Out of all the musical gifts in Carlos Niño’s Echo Park recording studio, including some choice wind chimes and a battered old harmonium given to him by poet Kamau Daaood, the one he seems to prize most is a bit of street wisdom handed down by the late Leimert Park drummer/trumpeter/raconteur Juno Lewis: “Carlos, always be a beginner.”
Remembering this, the producer/DJ nods and his eyes grow more thoughtful than usual. “Juno was saying, ‘That’s how you learn. Never look at music like you are a master, otherwise you close yourself off.’ It was then I realized, ‘Damn, you can do it all, and the more open you are the better.’ I felt like there were just no boundaries whatsoever. Now it’s very easy for me on my radio show to play music by Ravel next to Neil Young next to Sun Ra next to Moondog — and everybody in between.”
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
Niño, a Rick Rubin–esque L.A. native with his face hidden behind a thatch of caveman beard, is in the middle of a 2007 marked by myriad milestones. Besides the release in February (on his 30th birthday) of his latest album Fill the Heart Shaped Cup, a soul-jazz collaboration with classical composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, he’s celebrating a decade of producing records for Daedelus, Dwight Trible, Mia Doi Todd, Yusef Lateef and a cornucopia of groups like Build an Ark, the Life Force Trio, Ammoncontact and Hu Vibrational — not to mention the 12th anniversary this October of his influential KPFK radio show Spaceways (“healing vibrations, positive energy and creative music”), which he now hosts with his eight-year-old son Azul.
But Niño’s ever-evolving specialty is transposing the same wide-eyed, wide-ranging influences of his radio show into a live setting by curating what he calls “highly collaborative cross-genre, cross-generational, multicultural musical events.” Over the years, Niño’s hosted some seminal nights of live music, including co-organizing and promoting the January 18, 2000, Brainfreeze show at the El Rey with Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow, and the 1996 anniversary party (in an old Skid Row firehouse made famous by the film Ghostbusters) for the online DJ collective Dublab. But he is best known for his semiannual September 23 soirees celebrating both John Coltrane’s birthday and the vernal equinox, which since 1998 have included a heady brew of the city’s vanguard jazz, soul, electronica, poetry and hip-hop underworlds. A typical Evening by Niño could be summed up by its first night on September 23, 1998: Protest singer and topical-rap godfather Gil Scott-Heron united for the first time in 20 years with co-writer and collaborator Brian Jackson on a bill that also included DJ Prince Paul, avant-jazz singer Dwight Trible and South African folk-rap duo BLK Sunshine.
“It was just pandemonium at that concert, it was insane. People still come up to me and tell me, ‘I was there, man, and it was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen.’“
Since then, Niño has seen his cross-pollination of different musical generations and styles welcomed for its diversity but halted by traffic and geography.
“Los Angeles is very rich, there’s so much going on, and there’s a long, long history way before I was involved in it. But it’s also compartmentalized, fragmented, more about pockets of communities and not one large one, so I try to be a sort of a guideway or bridgeway for stuff like that to come together more seamlessly. It’s worked quite well, I think. Because that’s really what it takes to go between it all: versatility.”