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Funk It Up 

NOMO drives Afrobeat to new destinations

Wednesday, May 31 2006
Frontman Eliot Bergman of Michigan future-funk big band NOMO believes that things are funked up, but not funked up enough.

"There's this state of fear everyone is conditioned to live in, this prohibitive culture of 'Say No,'" says Bergman when asked what he considers the most egregious aspects of the world today. "We're constantly conditioned to be fearful of rejection, failure, unforeseen enemies, people we don't understand."

In the case of NOMO — an eight-piece ensemble drawing from Fela Kuti and Afrika '70, the Sun Ra Arkestra, tropicália, and post-rock — the pun of things being screwy works as both poison and remedy.

"Something as simple as dancing is something people are sometimes too self-conscious to approach, and that's something we do our best to combat," says Bergman. "We make music that is affirming and engaging and makes people sweat and participate in something bigger than the small insecurities of the day-to-day."

Signed to California-based label Ubiquity Records — home more to music for fans of dusty grooves and soul/nu-jazz breaks, not breaking down the system — NOMO is not an overtly political band. However, much like oft-compared New York contemporaries Antibalas Orchestra, the music of NOMO is greatly founded in Afrobeat — a polyrhythmic funk-infused protest music originating from 1960's Nigeria — so a little social criticism doesn't sound out of place amid tightly cadenced pockets and the in sound from way out. And NOMO hails from around Ann Arbor/Detroit, a post-industrial area with its own history of unrest and erosion.

"A lot of my favorite music comes from charged-up places and times," admits Bergman. "So I think there are definitely parallels to be noted. As far as Detroit is concerned, it's a beautiful city and a strange city that has seen adversity, but I think it all comes together as a kinship between musicians whether they're into Motown or messed up art-punk."

In the members of NOMO's case, these seemingly disparate musical traditions coexist peacefully through two of the most traditional band breeding grounds: a college's music program and bumming around record stores. Time in the jazz program of the University of Michigan helped ground many of NOMO's members in a solid technique of fluid expression, and forward-thinking indie retailers helped bolster interests in eclectic, anti-genre discrimination antics.

"Terms like 'jazz-funk' have a pejorative connotation, same as something like 'jam band,'" says Bergman. "A lot of terms in our circle don't ring true to what we're about. Instrumental dance music has a lot of attitude to it and a lot of room for exploration, and that's where we're developing."

"Developing" really is the right choice of word. Alongside traditional brass, stringed, and electronic instruments, NOMO has developed such homemade percussion as the "electric sawblade-gamelan," "no-tone shaker," and "nu-tone cymbals." Logic would suggest these are but three of the reasons NOMO's Ubiquity 11-track debut is called New Tones. Another direct feed into the dynamics on New Tones was recording at Detroit's United Sound, where many Motown and Funkadelic sessions took place before the studio closed for 30 years, according to Bergman. He says it had only recently reopened and was barely operational when NOMO did initial tracking there, intending to be in direct opposition of the group's initial indie album made by 15 people in a two-night live session. A disconnect with a ready-to-snap engineer and a broken A/C helped contribute to the taut, sweat-beaded funk. New Tones was then embellished in much more leisurely home studio sessions. The effect of this confluence of tinkering is an almost Arcadian, synchronized ensemble resolutely pushing upward and outward through heavy percussion and supportive flourishes that eschew flashy distraction for bedrock-solid persuasion.

Following rehearsals to bring this power to the people, the members of NOMO also sequestered themselves in a friend's basement workshop to hand-manufacture limited-edition electric kalimba's — African thumb pianos — the band is selling on the road. So even after the gig attendees can take something more than memories home, if they choose, and hopefully shed inhibitions and genre preconceptions and spread some "musical protest" of their own.

About The Author

Tony Ware


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