By Matt Wickstrom
Led by Topaz McGarrigle, not many bands are as visually appealing and open in their spirituality as the traveling gypsy caravan known as Golden Dawn Arkestra. The group, which is constantly changing its lineup with each tour, all don elaborate African-inspired outfits and partake in ritualistic dances as part of their performances that are equally driven by their theatrics as they are the music.
McGarrigle, whose mother worked for the Ethiopian embassy, spent a chunk of his childhood in Nigeria, where he was exposed to many new cultural norms and musical styles that led him to forming the Arkestra upon returning to the States. McGarrigle said that he’s always been fascinated by Middle Eastern and North African music and different cultures and styles of music that accompany them.
“Its a different culture, a different life,” McGarrigle said. “People embrace music in a different way. Every way of being is just more of the Earth and more ritualistic.”
Golden Dawn Arkestra’s music draws heavily on the influences of Herman Poole Blount, better known as Sun Ra, who according to McGarrigle’s mother was his father. Upon his return to the States, McGarrigle had an idea for a movie soundtrack that he began to write a score for, later leading to the Arkestra’s formation. According to McGarrigle, the soundtrack idea, along with Sun Ra’s influence, are where many of the theatrics and presentation stem from.
“It’s not necessarily musically as much as it is visually and spiritually a connection to [Sun Ra]”, McGarrigle said. “We get very distracted these days through the technologies in songs and shining little screens, so we want to bring people out of that and into the present.”
The interconnectedness of the Arkestra’s theatrics typically depends on the group’s cast of ever-changing members. For example, McGarrigle says that when the group only has one dancer with them on tour, as was the case on their stop at the Moonshiner’s Ball, antics tend to be more improvised, whereas when a group of dancers are present there’s much more collaboration amongst them on their moves.
The group’s knack for improvisation provides for each show being like a snowflake, one of a kind, and their recent set at the Moonshiner’s Ball in Irvine, with an assist from Mother Nature, was no exception. A monsoon poured down on the festival grounds mere hours before Golden Dawn Arkestra’s scheduled performance.
With the festival turning into a swamp, rather than cancel their set, the Arkestra marched from the stage they were scheduled to perform on to a nearby bonfire for a brief drum circle with the group’s percussion and brass sections. Albeit brief, the group provided a bright spot on a gloomy Friday night at the festival, illustrating the spontaneity that draws millions of music lovers to festivals around the world each year.
Golden Dawn Arkestra recently finished up a new record, a follow up to 2016’s “Stargazer”, but are contemplating searching for a record label to release the album with or to release it independently. McGarrigle anticipates the record, titled “Children of the Sun”, to be out “in the next eight months.”
At a time when our world is in turmoil and people are so polarized in their views that they avoid discussion and debate alltogether, McGarrigle and Golden Dawn Arkestra see their shows as a way to bring people from all walks of life together for a time of enjoyment and connectedness, free of the hate and divisiveness plaguing the world.
“I always preach to the audience that we are all particles of stardust, we’re all made of dust from outer space and whatever we want to do, whatever we can imagine is possible, whether it be a better and more peaceful planet and a more conscious planet,” McGarrigle said. “Through music we try to bring joy and ecstasy to people and hope that they can spread that joy and love, be it through our lyrics or directly preaching it on stage.”