How Rick Omonte Is Bringing Niger To New Haven

For New Haven-based musician and sometimes promoter Rick Omonte, music is a contagion. “It’s like a parasite or a bug,” he said in an interview last week. “You might walk by a window and hear something, and then it’s in your head. And then you hear it on the street, and it’s another crumb. And then you hear someone playing it, and you say, ‘excuse me, I don’t know you, but what’s that song?’”

Omonte’s big ears and curiosity led him, sonically speaking, to the West African country of Niger. Next Tuesday, he’s bringing Niger to New Haven, represented by celebrated guitarist Mdou Moctar, who will play Lyric Hall in Westville at 8 p.m.

But Omonte has taken a few long trips himself.

He was raised in Monroe — “suburbia,” he said — and started on guitar when he was 13, because he wanted to play Iron Maiden. But very early, Omonte said, “there were all these little signs” of what is now a deep interest in music from all over the world. His father is Peruvian and Omonte visits family there. “My dad used to tell me that I used to recite the Peruvian national anthem,” Omonte said with a laugh. His father’s work also took Omonte down to Bridgeport from Monroe constantly. “Salsa was something I took for granted,” Omonte said.

Brian Slattery PhotoHe studied some classical guitar at UCONN, but meanwhile also picked up the bass. He ended up being bassist for Spring Heeled Jack, a ska band that cut its teeth playing at New Haven’s Tune Inn. With album releases and record deals amid the rising popularity of third-wave ska, the band started touring relentlessly and garnered a national following.

At one point the band found itself playing in Puerto Rico. “Is there anything we can play that’ll rile people up?” Omonte remembered the band asking the promoter. The promoter suggested a song by salsa legend Willie Colon. And Omonte, revisiting music he’d heard all his life, gained a newfound appreciation for it.

Spring Heeled Jack took Omonte around the country for years. Then the record label that had signed the band announced it was going out of business and dropped the band. Spring Heeled Jack played a final show at Toad’s Place in 2001. Rumors floated that the break wasn’t permanent. But then the band’s drummer, Dave Karcich, died of a sudden brain aneurysm in 2002. The band reunited for a show to honor him, and a couple times after that, with and without Omonte.

Omonte, meanwhile, moved on — to New Haven, and to other music projects. He started Shaki Presents to work as a promoter. “I learned how to do it in Spring Heeled Jack,” he said. After the band broke up, “I was going to New York to see shows, but it gets expensive.” So he thought: “Why don’t I set up my own shows?”

From 2001 to 2009, Omonte estimated that he set up and booked about 400 shows at Cafe Nine, BAR, and elsewhere, among them a who’s who of indie rock from Animal Collective and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, to Wolf Eyes and the Hold Steady. He loved the music and the groups he worked with. But working as a promoter carried its own stresses. “In eight years, I didn’t have a Sunday where I didn’t have agita,” he said. 

Meanwhile, he discovered the record series Ethiopiques, featuring music from Ethiopia, in the early 2000s, and “it blew my mind,” Omonte said. He realized that “I have to hear an entire continent,” and he began searching out more recordings from all over Africa, finding out what he liked and familiarizing himself with it. One artist led to another, and he soon had a record collection of music from that continent, South America, and beyond. He got a show on WPKN, also called Shaki Presents, as an outlet. He stopped being as active a promoter, and started working at the Yale Center for British Art as a museum technician. But he didn’t stop listening.

A few years ago, he discovered the record label Sahel Sounds, and was smitten with the premise of one of its compilations: songs that people had shared in the Saharan Desert using the memory cards on their cellphones.

“This idea of swapping and sharing music really spoke to me, reminded me of that excited feeling you get when you discover something so brand new,” Omonte said in an email to me. “Like back in high school, trading and duping tapes with new and old friends. Mdou Moctar has a brilliant song on that compilation. My attention was held, and I began to really fall in love with the label’s output.”

Omonte’s interest in Moctar spiked with Moctar’s 2014 release, Anar. “My wife is always teasing me that if I see a band I like, I want to talk to them,” Omonte said in the interview. Moctar was no different, even if he was an ocean away. Moctar taught himself to play guitar on a homemade instrument. Travel across North Africa working odd jobs gave him a chance to meet his own guitar heroes, and he became a local celebrity himself thanks to his unusual style, rooted in the Tuareg musical tradition but employing plenty of modern techniques and technology to make a sound not quite like anyone else.

“About once a season, or sometimes timed with their releases, I would contact Sahel Sounds and inquire about Mdou Moctar ... any chance of touring?” Omonte wrote.

Not yet. Getting a visa to tour officially in the U.S. was not easy. But Moctar did manage to visit last year, and video surfaced on YouTube of Moctar giving an informal performance in someone’s kitchen in Portland, Ore. “Out of envy, and trying to be silly, I sent Sahel Sounds an email with the subject heading ‘A List Of Our Demands’ and outlined the basic demands of the good people in New Haven: We Want Mdou Moctar.”

Sahel wrote back. It turned out Moctar was setting up an official U.S. tour in 2017. He would be in Minnesota on Sept. 23 and Beacon, N.Y. on Sept. 30. “I’m filling a gap,” Omonte said.

So Omonte booked Lyric Hall, and got the Mountain Movers (with whom he plays bass) to open the show. Omonte described the show as years in the making. You might even say decades.

Mdou Moctar (with the Mountain Movers and DJ Jahoctopus) plays Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave., on Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 at the door. Click here for more information.

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posted by: Paul Wessel on September 22, 2017  8:44am

This is a wonderful story on so many levels.