By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Jack Gould
Peace has an image problem. Like, it’s such a snore, man. The many members of the L.A. Afro-groove collective Build an Ark are war’s best competition, but the matchup is tough: In movies, battle looks almost fun. People running around. Shit blowing up. Combat boys, hot and tuff. Even the (nonfiction?) TV news can be primo theater, with mullahs in Star Wars robes spitting curses and chopping heads.
In retaliation, the Arkfolks mass all their ordnance and throw an Armageddon of a peace show. Look at ’em on the stage — around a dozen swaying faithful. Phil Ranelin, the Gandalf-tall elder, zooms out soul on his trombone. Beside him stand the angular Derf Reklaw, lilting on flute or whacking some percussion thing, and the avuncular Joshua Spiegelman, a wind player with an easy-flowing worldwide message. An intense Nate Morgan trips the funk on his vintage Rhodes piano. Gaby Hernandez, Tracey Hart and Andres Renteria chant and dance around. Maybe there’ll be a rapper or a turntable trickster. Alan Lightner and Trevor Ware hold the whole thing together on drums and bass. Dwight Trible’s rich tenor soars over the rhythmic love fest. And at some point they might all grab drums and strikables, lock into a huge Brazilian beat, and march in a circle like ecstatic celebrants.
Resistance is futile. Unless you’re in a full body cast, you will move.
That’s live, the best way to experience Build an Ark. Do not, however, neglect their lightful new record, Peace With Every Step. Yeah, you might hear the words peace and love a few too many times — once or twice woulda done it; the music is the message. But there’s a whole lot of pure wordless unh-uh here: the Congo village sun dance of “Vibes From the Tribe,” the spontaneous gang bang of “Drumprovise,” the jazzy flute-fiddle interaction of “Collective,” the whoop & thrum of “Nu Baya Roots” and lots more (18 total tracks!). The snips and cycles sound natural, because they just poured out of people who feel the same.
Trible, Ranelin, Reklaw and producer Carlos Niño generally act as Ark spokesmen so interviewers won’t be menaced with the whole peace mob. And they represent a great sampling of experience. We talked in the artists’ lounge of Silver Lake’s Little Temple club.
Derf Reklaw (Fred Walker) says he was nagged decades ago into moving here from Chicago, where he’d thrown himself into the Afro Freedom movement. He was also a member of the Pharaohs, a musical ensemble descended from Phil Cohran, a former Sun Ra Arkestraman, that explored the kind of creative thinking that flowered in the early ’70s: “If we wanted to write a song that had something to do with intellect, we would play it in G flat, which is the Gemini key.” The Big Orange, at least to Reklaw’s wife, offered more juice than the Windy City. “I came out here on zero,” says Reklaw, and that became less than zero when he got divorced and spiraled into substance dependency and homelessness. Music helped him get free, and music remains a reason to live.
Ranelin was a mover in Tribe, a politically oriented Detroit musical collective, before he too chased the sun, splitting the city in 1977 in the wake of the relocation of Motown Records, which had been a font of his employment as a session man. He says he envisioned himself “on the beach every day,” but he ended up catching too many rays, as Motown soon got sand in its tank and other work dried up: “They brought the synthesizers in, and that was the end of it.” Ranelin has just released Inspiration, a resonant collection that really puts the coal back in the Coltrane.
Trible’s roots are in the black projects of Cincinnati. Graduated from high school during the Vietnam War, he was drafted but got lucky with the call-up and wasn’t forced to kill Asians for reasons he didn’t understand. After moving to Los Angeles in 1978, he fell in with Horace Tapscott and his community-minded Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra — which eventually, during the late ’90s, drew the interest of a young music fanatic named Carlos Niño. Niño, having connected after the fact with the countercultural ’60s and ’70s jazz flow of Pharoah Sanders and Gary Bartz, perceived the Arkestra and a select number of L.A. musicians as torchbearers of that tradition. And he wondered if other listeners might get as excited about its revival as he was.
“Carlos is the type of guy who does not understand that you can’t do something,” says Trible, who recently undammed Living Water, a disc that flows with openness, melody and determination. “Whereas some of us who have been around awhile, we know that maybe there’s obstacles. But Carlos believes anything is possible. And I think that is why so much happens around him.”
Niño, a disc jockey and record collector with a full charge of energy and an optimistic smile, has become a major advocate and promoter of neglected Los Angeles music. In fact, he’s the one who had the idea for Build an Ark.