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.
“After the events of September 11,” Niño explains in his cooled-out but insistent DJ tones, “I felt very compelled to put together what I call an immediate peace action. I decided that I wanted to try and get musicians that I work closely with together to do a concert on the radio that was about trying to encourage peace and love and understanding, since there was so much hype and hysteria in the media. Dwight Trible is the first person I called.”
Trible’s favorite musicians surprised him by gladly signing on to this utopian venture. When the freeform KPFK-FM blowing session and rally raised a positive response, Niño thought the concept could reach “a new multicultural generation of music lovers,” and came up with the Build an Ark name — a reference to the Arkestras of Ra and Tapscott, and to the biblical event that showed us all what to do when storm clouds gather. The crew were asked to come up with a tune each last year, and laid down Peace With Every Step. Build an Ark has now congregated to shiver many an audience’s timbers, even touring England and Holland and bringing a lot of Europeans onboard.
Not to mention the local recruits. Niño believes that youth united against global corporatization and imperialist conquest needs marching music, just as the Vietnam protesters did, and this is it.
Ranelin, at 65, is seeing new fans in their 20s and 30s: “I’m very grateful for that audience, all the enthusiasm that they bring to the table.”
Part of what draws converts is the sight of veterans flexible enough to share their knowledge, and the stage, with vocalists, drummers and turntablists two generations removed. Build an Ark kicks down the artificial barriers worshipped by niche marketers; its model is the community and the extended family, not the pop chart. It’s kind of an African-American thing.
Trible says he grew up in a place “pretty much like any other black neighborhood in America. And it becomes a part of you. Until later in my life, I didn’t analyze just how much the connection between African-Americans and Africans still exists, especially when it comes to music. Man, these dances that you learn as children, the music that you hear, the blues, the gospel — it’s all a connection to the Africanness.
“And because of our ancestors and the slave experience, we had even more to bring to it. And I think that that’s why the African-American experience, musically, is the thing that dominates all over the world — because it is so beautiful. Sometimes out of tragedy comes beauty.”
Ranelin felt the connection from an early age. “I never really studied composition or harmony theory. So the first thing that I composed, it was rhythmically so close to Africa, and I didn’t really know why. Later I found out that I was exploring the very beginnings of the rhythms that developed in Africa.”
There’s culture, and there’s spirituality. Reklaw’s Catholic father wanted him to be a bishop. Ranelin was raised Baptist, then Apostolic; if he didn’t show up for church, “You got what you call whoopin’s for that. I don’t really regret it — it builds the character.” Trible, on his own, has investigated Buddhism, astrology, white magic and other disciplines. When these men perform, you don’t hear those specifics, but the essence rings clear.
As we talk, the sun has set. Adding to the atmosphere, a power outage has left us in near darkness with a few candles. It’s one of those moments that hint at a world where everything might break down. And Build an Ark — mostly wind instruments, singers and drums — could be a soundtrack of hope. Not only will the reconstruction not be televised, it won’t even need a wall socket.
Build an Ark and the electropercussive loop group Ammoncontact play the Little Temple, 4519 Santa Monica Blvd., Silver Lake, on Friday, October 22.