NOMO: Invisible Cities

Nomo imagines every city skyline as a sound wave and, building on Ghost Rock, diffuses their Afrobeat-centeric sound in directions that could get any city's party pumping.


Invisible Cities

US Release: 2009-05-09
Label: Ubiquity
UK Release: 2009-06-01
Artist Website
Label Website

Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities is a series of poetic travelogues posed as a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. That NOMO has named their latest album after Calvino’s work admits to a degree of cultural tourism on the band’s part. This should be no surprise to those who’ve been following the various shapes and sizes of the Michigan-by-way-of-Africa group since their origins.

Formed as a college band with all of its attendant musicians studying as undergrads at the University of Michigan, NOMO spent its first two albums borrowing the majestic and often ferocious romp of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, while shunning the original music’s political edge in favor of instrumental fortitude. This compromise worked because it served as a reminder that Kuti’s politics were hard-won by bringing in a James Brown-like showmanship and instigating jams so groovy that they could start parties in any language and regardless of political affiliation (though being a revolutionary wouldn’t hurt matters).

Last year’s critically acclaimed Ghost Rock continued the continental tour of Africa by harvesting Congotronic roots for its motherland conservatory. Bandleader Elliot Bergman even swept junkyards for street trash, quartering unlikely objects for concrète sounds, such as fire extinguishers to use as steel drums and, on Invisible Cities, street sweeping utensils as a kalimba-like melodic tool, thereby appropriating Africa’s experimentalism-by-necessity and adopting the privation of desolate lands.

All this sounds like NOMO is a bunch of rotten revivalists, spoilt (mostly) white kids dipping their toes in exotic cultures for a taste of that most abhorrently facile of Western obsessions, “authenticity” (though, unlike Vampire Weekend, NOMO’s sonics do actually resemble African music). However, unlike several of their Ubiquity Records peers (and Bergman’s other band, the retro R’n’R Saturday Looks Good to Me), NOMO has never been primarily concerned with resuscitating rare or prematurely buried sounds from their unmarked graves. Though NOMO exhibits an ecstatic love for Afrobeat, spiritual jazz (check the odd time-signatured mysticism of “Patterns”), and the like, they’ve been increasingly studio-prone with each successive album, allowing for the effects of postproduction and modern electronic instrumentation to take their music in wild new directions.

The immensely textured title track, “Invisible Cities”, is a perfect example. It initiates the album with bubbling synths that make a fluttering racket like crickets from a bayou swamp. These persist as ambient dressing throughout the rest of the song as hot brass that could melt butter stands upright and confident in opposition to the hesitant side-strutting bass. As the polyrhythmic militancy of the percussion’s march step collides with the sax solos, the individual sounds threaten to be swallowed whole in the mix while the track builds up dense layers of reverberated ooze.

Invisible Cities also ventures out into territories unchartered for NOMO. “Banners on High” is a spectacular spectral take on Constellation-style post-rock. Its structure is that of constant escalation, drawing out ghosts in the process. The swirling saxes in the backdrop prove how affective they can be as supporting cast members, which may be a lesson NOMO take to heart as they develop their sound further. “Ma”, meanwhile, a cover of an original by Tropicália guru Tom Zé, fuses the Brazilian style with no wave squelch and substitutes the main vocal melody with ominous baritone brass. The human larynx does eventually factor in, but it becomes so well-harmonized with the buzzing trumpets that it almost sounds like a vocoder distortion effect (though it clearly isn’t).

Invisible Cities was recorded both during the same sessions as Ghost Rock and throughout the subsequent supporting tour, making the album something of an Amnesiac to Ghost Rock’s Kid A. It’s not quite as outré as its predecessor, but, like Amnesiac, it also doesn’t feel like the leftovers. The album is a song cycle that ebbs and flows like a complete vision, a suite of songs rather than a collection of three to seven-minute tunes. The start and end points of the individual tracks act as a tempering of the album’s holistic dynamics.

Invisible Cities is a far more freeform affair than Kuti’s repetitious drum circle ever got, and the usually accentuated horn section is deemphasized on four of the album’s nine tracks (“Crescent”, “Patterns”, “Banners on High”, “Nocturne”). The technical prowess of the individual players on the album cannot be questioned, particularly the indestructible beat of the rhythm section, which is pretty much the whole band. And despite their familiar reference points, I hear as much of Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun in the tribal thrall of “Nocturne” as I do Fela or Tony Allen.

Oddly enough, the elements of NOMO’s sound that haven’t changed still remain the most driving and gripping forces in the music. Broadening their range has allowed those particular cities of sound to come off more vivacious, vital, and visible than ever. Standing alone, but also particularly as a companion piece to Ghost Rock, Invisible Cities is a party that holds no regional prejudice and should bear no presumptions. Prepare to be taken over by it.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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