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People's Picks: A Polyrhythmic Tour with Wild Belle's Elliot Bergman

Whether in the sparse reggae-influenced beats of sibling-duo Wild Belle or in the expansive horns of “post-afrobeat” band NOMO, Elliot Bergman infuses every project with his love of the bright polyrhythms of West African and Caribbean music. There was always music around for Bergman: his mother, Susan, wrote songs for her four children, including “The Little Bird,” a tune Elliot would later pass on to Elizabeth Mitchell to record. Emerging from this music-filled childhood in Chicago, Bergman started NOMO with his classmates at University of Michigan in the early-2000s. While the band cites jazz, electronica, afrobeat, and world music as their primary inspirations, Bergman told ALARM that the band mostly sees themselves as a “melting pot of ideas and influences”: contemporary and American. While Bergman’s younger sister, Natalie, joined NOMO on tour as a teenager, the siblings set out to record Natalie’s songs as a duo. The resulting collaboration was Wild Belle, a band BBC Music lauds for their “deceptively sharp sunshine tune” and “surprising line in ground-shuddering dub wobbles.” In this month’s People’s Picks, the elder Bergman takes us from Oklahoma to Jamaica to Indonesia to Kenya to Nigeria, whirling through a world of Smithsonian Folkways sounds.

Elliot Bergman

Wild Belle’s Elliot Bergman, courtesy of the artist

Track 1: “Kumina ‘Country’ Songs by Kumina Singers from Folk Music of Jamaica

Track 2: “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues” by Woody Guthrie from Dust Bowl Ballads

This was the first Folkways record I ever bought. It came in to the used record store where I worked in college, Encore Records in Ann Arbor, and I was immediately captivated by the image on the cover. I fell in love with Ronald Clyne’s cover designs and the packaging: extensive liner notes, the paper glued on to the vinyl sleeve. I was hooked. My entire paycheck would go to records, and during the time I worked at Encore, I managed to amass a nice little collection of Folkways LPs that continues to grow.

Track 3: “Marin Uib” by Chorus of Children from Music of Indonesia Vol. 19: Music of Maluku: Halmahera, Buru, Kei

I wish all “kids music” sounded like this.

Track 4: “O Susanna” by Stephen Addiss and Bill Crofut from World Tour with Folk Songs

You think it’s just gonna be a nice little version of “O Susanna,” and then the band kicks in!

Track 5: “Concert Version” by Richard Lerman from Travelon Gamelan: Music for Bicycles

This is another record that I loved before I even heard it. The picture on the cover features the experimental composer surrounded by a bunch of cute girls on bicycles with speakers attached to them. Dreams really do come true!

Track 6: “Ranafafan” by Gong Ensemble from Music of Indonesia Vol. 19: Music of Maluku: Halmahera, Buru, Kei

Smithsonian Folkways has such and incredible wealth of gamelan music, you could spend months exploring the catalog. I had the privilege of studying gamelan and playing in the gamelan ensemble while I was in college. I played the bonang, which is a set of tuned gongs. The instruments that comprise a gamelan are usually as interesting to look at as they are to listen to, and Folkways does such a great job of documenting both the aural and visual beauty of the gamelan.

Track 7: “Brownskin gal” by Joseph Spence from Joseph Spence: The Complete Folkways Recordings, 1958

I remember the first time I heard the voice of Joseph Spence very clearly. I was on tour in Spain with my band NOMO, and our friend Rafa played a CD of his in the van on the way to Granada. The music was immediately familiar, yet otherworldly. I had never heard so much energy and mystery in a solo performer.

Track 8: “Manhã De Carnaval” by Luiz Bonfa from Solo in Rio 1959

This is such a beautiful song and an amazing recording.

Track 9: “The Little Bird” by Elizabeth Mitchell from Blue Clouds

This is a song that my mother wrote for me when I was a child. I became friends with Elizabeth Mitchell through our mutual friend and collaborator, producer Warren Defever, his playlist here contains a number of amazing gems. I told Liz that my mom wrote songs for me when I was a kid, and she very sweetly asked me to send her some of them. If I remember correctly, I left her a voicemail where I sang the song, and then she and Warren worked up the nice version that you hear here.

Track 10: “Praise The Lord (Come Holy Spirit)” by Mary Lou Williams from Mary Lou’s Mass

Track 11: “Mating Call of the Spring Peeper (Hyla Crucifer)” from Sounds of North American Frogs

It’s always good to know who is making the chirping sounds around you. I love the field recordings that Folkways produced. Another favorite of mine is Sounds of Insects, with a wasp on the cover. This one is not available for streaming or download, but is worth tracking down if you can find a vinyl copy.

Track 12: “Junkanoos Number 1-Instrumental” by Junkanoo Band from Junkanoo Band- Key West

Track 13: “Goma” by Dancers and Musicians from Siyu and Faza from Music of the Waswahili of Lamu, Kenya, Vol. 3: Secular Music

Lamu is an incredible place where different cultures come together on a small island.

Track 14: “Igbin Drums” from Drums of the Yoruba of Nigeria