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Artist: Nomo

Album: Nomo

Label: Ypsilanti

Review date: Jan. 13, 2005

Judging solely on the sounds of their eponymous debut, Detroit’s brassy ensemble Nomo should expect a tough go of it in gaining wide acceptance amongst fans of Lagos-style Afrobeat and other genres of African music. It’s no small feat to unite more than fifteen musicians under a disciplined banner of pan-African grooves, and there are plenty of examples on Nomo’s 10 tracks to showcase that these are composed and arranged, and not just the product of long jams in someone’s rented storage facility. The challenges that face Nomo, the band, lie in the need for authenticity when they embark on the more idiomatic pursuits of their mid-tempo afrobeat excursions, and the need to bring their own souls – well-informed by their almost genetic disposition to Detroit soul and the post-bop phrasing of Elliot Bergman’s saxophone – to the forefront of their sound.

Comparisons to Fela Kuti, and, to a lesser extent, NYC’s Antibalas, are unavoidable, when electric piano and six-piece horn section are featured so prominently on every song. It’s not Nomo’s fault that listeners are so likely to make that connection; it’s Fela’s legacy, probably because as Kuti’s music first became available in the U.S., it was sold two or three songs at a time, each clocking in at 15 minutes or so. Without repeated listenings, they sounded virtually indistinguishable from one another. It was Fela’s subject matter, as the inspiration for both his lyrics and gristly vocal delivery, that distinguished each piece. With Nomo, the listener gets the same bits – layered percussion, the deep horn section, Rhodes, and plucky, ostinato guitar lines – with virtually no text. Strong playing is everywhere on Nomo, but there’s a collegiate looseness in the brass and percussion sections that frequently relegates Nomo’s attack to a charlie-horse when it could’ve been more of a body blow. More chemistry and a tighter groove would be draw enough, but without it Nomo may leave listeners wondering when the fiery anti-imperialist tirades will arrive at the party.

Bergman, a strong singer, and at times a dead-ringer for Sly Stone, offers little insight or validation for his theory that things are “Moving in Circles” when he sings “Everything’s movin’ in circles, goes around and round / Shattered dreams and airplanes, in pieces in the ground / It’s hard to know how all this is supposed to make you feel / When you can’t find the time to find out what is real.” As sweet as it actually sounds, lyrics about 9/11 are already dated, and these are missing any demand or desire. Whether it’s a plea for social or political change or just commentary with no mandate for action, the passion falls short of whatever got potato farmers and sunstroke Floridians to continue the cycle: maybe it’s prescient of the election’s results (Nomo was recorded in the first half of 2004) and the majority’s response to the politics of fear. Nonetheless, most of the tracks on Nomo are instrumental, and any single impression of the work should, perhaps, focus on the strength of the ensemble playing.

The album’s production, credited to Warn Defever of His Name is Alive, does little to validate Defever’s “studio genius” tag. Horn arrangements that sound like a marching band (and not state-finalists, even) rob some of the songs of their punch, and the mismatched reverb of the group’s twin guitars sound more like exotica-era experimentation than the staccato metronome of the juju guitar in King Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey’s Lago alternative to Kuti’s revisionist funk. Defever may very well mean to create something new, but it sounds like undisciplined mimicry in parts. The group’s most successful moments surface in “Not Wisely...” and “...Too Well,” short slices of what sounds like the same jam, each highlighting a different aspect of Nomo at their best, particularly Bergman’s soaring, spastic sax, on a distinctly modern, American journey. Both tracks, stripped of the unnecessary guitar reverb, and propelled by a leaner percussion section, show how close Nomo can get to the smoking funk of the Africa 70 and Egypt 80, not unlike the way Jerry Gonzalez cut up his latin jazz and hard bop album Crossroads with snippets of authentic, percussion-only rumbas to take the listener to Cuba between Latin takes on Monk and Mingus.

By Andy Freivogel

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