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Not exactly known as the cultural mecca of the Bay Area, Millbrae may be more familiar to San Franciscans as "the exit past SFO." Nonetheless, in a modest suburban dwelling between the 280 and 101 freeways rests a private archive of American musical history. The home of the Hinds brothers, Peter and John, houses more than 400 hours of audio and video footage pertaining to legendary deceased jazz composer Sun Ra.
"Our father was a history teacher at Burlingame High School, so we always had an interest in collecting and archiving things that interested us," says Peter.
While that interest may have bloomed amid baseball card collections and music lessons, the siblings eventually turned their obsessive minds toward more exotic fare, including videotaping amateur wrestling matches, freaky televangelists, local drum 'n' bass DJs, and a jazz star who claimed he was from Saturn. The latter subject -- reportedly born Herman Poole Blount, in Birmingham, Ala. -- had an enduring influence over the Hinds' lives, both personally and professionally. Not only did the duo spend over a decade capturing Sun Ra's life and thoughts, but since his death in 1993, the two have also self-published 41 issues of Sun Ra Research, a magazine transcribing their interviews.
At the same time, the brothers have released six albums of their own music -- a kind of electronic dub reggae infused with Ra's spirit of raucous improvisation. The musical and literary effort has garnered mostly glowing reviews in opinionated jazz and electronic publications. In a dead-accurate summation, one notoriously critical British avant-garde magazine described Sun Ra Research as "the product of lunatic obsession and deranged scholarship."
To make a long and cosmically multidimensional story short, Sun Ra was the last of the great big-band leaders, an underappreciated jazz master whose albums prefigured such diverse sounds as ambient electronic and punk. Starting in the mid-'50s, he made fervent claims that he was from Saturn, though his birth certificate showed him as hailing from the segregationist South.
In an attempt to emphasize his otherworldliness, Ra designed and sewed brightly colored costumes for himself and his Arkestra. His music was just as interplanetary, blending an equally vibrant palette of styles over the course of 125 recorded albums. In 1982 he was recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Masters fellowship; the NEA Web site describes him as "one of the most unusual musicians in the history of jazz, and arguably the most eccentric."
Ra was a frequent visitor to the Bay Area. In 1971, he even taught a course at UC Berkeley called "Sun Ra 171" (also known as "The Black Man in the Cosmos"), which focused on everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics and slave memoirs to poetry and jazz history. But Peter and John Hinds didn't discover him until the late '70s, when the Millbrae teens heard a Ra track on the then-free-form radio station KSAN-FM (107.7). Already huge jazz enthusiasts, the boys say they were instantly hooked. From then on, whenever Ra came to town, they made sure to be in attendance -- even when they had to sneak in because they were too young. Finally, in 1981, Sun Ra decided he wanted to be introduced to the two white guys who seemed to turn up at even his most sparsely populated performances.
"By the time we got to meet Sun Ra, we had a lot in common musically with him, and I'm sure he didn't run into many people with the same deep interests," says Peter. "We listened to all these early guys before we knew about Sun Ra's connection to all of them. His interest in Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson -- we had that in common right away. People in his band didn't even know about Fletcher Henderson; it was obscure stuff, hard to find on record."
Over the next 12 years, the brothers followed Ra's Arkestra to all of its Bay Area concerts, taping performances at small bars like Koncepts in Oakland and Ruthie's Inn in Berkeley as well as at more substantial spots like S.F.'s Bayview Opera House and Slim's, along the way capturing the individual players' musings before and after the shows. The pair became such good friends with Ra that Peter even helped book some of his West Coast tours. So when the composer died a decade ago, it seemed natural for the brothers to try to carry on his legacy.
Sifting through the 400 hours that John had taped (using a special microphone platform that he'd invented to get especially close to the subject), Peter transcribed the best parts, teaching himself to type along the way. Starting in 1995, the two began releasing the material as Sun Ra Research, occasionally collecting the zines in book form.
Sun Ra Research has a refreshing lack of editorializing, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions about the raw material. Often confusing yet strangely enjoyable, the conversations with Ra -- and with such key band members as singer June Tyson and saxophone player John Gilmore -- give profound insight into the artist's mysterious ways.
The Hinds brothers' cataloging drive extends beyond jazz, but their lives aren't completely taken up with documenting others. They're equally absorbed in making their own music -- a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments that embraces joyful cacophony much the way Sun Ra did.
"I think we share a common bond with him as far as improvisation," says John. "Our harmonies and rhythms -- you can pull out elements that sound like [the Sun Ra Arkestra], too."
"But it's been so absorbed with all this other stuff," adds Peter, "like Stockhausen, Miles Davis, and dub reggae."
For the tracks, Peter lays down the rhythmic structure and bass, and John adds bass clarinet, piano, percussion, and keyboards. The duo tries to wed the careful studio craft of dance music with Ra's loose spontaneity. "Just like the jazz guys, you practice and you do all this stuff," John explains, "but then you push yourself off the cliff as far as possible."
The brothers' latest album, Dubmixer, released on their own Omni Sonic label, finds them exploring Jamaican reggae more than ever, taking specific tunes and reworking them to dramatic effect. On "Filter Factor" John's piano thumping takes center stage amid wild minor-key chord stabs, while on "Filter Factor Dub" his keys lurk further beneath the beats. Elsewhere, the twosome acknowledges Ra's penchant for mixing genres: "Phaser" weds a dramatic whirlwind of strings straight from an Indian Bollywood film to a low-toned bass line, and "Immersion Excursion" marries rapid-fire drum 'n' bass beats to fuzzy radio interference.
It's clear the Hinds brothers don't like musical stasis, and plan to explore other styles and elements for their next album, intended for a later summer release.
As for the pair's obsession with Sun Ra, John says, "I would never have hoped for this in my life because I'd be so disappointed, because you can't go through life hoping you're gonna meet a father figure, mentor, friend. If I had to pick one musician to know in this world ever, [he] would be the one. And it turned out. It's just unreal!"
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