Switched On Ra

Chicago-based Bitchin Bajas bring the kosmische musik vibe to Ra

by Marshall Bowden

A couple of weeks ago, while doing research on Sun Ra’s Pathways to Unknown Worlds album, I came across the 2021 release Switched On Ra by Chicago based electronic music (in the best possible sense) trio Bitchin Bajas. The Bajas are an offshoot of the band (also Chicago based) Cave, a group that is often described as having a strong Krautrock affinity, but whose music is essentially minimalist guitar grooves with overlaid rhythm and sonic experimentation. Guitarist Cooper Crain initially recorded Bitchin Bajas releases himself, releasing them as EPs and cassette only recordings. Along the way he added Dan Quinilivan (from the group Mahjong) to provide texture with additional guitar and synthesizer parts, and Rob Frye (also of Cave) to add saxophone and flute as well as additional guitar when needed.

The group first recorded Ra’s “Angel and Demons at Play” on their 2017 release Bajas Fresh. The group obviously has an affinity with Sun Ra, and they likely enjoy playing with his musical ideas, so it makes sense that they recorded more of his work. Switched On Ra is available as a digital album and cassette album (vinyl copies sold out quickly). Crain talked to Aquarium Drunkard about the album and its genesis in a recent interview:

“We had messed around doing some of his songs live, and then we recorded one for the Bajas Fresh album. We did “Angels and Demons.” So, we were already kind of experimenting with that. Then when we wanted to do something fun while we waited for Bajascillators to be made, Dan had this idea. We just did it in a month. It was so fun and enjoyable. We all had listened to his music individually and as a group for a long time, and we picked out a bunch of songs. It was a really fun project. We do it live sometimes, and that’s super enjoyable. I’m amazed how wide the audience is for that record, but it’s not surprising because his tunes and his melodies are so great.”  https://aquariumdrunkard.com/2022/11/28/bitchin-bajas-the-aquarium-drunkard-interview/

If you are some kind of free jazz purist or Sun Ra purist, then you might find something to complain about on Switched On Ra, but you’d be alone in the corner. The arrangements and the reference points on Switched On Ra are different than their original Arkestra counterparts–for example, the Bajas’ interpretation of “Moon Dance” is part Frippertronics and part Air’s “Moon Safari,” while Ra’s is more ‘Night In Tunisia.’  But they share a deep, late night ritual vibe. 

Perhaps the group’s most radical reimagining is their take on “Outer Spaceways Incorporated.” The Arkestra’s performance features some fairly fierce collective improvisation as well as a space chant (chanting having become a regular feature of Sun Ra’s output by this time) and Ra’s Ellington-by-way-of-Monk piano. Bitchin Bajas version is pure Kosmische musik, with a vocoder taking the place of the Arkestra’s chanting, riding a sparkling path of synthesizer bubbles. 

It all makes sense when you look at Ra’s considerable discography and realize that he incorporated many different keyboards in his work, including synthesizers, organs, electric piano, and a few novelty items. Their electric current fits in with Ra’s space mythology and the Afrofuturistic titles and cover art of many of his fifties and sixties records. 

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