Every Thursday night at North Miami's Backstage club, Jomo Faulks transports audiences to the heart of Africa. What gets you first is the beat, a mixture of hypnotic African polyrhythms accentuated with electronic percussion samples. Lush synthesizer sequences lull listeners into an almost meditative state. Pulsing bass grooves provide some funk. Close your eyes, and Faulks' blend of modern and ancient sounds can take you on an aural journey through jungle rain forests, over the African plains, and to the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro.
It may come as a surprise that Faulks, with his long, braided hair and easygoing manner, isn't from some far-off, exotic land; he's actually an Ohio native who moved to Miramar 15 years ago. It's his instrument that has the foreign lineage. The mbira (em-beer-a) isn't widely recognized by the average music fan. The African instrument is a small, rectangular, wooden box with a sound hole in the middle. Over the sound hole are pliable strips of metal called "tongues," which are plucked with the thumbs, hence the nickname "African thumb piano." The instrument is both melodic and rhythmic and produces a metallic, bell-like sound.
"I was turned on to the mbira when I saw Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire playing a kalimba [a type of mbira]," says Faulks, age 46. He saw the concert in New York City in the early '70s, when he was a college student working on an engineering degree. But since junior high school in Dayton, he'd been a singer and trombonist.
"I also played bass guitar, which is basically a percussion instrument," Faulks explains. "And when I was in college, I got a chance to study with some real good percussionists, and it just took off from there. Then I got into traditional African music."
After seeing an mbira group from Zimbabwe perform in New York City's Washington Square, Faulks spotted an mbira in a music-store window on the way home. "I went in and bought one," he recalls. "But it was very limited in that it was totally acoustic and only tuned to one key. And so I designed an electric, chromatic mbira. Now I'm able to play music from this culture. To be able to be heard playing with a big band, you have to be electric."
In addition to his regular Thursday gig, Faulks jams with other musicians in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, including the Miami Steel and Percussion Orchestra, with which he'll appear October 15 in Hollywood. He also conducts "spirit dances" on Hallandale Beach with Safeer Mahdi, who specializes in playing ancient wind and percussion instruments. Dancers are blindfolded, then encouraged to express themselves through dance as Faulks, Safeer, and guest musicians improvise a hypnotic rhythmic blend.
In a way Faulks and company are reliving history. The mbira was designed by the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe for use in the Bira ceremony, during which tribal members played ancient rhythms and melodies to encourage the spirits of their ancestors to appear and offer the tribe guidance.
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Although the music Faulks plays is rooted in African culture, he's been working to make it his own.
"During my pursuit of learning the mbira, I talked to a master player from Zimbabwe, and he told me it was more important for me to keep developing music for my culture, because his music was designed for his culture, his society," says Faulks. "And I needed to develop it for my culture, so that's been my whole pursuit."
-- Chuck Mason
Jomo Faulks will perform with the Miami Steel and Percussion Orchestra Thursday, October 15, at the Hollywood Central Performing Arts Center, 1770 Monroe St., Hollywood. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show cost $10 and $15. Call 954-921-3422.