Afrobeat meets avant-garde
by James M. Manheim
With seventeen members, NoMo may be the biggest band in town outside of the Ann Arbor Symphony. It's got a whole crowd of horns and winds, backed up by multiple keyboards, guitars, and a large percussion section with African drums at its center. If we're lucky, NoMo's concert at the Ark on Tuesday, December 14, will include Antoinette Kudoto, Ghana's only female master drummer, in that percussion section; she performs on the group's debut album, released in May on the Ypsilanti record label, but when I saw NoMo in October at Leopold Brothers, she wasn't there.
The group brings together disparate talents into a cohesive new whole, which is the name of the game in popular music innovation. Here, jazz players who've passed through the increasingly influential U-M jazz program meet independent rock 'n' rollers and world musicians. NoMo is sometimes classed as an Afrobeat band, but what you hear first is not percussion rhythm but the impressive horn section, playing in a free unison at the start but making room for increasingly adventurous solos as a ten-minute piece unfolds.Think of what would happen if Tower of Power (or even Chicago) took on John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders as members and then did a three-year residency in Lagos, and you've got an idea of what NoMo sounds like. Most of the music is instrumental, but one NoMo number, "Moving in Circles," is a natural extension of the sort of soul song of the 1970s that had political lyrics but could also really bring people out onto the dance floor.
And indeed you can dance to this band the sort of dancing where people gather in front of the stage and face the band in order to pay attention to what the members are doing, but it gets pretty energetic all the same. The African drumming really makes you want to move. The avant-garde always had a little problem making music people could dance to, and
it's hard to blame folks for retreating eventually into the discos.
NoMo has grown and become more ambitious since its origin two years ago as a one-night experiment, and the appearance at the Ark marks a new stage in its development. The club is clearing away the tables and chairs in front of the stage to create a dance floor, but the ambience will still be different from that at clubs where the band has appeared in the past. Its music can cut through the surrounding roar of beer orders and shouted conversations if need be, but an Ark performance will highlight the details of founder Elliot Bergman's saxophone improvisations and will let people hear the harp that provides a charmed background texture to NoMo's music and sometimes emerges into the open with solos that evoke Malian kora music. NoMo is something new in the music of southeastern Michigan a band that has taken the interest that young people are once again showing in African music and done something really innovative with it.
[Originally published in December, 2004.]