NOMO with NINO MOSCHELLA performing as part of the HOT & SPICY FOOD FESTIVAL at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Friday (August 11), 8 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
Until just recently, percussion -heavy Detroit ensemble NOMO stood alongside New York's Antibalas and Kokolo as the U.S. orchestras most likely to score mainstream breakthroughs with the Afrobeat sound of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
But lately, as more and more groups have started picking up on the trendy Afrobeat groove, the standard-bearers have split off in different directions. Some are trying to update the Nuyorican salsa sound, and others are going for a more conventional big-band funk rumble.
NOMO, in the meantime, is building on the spiritual-jazz-meets-electronics experimentation of their Motor City forebears associated with the Tribe label.
Although NOMO's New Tones (Ubiquity) doesn't bear any obvious sonic hallmarks of 70s classics like Marcus Belgrave's Gemini or Doug Hammond's Reflections In The Sea Of Nurnen, that uplifting Tribe vibe that comes from musicians united in a boundary-busting mission is clearly present.
NOMO main man saxophonist Elliot Bergman feels some of the credit for the recent recording innovations goes to producer Warn Defever, with whom he previously collaborated in His Name Is Alive.
"I met Warn through recording with different Detroit rock bands and found out that he's not only well versed in rock and pop music, but he's also got a lot of that Tribe and Strata label stuff in his huge music library. He was always hipping me to great little-known records, which has definitely informed what we do in NOMO.
"This would be a very different band if someone other than Warn were involved in the production.
"When NOMO started," explains Bergman, "it wasn't like eight musicologists getting together to try and figure out how to play the Afrobeat music we'd been studying. The music of Fela Kuti was definitely an early touchstone, but most of the guys came up playing in free jazz and improvised music groups."
For those who haven't kept up with NOMO's changes over the two years since the 2004 release of their self-titled debut LP for Ypsilanti Records, the change in sound from the rock 'em, sock 'em Afrobeat blast of the past to the significantly less confrontational approach of New Tones may be a startling turnabout.
Instead of the heavy pounding and blaring horns, there's much more subtle interplay, with a greater focus on textures, which isn't the sort of progress that will delight too many old-school Afrobeat fans.
"In the time we've been together, about 60 players have probably come through NOMO, but in the last two years it's come down to eight core members. With the current lineup, we've been moving further and further away from our Afrobeat origins toward developing a sound that's uniquely our own.
"Lately, I've come across some blogs where people have said they prefer our first album because it's funkier and sounds more like Afrobeat. So far no one has called us Afrobeat sellouts, but that's probably coming."
Perhaps the biggest surprise on New Tones is NOMO's unlikely cover of The Book Of Right-On, by freak folk songster Joanna Newsom, which turns out to be one of the album's finest moments.
Although there are no plans for a full-on studio collabo, the NOMO crew are apparently up for a throwdown should Newsom be so inclined.
"Ever since hearing The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City), I've been captivated by her music. That song of hers The Book Of Right-On isn't obviously funky, but it definitely has a certain swing to it that's very appealing. It seemed like it might be fun to try it in the studio, so we did.
"I'd love to work with her at some point, but I guess I should send her a copy of our disc first and find out how she feels about what we did with her song. I don't know if she's even heard it yet."