By Traviss Cassidy | 22 September 2008
Fela Kuti: Pan-Africanist pioneer of Afrobeat; purveyor of vitriolic song-rants against the Nigerian government telling of the “Expensive Shit” (filled with traces of drugs) said government attempted to plant in Kuti’s jail cell as a frame; foiled presidential candidate; writer of “Zombie,” modern history’s most ass-shaking diatribe against unquestioning military loyalty (which also ignited a riot in Ghana); author of the “Hokey Pokey”-like “Open and Close” dance; a man who in 1978 alone married twenty-seven women.
Lest it become an obvious conclusion, the ripples of his seismic influence on the global music community are still being felt. In the indie music enclave, this ranges from Vampire Weekend’s “Fela Kuti was cool, you guys” to far more authentic iterations from groups like Antibalas and Budos Band, not to mention Fela’s torch-carrying sons Seun and Femi.
Ann Arbor, Michigan’s NOMO undoubtedly fall into the latter category, and like many of their Afro-pop contemporaries they’ve generously added a twist to the jazz-inflected funk lovingly associated with Nigeria. While the band’s self-titled debut was a straightforward amalgamation of Afrobeat and smoldering jazz, by sophomore effort New Tones (2006) they were incorporating (among other things) harp, synthesizer, and homemade electric thumb pianos into their omnivorous formula. This year’s Ghost Rock continues the evolution not merely by tacking on a bunch of new instruments (which they’ve probably done, though their inclement sonic wall is so dense it’s hard to tell) but by playing with the structures of the pieces themselves, moving into a sound that, while still groove-oriented, toys with a Reichian sense of spacey repetition and occasionally forgoes motifs altogether, an unheard-of move for Afrobeat purists.
This new direction surfaces immediately on opener “Brainwave,” which lays a squelchy, robotic synth groove over deep bass and drum work. Perhaps for the first time in this band’s short history, the horn section plays a secondary role, carving out an almost formless ambient backdrop behind the alien beat. “All the Stars” kicks off with a four-second loop of electric likembe (employed as percussion à la Konono N°1 and their Congotronics brethren), which is soon gobbled up by a living room’s worth of drums, congas, other kitchen sink clatter, and a chattering, ahem, “electric sawblade-gamelan.”
Though they swerve toward a more avant-garde focus for trance-inducing closer “Nova,” by “Round the Way” the band has already fully embraced their more familiar big band jazz and Afrobeat tropes, albeit with that multifaceted percussion section rumbling and rattling below. Of course, something fist-pumping like “My Dear” certainly provides a nice break from the more cerebral arrangements preceding, but it’s also less daring given the dime-a-dozen status of Afro-pop revivalists these days. Don’t get me wrong, NOMO do horn-led funk as well as almost any band currently operating behind that conceit. But the reason Ghost Rock is both their strongest and most frustrating record is that they’ve tapped into a texture that’s fresh and exciting for its rewarding of the band’s many unexpected, rhythmic talents, but have refused to see this transformation to its logical end. Like peers Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, NOMO have cut the umbilical chord to their Afrobeat roots and still—puckered like the best of ‘em—idly suck on Fela Kuti’s warm, fleshy teat. Really, who could blame them? That’s some delicious stuff.