Ishmael Reed, Grateful Dead: Egypt

November 28, 2012

Ishmael Reed gets away with it.

He is “a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra,” he says in the poem of that title.  And he gets to do thisbecause Sonny Rollins has already set an example: Sonny Rollins, whose tenor saxophone resounds as “a longhorn winding/ its bells thru the field of Reeds.”

The reeds cross-fertilize the vegetation on the banks of the Nile (Moses was found among the reeds) with  the “creeds” of the saxophone, and of course the “Reed” who happens to be the author of the poem, all testimonies to the divinity of Ra and his flourishing life on the North American continent.

The Grateful Dead wasn’t so lucky.  They had gone to Egypt in 1978 for what ought to have been three historic concerts, played in front of the pyramids at the Gizah Sound & Light Theater.  Madame Sadat was there the first night; the last night, September 16, coincided with a total eclipse of the full moon.  The following day, the Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt was signed.  But the concerts never rose to the occasion: the piano was out of tune; Bill Kreutzmann had a broken wrist; and the wiring to the King’s Chamber – which the band was hoping to use as an echo chamber – didn’t work.  The pyramids simply refused to cooperate.

Eventually the recordings from two of the shows were released as “Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978″ – but not till 2008.   While he was alive Jerry Garcia refused to let this happen.

Was it all for nothing then?  The band has always blown the big ones; maybe this is another.  And yet “Ollin Arageed” – a collaboration with oud player Hamza El Din and his Nubian Youth Choir – is in fact unlike anything in their repertoire.   Not the stony pyramids but flesh and blood musicians: this is the Egypt that makes for a live Dead.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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