With their glittering robes, bizarre masks, gaudy face paint and undulating dancers, it would be easy to dismiss Golden Dawn Arkestra as a novelty act, because of course they are.
But there’s more to the avant-garde collective than meets the eye. Led by vocalist/saxophonist/organist Topaz McGarrigle (stage name Zapot Mgwana), the three-time Austin Music Award winners draw upon the rhythms and chants of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, the self-described “ethnic forgeries” of German trance band Can, and, in their most recent recordings, the synthpop indulgences of ’80s new wave.
Despite their shared surname and theatricality, the nine-piece band makes little attempt to appropriate the Sun Ra Arkestra’s inimitable free-jazz improvisations. But offstage, McGarrigle’s love for the father of Afrofuturism is clearly genuine.
“I was really young when my ma took me to see the Arkestra with the master,” he recalls, the master being Sun Ra. “It was at a church in Austin where they would have jazz concerts sometimes. I was a student of the tenor saxophone — I started listening to jazz before I got into anything else, really — and I was completely, totally mind-blown. They would also press up these bootlegs of their live stuff on vinyl, with just paper covers, and sell them at shows. I still have one, and it’s the most amazing, out-there shit you’ve ever heard.”
In the years after, the Austin native would go see the Sun Ra Arkestra every chance he got, including one close encounter while attending college in New York.
“One of my biggest inspirations is their tenor sax player John Gilmore,” says McGarrigle. “He was actually one of Coltrane’s influences, but wasn’t very well-known because he played with the Arkestra his whole life. I met him at a diner after the concert, and talked to him about getting lessons. He was like, ‘Oh yeah, I give lessons, but I’m just too sick now.’ And then a couple years later, he passed away. So that was my one regret.”
After returning to Austin, McGarrigle began branching out beyond jazz, trying his hand at rock guitar and vocals, and putting on a theatrical venture that would set the stage for his current band.
“I think the real progression to Golden Dawn started with Sexy Jesus and the Holy Rollers, which was a sort of rock ’n’ roll musical I did that preached the gospel of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. And then I toned that down a little bit with Hellfire Social, which was more of a psychedelic rock band. And so Golden Dawn was kind of a combination of all those things: the theatrics of Sexy Jesus, the psychedelic rock from Hellfire, and the more jazz-funk-dance vibes of the earlier bands I played in.”
Golden Dawn Arkestra’s most recent album, 2019’s Darkness Falls on the Edge of Time, finds the band further diversifying its sound. While tracks like “Mama Se” continue to mine the Afrobeat grooves that have always been a big part of the band’s sound, “Allo Allo Boom” is a more conventionally structured art-pop song that finds McGarrigle doing his best David Byrne imitation as he sings about everyone talking on their phones while the world blows up.
“I’m growing more confident when it comes to writing songs,” he says. “I’m just reminding people that they are just made out of stardust and that this is their only Earthship and they need to take care of it.”
Or as Sun Ra put it on his call-and-response single “Nuclear War”: “If they push that button (if they push that button) / Your ass got to go (Your ass got to go) / What you gonna do (what you gonna do) / Without your ass?”
McGarrigle relates to the sentiment. “Honestly, I think we need to shift the message to get it across to people. Because ‘global warming’ is a shitty way to talk about it. Telling people that they’re ruining the environment and killing the Earth isn’t the best messaging either. Because it’s not true they’re going to kill the Earth. They’re going to kill themselves.”