By: Jim Welte
NOMO :: 08.05.08 :: Bottom of the Hill :: San Francisco, CA
Fela Kuti was just the starter kit.
The Nigerian Afrobeat legend has influenced countless Western acts in the past decade, from direct descendants like Antibalas and Kokolo to hip-hop groups like The Roots and electronic producers like Masters At Work. But, in recent years, a number of bands have looked to expand their palette of African influences, with Brooklyn's Budos Band turning to Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke and Asheville's Toubab Krewe rooting their music in the desert blues of Ali Farka Toure.
Now it's Central Africa's turn, with Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Afrojazz collective NOMO plugging electric thumb pianos (kalimbas) into a sound already infused with the music of Fela and Sun Ra and a host of effects and electronics.
In an 80-minute set at the Bottom of the Hill, the seven member group mixed music school chops with an array of influences, including Can and Miles Davis' electric era, for a sound that paid homage to its ancestors but paved its own road as well.
The first thing that jumped out as the band took the stage was the three mini-drum kits at the back of their setup. There were also myriad percussion instruments scattered about, and each member helped drive the rhythm at one time or another.
However, though grooves filled the room, this was no mere drum circle, dance party. Founder, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Elliot Bergman has made sure of that by mastering a horde of different gadgets, from the squeal-inducing effects box that kicked off the set to a variety of distortion-tinged kalimbas that appeared throughout the night. Most of the devices were handmade by members of NOMO, and the band was selling several kalimbas at its merch table.
The band's looks - young and white, with the exception of bassist Jamie Register, a Meshell Ndegeocello-look-a-like - belied its ferocity. Bergman's wayward demeanor made it easy to miss the fact that he was a virtual one-man band, shifting from organ to alto sax to kalimba to percussion, often in the course of a single song. He played the role of sonic scientist quite well, nudging his bandmates into tempo changes and soliciting scorching solos from trumpeter Justin Walter and baritone saxophonist Dan Bennet.
The most telling song of the night, the title track to the band's sophomore album, Ghost Rock, proved a potent reminder of the group's potential. The swirling horns, thumping bassline and lush organ were all there. But there was nary a conga to be found - it was all high hats and snares - on a song that was as much rock as it was jazz.
The influences were all laid bare, from the obvious to the subtle, but Bergman and company cultivated a sound that was more than the sum of its parts. This was one band's proposal for the future of jazz.
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