What Has 16 Legs and a Can/Fela Groove?
Meet NOMO, America's premier Afrobeat octet
"We have eight people out right now, and we're all in one van with no trailer," says NOMO bandleader and saxophonist Elliot Bergman. "It's like the Ringling Brothers' clown car, Russian nesting dolls and Tetris."
All the drums fit inside one another, hence the Russian-doll reference, but still, it's tight. Especially now, on their 10th straight day playing in a tour that started in Toronto and now finds them in New Orleans.
Bergman's not being an octopussy; he and his band mates have chosen this life of bringing their modernized Afrobeat jazz funk to life with horns and electrified thumb pianos in front of any crowd that will have them. Unfortunately, sometimes "crowd" can be a spirit-crushingly subjective term. "Last year, we played the Montreal Jazz Festival in front of 5,000 people, and then we did our own show, and less than 50 people showed up," Bergman says with a laugh.
NOMO's new disc, Ghost Rock, on Costa Mesa's Ubiquity label, indulges the kalimba, one variation of the thumb piano that NOMO electrify into a swirl of tonal percussion and atmosphere. "It's an instrument you find in various forms all over Africa," explains Bergman. He and his band mates make and play their own and have given away or sold hundreds, and on Ghost Rock, it's become their trademark. On a cut such as "Rings," horns wind their way around the overdriven kalimba like searchlights lighting up a sonic meteor shower.
The thumb pianos show NOMO at their best, absorbing the most user-friendly parts of jazz, funk and Afrobeat and re-purposing them so there's nothing ish-y about it. "My Dear" isn't jazz-ish or Afrobeat-ish; it's a straight-up jazz-ro-beat hybrid of dizzying horn solos and Fela Kuti one-three-four stomp. Says Bergman, "We're certainly not trying to be a slavish imitation." Critics hear Coltrane, Can, Morton Subotnick and Fela in NOMO's music; Bergman just hopes people have a really good time.
"It's hard to read reviews where it just sounds like the writers are trying to out-obscure each other," bemoans Bergman. "We played a workshop for seventh- and eighth-graders in Colorado, and it turned into a freaky dance party. We're not that cerebral!"
Bergman, who grew up in Chicago, says, "I was definitely the beneficiary of having a public-school music program." While other tweens went to Local H shows at Medusa, Bergman would go to jazz clubs such as Velvet Lounge and the Hothouse. "I'd sit on the stoop until the bouncers felt bad enough to let a 14-year-old in." He looked up to that city's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, then took his chops to the University of Michigan, where he played in the experimental-jazz scene and toured with lo-fi Detroit band Saturday Looks Good to Me. Now, NOMO are based in Ann Arbor (although Bergman still lives in Chicago), but practically live on the road. With that comes a lot of perspective—even gratitude.
"There are nights when it gets discouraging," Bergman admits. But then there are the people the music really speaks to.
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"We played in Chapel Hill, and afterward, this guy came up and was like, 'I know this is over-the-top, but your band changed my life.' He'd heard us on college radio, and that inspired him to start deejaying at the station, and then he moved on to an even bigger station, and now he's doing it almost full-time," Bergman says. "Sometimes all you can really ask is that people just pay attention. I don't know if we'll ever reach that 'buzz band' level. But having a relationship with the audience makes it bearable. I don't know—I'm not being too funny. Maybe you should talk to our baritone sax player; he's really funny."
No, I'm going to talk to QVC. Because that's where NOMO could really kill. You know that Zorro-lookin' Esteban dude who's always on there peddling those black-and-pearl guitars? Why can't NOMO be on there with their own line of thumb pianos? They already did the school thing in Colorado, but what if NOMO could turn their thumb pianos into the grade-schooler first instrument of choice, like the recorder? Instead of that cheap-ass plastic flute on which some of us had to learn "Hot Cross Buns," kids would be chiming away on thumb pianos? Then NOMO could spend the rest of the year touring schools and giving workshops in between inspiring college-town guys to deejay, critics to use Can and Fela in the same sentence, poly-funk hipsters to dance, and the Wiggles to step the hell off.
At least that'd be the end of the clown car.
NOMO perform with Scotty Coats and Dee Jay Cocoe at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $10.