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Build an Ark’s Covenant 

An L.A. collective conjures “California creative soul music with a lot of improvisational elements”

Wednesday, Nov 4 2009
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Carlos Niño had a change of heart around the age of 28, one that is at once thought-provoking and controversial. His eclectic music show, Spaceways, which airs every Friday night on KPFK, was originally hip-hop oriented. But Niño began to dislike the art form.

“Early on I was hip to John Coltrane and Miles Davis and the Beatles and the Doors while I was also listening to Run-DMC, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions,” says Niño, host of Spaceway for 14 years. “But I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I feel deeply polluted by all the hip-hop that I’ve listened to. I find myself in some of the most beautiful places imaginable and I’ll have some horrible rap lyric in my head. I know the music very well. Not only have I made it, supported it, presented it, but I really listened deeply.”

Niño made a concerted effort to break away from hip-hop. This, in part, drives his musical collective Build an Ark, where the goal is “to actually put out something worthwhile. I feel vibrationally it’s a positive offering for humanity.”

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SCOTT TOEPFER - Niño: “very much a Californian”
  • Photo by Scott Toepfer
  • Niño: “very much a Californian”

An impassioned Niño explains: “I was interviewed recently and they asked me about the title of the record,” speaking of LOVE Part 1, Build an Ark’s new album. “‘So what does love mean to you?’ And I said John Lennon said it perfectly in his absolute masterpiece of a song ‘All You Need Is Love.’ We don’t have to make things more complicated than that. Whenever somebody starts making things complicated, I’m, like, just open up your heart and the consciousness there will inform you that all it is, is love.”

The 32-year-old native Angeleno is a bandleader, composer, musician, and a man who makes things happen. He’s produced recordings by a range of artists, from jazz vocalist Dwight Trible to the contemporary folk of Mia Doi Todd and the L.A. baroque pop group His Orchestra. Everything he touches is animated with his strong philosophical convictions, that the power and content of music evoke specific responses in the listener. Therefore, what one plays is not only an art, but a responsibility.

In 1999, Niño produced Trible’s album Horace, a tribute to L.A. jazz icon Horace Tapscott, featuring fellow legends like drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daaood. Later, when post-9/11 vengeance was spreading like swine flu and Iraq was about to become a war zone, “I called Dwight and said, ‘Listen, man, the media is creating hysteria,’” recalls Niño. “‘Everything is anti-Arab. It’s total fear mongering. We need to have a concert for peace.’ He was with it.” A dozen L.A. musicians performed a special two-hour show on Spaceways called “Our Cry for Peace.” After that, Niño made it an ongoing ensemble. “The idea behind Build an Ark was nothing about the Bible. It had to do with the idea of a community band. I wasn’t saying, ‘I’m building an ark’ only, I’m saying, ‘Build an ark.’ Go for it. Let’s do some shit and make it happen.”

Niño credits the Sun Ra Arkestra and Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra as organizational influences, although he says the concept for the band’s sound is his own. “It was meant to be this California creative soul music with a lot of improvisational elements like jazz. It picks up where the early-’70s recordings that were done in L.A. by Ed Michel at Impulse and the whole Laurel Canyon sound intertwined. I’m very much a Californian. I don’t feel like I’m a citizen of the United States. But I do relate to California, to the Pacific Ocean, to Los Angeles, the coast. It has all of its roots with Mexican and so-called Native American culture.” Niño’s heritage is Colombian on his father’s side and, not surprisingly, Hippie-American on his mother’s — the Byrds played at her high school prom in 1965.

Build an Ark has evolved into a 40-human collective of both sexes, many races and a wide age range. They’ve toured the States, Europe and Japan. At least half are jazz musicians while the others play soul, rock, folk, or eschew categories. Their 2003 debut album, Peace With Every Step, was followed by Dawn in ’06, and LOVE Part 1, due this winter (Part II will be more improvisational). LOVE is a gift from first-rate musicians, full of major-chord optimism, group singing, ebullient solos, drum circles, composed primarily by collective members, though Van Morrison and Pharoah Sanders are covered. Trombone great Phil Ranelin resurrects “How Do We End All This Madness?,” which he composed and recorded during the Nixon/Vietnam era and which is still powerful and, unfortunately, still topical. Musical director Miguel Atwood-Ferguson credits his “visionary” bandleader for “encouraging everyone to bring in their own compositions. He’ll guide them lovingly but he gives people the green light to be themselves.”

The “free” moments are simply that: the sound of shaking off shackles. At their November 12 concert at Royce Hall, opening for the mighty McCoy Tyner, BAA will perform seven compositions from the new album, plus “The Blessing Song,” by guest veteran jazz violinist Michael White, and an instrumental rendition of Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly,” for Young’s birthday, that day.

It’s music that seeks to harness energy, the same kind that birthed his early love, hip-hop, which lured him with its “cultural, emotional outcry.” But Niño says he began to find it “largely non-dimensional” and lacking transcendence. “When the focus is on the material world, we’re missing the point.” He’s unaffected by the retro accusations, and unapologetically points to Coltrane and Lennon and “the era of messengers. If you look at Jimi Hendrix for five minutes, you go, ‘I don’t care if he was perfect or not, he was really alive.’”

Mark Maxwell, a member of BAA and host of KPFK’s jazz show RISE, says Niño “is very purposeful about music. He doesn’t like to waste time with stuff that’s purely for entertainment. It’s got to serve a function like lifting the spirit. I always enjoy being around the people in Build an Ark. There’s a contagious enthusiasm and it’s such a big ensemble that when we get together it’s like a party.” Ranelin points out that “I’m considerably older than some of the members. It’s apparent to me that Carlos likes the mixture of older members and a bunch of youth. He likes diversity in every way.”

Ranelin pauses for a moment and then adds, “And all tryin’ to get back to one.”

McCoy Tyner and Build an Ark perform at Royce Hall at UCLA on Thurs., Nov. 12.

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