September 23, 2010
Get lucky enough to wander into an Afro-Disiacs jam session at their rehearsal space in the New Covenant Worship Center on South Calhoun Street and one thing becomes very clear. You don’t interview these guys. Not in the traditional sense anyway. You just listen. On my lucky day – it was a while ago now, the story having been delayed by a million factors, including the band’s participation in whatzup’s Battle of the Bands 7 – everything started with conga player Wil Brown and drummer Bryan Nellums feeling out a beat. Very call and response. Bass player Marco Franco was the next to join in, contributing an irresistible island riff that wafted to the rafters of the spacious church sanctuary like a tropical breeze. (Pardon the overwrought simile. It was a cold spring day. I wanted to be transported. I was.) Last but not least, frontman and lead guitarist Mike Rodgers entered the groove, subtly and slowly, his deceptively complicated playing building toward a beautiful, haunting solo.
With the Afro-Disiacs there’s no time to launch into a bunch of questions. Rehearsal hours are precious, man. It’s time to play. So you listen. Then you smile. Then you tap your pen, your foot, your fingers. Eventually you end up laughing. You can’t help it because, while these guys are working their way through what appears at first listen to be completely improvised ear ecstasy, Brown and Nellums are grinning and laughing and trading jokes through their hands and sticks. At one point Brown taps a cowbell. More smiles. Rodgers’ phone rings. Everyone ignores it and just keeps rocking.
It was obvious from beat one, or at least beat two or three, that no one has more fun than the Afro-Disiacs. The only exception, perhaps, is their fans.
For about five years Rodgers and Brown were having all the fun. They played as a duo around town, sometimes to packed houses, often to empty chairs and crickets. They met playing in the now defunct funk band Action Jaxson, and both guys have been busy in several side projects, with Brown, who got his start on the congas thanks to his sound engineer father, often appearing alongside local jazz hero Todd Harrold, and Rodgers, a self-taught guitarist, spending some time with tribute act Grateful Groove. They started to attract attention as a duo thanks in part to open mic nights at The Bean Cafe and Teahouse. That exposure helped them get a gig opening for the Kalamazoo-based reggae act Zion Lion at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory.
“That was a great show,” Rodgers said. “We were really grateful for that.”
It was only a few months ago that Brown and Rodgers decided to bring on Nellums and Franco. The foursome was so new that when I first contacted Rodgers by phone he wasn’t sure of Marco’s last name.
“Oh wait,” he said, laughing as someone in the background supplied it. “It’s Franco. No wonder he didn’t tell us. At least it’s not Polo.”
Marco “At Least It’s Not Polo” Franco caught Rodgers’ ear at a Bean open mic night. The Michigan native worked as a professional bass player for 10 years before quitting to work full time, but when he got laid off he moved to Fort Wayne and picked it back up. He said playing with the rest of the Disiacs is a great time, and a precious reminder of what he missed during his hiatus.
“It’s like we’re having musical conversations on stage,” Franco said. “We all have big ears. Well, figuratively for them, literally for me.”
Nellums grew up in a musical family. His father was a pastor, so Nellums joined his mother and siblings in the church choir. Nellums started playing the drums on his own with little instruction, imitating others and feeling his way until local music educator, Donna Sevcovic, discovered him during a church service and introduced him to Todd Harrold. Nellums began taking lessons from the Fort Wayne R&B legend, who, according to Nellums, opened a number of doors, including one that helped the young drummer land a drumming gig with Fort Wayne blues favorite G-Money. In addition to the drums, Nellums plays the piano and bass. It’s only fitting that the Afro-Disiacs have a song in their extensive repertoire called “Nellums’ Song.”
Speaking of the Afro-Disiacs’ repertoire, the day I showed up to rehearsal they played several original tunes, including “Nellums’ Song,” “Ashes to Ashes” and “Raise Your Voice.”
The Afro-Disiac sound is, according to Brown, a world fusion mix of jazz, funk and soul.
“We’re not the ‘get drunk at the bar and hit on chicks’ kind of band,” he said. “We can be a bit of a hard sell at times because people aren’t sure what to make of us, but we figure we’re going to keep making good music and having fun and eventually that will translate.”
It has translated into near constant gigging around town. The Afro-Disiacs (not to be confused with The Afrodisiacs, a pleather-wearing disco act out of the UK) can often be found come the weekend at local drinkeries like the Gin Mill, Kaysan’s 5th Down and Bill’s City Grill doing what they do best which, in the words of Rodgers, is “turning heads and changing minds.”
“There’s always going to be that drunk guy in the bar shouting ‘Freebird!’ but that’s not what we’re about,” he said. “We’re not cookie cutter, and people are really starting to get that.”
The name “Afro-Disiacs” is both a serious tribute to the seat of some of the world’s most infectious, moving music (“We have to give credit where it’s due, to the Afro-centric culture and the African styles of music that influence us,” Brown said. “We have to appreciate where we came from to know where we’re going”) and a clever play on a word that means, well ... something you ingest that makes you want to ... you know ... get it on.
At the very least, the minute the Afro-Disiacs start to play you’ll want to get your groove on. Even on that cold day in the empty church when I had the pleasure of watching Rodgers, Brown, Nellums and Franco at work, I wanted to get up and dance. I didn’t, though, because I’m a writer and an introvert and I was scared of making an idiot of myself. Something tells me now that I should have. I’m guessing one of the guys would have joined me, or at least given me a little cowbell.
“We just plain love what we do,” Brown said as I was leaving. “Period. Straight up.”