influence of Pan-Africanism on creative music, while capturing radical artistic and political developments across Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s. Richly illustrated with more than fifty pages of photographs and posters from Adger Cowans, Marilyn Nance, Val Wilmer, and others, A Strange Celestial Road interweaves the author’s own moving story—his battles with addiction, spiritual development, and life as a working class performer—with enthralling tales of tutelage under Cal Massey, collaborations with the likes of Ed Blackwell, Marion Brown, and Andrew Cyrille, and profound, occasionally confounding, mentorship by Sun Ra. Originally written in the 1990s with the help of Nuyorican poet Louis Reyes Rivera and published now for the first time, with a foreword by Salim Washington, A Strange Celestial Road is not only an autobiography, but a history of a remarkable and under-documented movement in music.—Blank Forms 

More about the speakers

Ahmed Abdullah joined the Sun Ra Arkestra as a trumpeter in 1974 and remained a member for more than twenty years. Born in Harlem in 1947, he became an important figure in the New York loft jazz movement, forming the group Abdullah in 1972, and going on to found the Melodic Art-Tet with Charles Brackeen, Ronnie Boykins, and Roger Blank in the early 1970s and The Group with Marion Brown, Billy Bang, Sirone, Fred Hopkins and Andrew Cyrille in 1986. Abdullah is a co-founder of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, has been the music director of Dianne McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion Dance Company, and music director at the historic venue Sistas’ Place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He has been a music instructor at Carnegie Hall and Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, and teaches at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan and an elementary school in central Brooklyn.

Basir Mchawi has woven a distinguished career as an activist, educator and communicator. He has been actively engaged in the African Liberation struggle for over fifty years. As an educator, Mchawi has been a teacher, professor, headmaster, principal and central office administrator while an advocate for the establishment of independent Black schools. while working in New York city's Public Schools, Mchawi had the opportunity to make the concerns of communities of color audible in the central bureaucracy as a special assistant to New York's first African American Public Schools Chancellor, Dr Richard Green. As a member of Brooklyn's EAST organization, Mchawi was a founder of what then was called the African Street Carnival. What began as a block party to raise funds for Uhuru Sasa, New York's largest independent Black school has evolved into a world-class event now known as the International African Arts Festival. Understanding the importance and primacy of African cultural practices, Mchawi served as the chair of the IAAf for more than a decade.

Using both print and electronic media, Mchawi attempts to bring information to the community. From the mid to late 1970's, he was editor of Black News, contributor to numerous publications and producer and host of the WLIB radio show, A View From the EAST. Mchawi currently produces and hosts the award winning WBAI radio program, Education at the Crossroads and writes on a free lance basis for a number of local newspapers. He is also an elected member of the WBAI Local Station Board. Although retired, Mchawi currently teaches one day a week in the CUNY system and has more time to be engaged in "the peoples work."

Marilyn Nance has produced exceptional photographs of unique moments in the cultural history of the United States and the African Diaspora, and possesses an archive of images of late 20th century African American life. A two-time finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Award in Humanistic Photography for her body of work on African American spiritual culture in America, Nance has photographed the Black Indians of New Orleans, an African village in South Carolina, churches in Brooklyn, and the first Black church in America. She is recognized by the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklore Programs & Cultural Studies as a community folklore scholar, an individual who has shown a significant contribution to the collection, preservation and presentation of traditional culture in a community or region. Her work is in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Library of Congress.

Nance's photographs have been published in The World History of Photography, History of Women in Photography, and The Black Photographers Annual. Her writing, which often accompanies her photographs, has been published by Aperture, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Friends of Photography. She is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships in Photography (2000 and 1989), Nonfiction Literature (1993), and the New York State Council of the Arts Individual Artists Grant (1987) (2023), and two-time finalist (1991, 1993) or the W. Eugene Smith Award in Humanistic Photography. Her first monograph is Last Day in Lagos (2022), published by CARA.

Book Launch
Thursday, October 26
7 pm, doors 6:30 pm

Free and open to the public.
RSVP here.

We ask that visitors stay home if feeling sick, or have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 10 days. Testing before joining us at CARA if feeling symptomatic is strongly recommended. Masks will be available for free.

The closest wheelchair accessible subway is 14th St/8th Avenue station. The entry to CARA is ADA-compliant and our bookstore and galleries are barrier free throughout, with all gender, wheelchair accessible restrooms. CARA has wheelchairs available for guest use. Please request in advance via Service animals are welcome.