Somewhere between the drug-infused madness of Parliament Funkadelic and more traditional 60s-era jazz and soul releases, resides The Pharaohs 1971 LP Awakening. The album is one of a pair of releases by a band whose members would go on to leave an indelible mark on popular music, both of which are currently available through Ubiquity Records.
The story of The Pharaohs is forever intertwined with the establishment of the Affro Arts Theater on Chicago’s southside, in 1967. The venue doubled as a community center that served as a prominent outlet for black artistic culture of all kinds. The Affro Arts Theater was founded, in part by Phil Cohran, original cornetist in Sun Ra’s legendary Arkestra. Cohran’s presence began to attract a who’s who of session musicians from Chess Records, Crane Junior College and other hotbeds of the Chicago music scene at the time. The Pharaohs were the result of a merger between the Cohran-led Artistic Heritage Ensemble and a student band called The Jazzmen.
Awakening begins with “Damballa”, a statement piece named for the voodoo Sky God that clocks in at just more than eight minutes. Imagine an up-tempo version of the jazz standard “Caravan” with Brazilian-tinged, Afrobeat underpinnings. It begins with the alarming punch of the horn section followed by relentless, rollicking play on percussion. The chanting that appears intermittently throughout “Damballa” points to an almost ritualistic element to the music. With that, the stage is set.
The Pharaohs remain in this African motif for the second track “Ibo” before entering guilty pleasure territory on a lounge-like rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.” The cover and follow-up track “Black Enuff” serve as an accurate portrayal of popular black culture at the time, serving as a preview of the music that would supply the soundtrack to popular films like Superfly the following year.
For my money, the real magic happens on the album’s latter half. Just two tracks, the b-side clocks in at just less than 20 minutes. “Freedom Road” and “Great House” feature The Pharaohs at their loosest, with trumpeter Charles Handy and trombonist Louis Satterfield offering alien riffs on horns. In 1971, jazz had yet to take on its professorial persona and performances still implied a raucous dance party.
The Pharaohs released their lone follow-up in the form of 1972’s In The Basement. By 1973, Maurice White, original drummer for the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, poached much of the band’s brass section to form the foundation of The Phenix Horns – the widely celebrated horn section of the White-led Earth, Wind, and Fire. The rest as they say is history. The sound created by The Pharaohs, and Sun Ra before them, would be borrowed and imitated for decades to come. Fortunately, thanks to Ubiquity, we all have the opportunity to enjoy the original article.
Written by Rob Peoni