The strumming of a guitar, people singing and cat-calls from tetchy bandmates boom in the background. As he walks from room to room in the Glasgow home of a new friend and fan, Elliot Bergman — leader of the Afro-beat/avant-jazz ensemble, Nomo — searches for a place to hide. He is currently on a European tour with twee pop darlings Saturday Looks Good To Me — and privacy, it seems, has become a bit of a commodity. He apologizes for the delay, and explains “everyone’s a bit tired.”
Nomo was just in Sweden — “the indie-rock promised land,” as Bergman refers to it — and the band has a much-needed day off. Bergman explains that the main source of food for the past few weeks has been a sometimes-steady supply of baguettes and cheese, but despite the pain et fromage-weariness of the hungry boho composer, there’s no denying the punch-drunk electricity that comes across via phone from all the way across the pond. He’s having the time of his life.
This moment — as the 6-foot-3-inch, baby-faced musical wunderkind wanders through a generous stranger’s Scotland home, smelling of last night’s gig and in need of a hot meal — would make a perfect opening chapter in a book about Bergman’s life and career. It’s the perfect backdrop for a young man who’s not afraid to pay his dues and whose reliance on the purity of music might someday serve him well.
“Everyone has been super nice,” Bergman says. “I guess there’s some sort of tsunami benefit happening tonight in town. Franz Ferdinand and Belle & Sebastian are playing.” Apparently, the night before Stuart Murdoch (Belle & Sebastian) and some members of Teenage Fan Club came to the SLGTM show. Rumors circulate that the Scottish pop stars might show up at the house later on that evening for an afterparty, but Bergman, thankfully, is more interested in talking about something nearer and dearer to his heart: his own band, Nomo.
“I was having problems with my jaw and it put me in a weird place in my music life,” the saxophone player says. “I started looking for other venues to be creative and that’s when I really got into West African music and Afro-beat from the ’60s and ’70s.”
This interest, as luck would have it, prompted Bergman — a University of Michigan Jazz Studies grad — to start his own Afro-beat/Fela, avant-jazz ensemble. The result? A blissful Sun Ra meets Talking Heads cacophony of sound and spirit, and incidentally, one of the most difficult acts in town to describe.
“Everything feels a bit ephemeral right now,” Bergman says.
The band consists of 15-plus members (some of whom play with Bergman in SLGTM) who are, for a lot of reasons, all over the board (not to mention the world) musically right now. Because they are a multi-culti concoction of gigging jazz musicians, world beat masters, music students and indie nerd-rockers — Bergman’s roster of players tends to rotate a bit. On average, the band sports no less than four percussionists (including Antoinette Kudoto, a female master drummer from Ghana) and a six-piece horn section and a variety of instrumentalists. Bergman loves the pliability of the ensemble, but sees Nomo’s future as much more focused.
Despite what might seem like a ragtag existence, Nomo is nothing if not a musical force. Bergman, who composes all of the band’s music, is not some music school parvenu who scribbles notation onto a piece of paper and then dictates his musical vision to the braying members of his orchestra, no: In fact, one of the things that Nomo is known for — probably what they do best — is improvisation.
“If people are looking for a singular voice, it’s not going to happen,” Bergman says.
One of Bergman’s strengths is how he can harness the persuasive sway and polyrhythmic march of his band live. No matter how groovy the drum solo, no matter how jubilant the horn blast, Bergman’s onstage intuitiveness consistently keeps the music forward-moving; the man can steer a show.
Truth be told, there are three crimes against music often perpetrated by young world-music bands. First is the wank-fest solo runs that can seem like an eternity (how many more jokes about bass solos and Phish fans will it take to get this concept through?). Second is performing for yourself and not the audience. The third is sloppiness.
Chalk it up to the artist eclecticism, or the instinctive sense of Bergman, but Nomo is innocent of all said offenses. They do not jam — not in the usual sense of the word anyway — they contextualize. They always play to their audiences (sometimes leaving the confines of the stage to shimmy), and they are tight.
And the band’s moniker is telling too, suggestive of something bigger at work. Bergman explains that despite the many rumors that “Nomo” is urban parlance for “no more” or a shout out to a Japanese baseball pitcher, the band’s name actually comes from quieter places. “Nomo is the word for music that keeps bad spirits away,” Bergman says.
Before each show the band congregates backstage for a moment of prayer and thankfulness: “I think it helps in having a connection to the audience,” Bergman says.
Last summer, Nomo released their eponymous album on Ypsilanti Records and despite that label’s less-than-stellar distribution, Nomo’s become a buzzword on the lips of critics. Freeform radio stations across the country have glommed on to the album and in many areas (particularly the East Coast) songs such as the super funky “Discontinued” enjoy heavy rotation.
It was more than twenty years ago when Lester Bangs wrote, “The only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no.”
Elliot Bergman, a man about as old as that question, has an answer:
“We are creating the spirit of acceptance and love. I think that’s one of the things, as musicians, we have the power to do.”
Thursday, March 3, at the New Dodge (9122 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-874-5963).
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