Home Music Carlos Niño, the Spiritual Force Behind L.A.’s Eclectic Music Scene

Carlos Niño, the Spiritual Force Behind L.A.’s Eclectic Music Scene

Carlos Niño, the Spiritual Force Behind L.A.’s Eclectic Music Scene

During concerts, Carlos Niño may set up a bass drum and a floor tom, but his percussion is far from conventional. Uninterested in maintaining a steady beat, he creates shimmering atmospheres and earthen textures with the many bells, shells, rain sticks or rattles he totes in a big black roller bag. He surrounds himself with cymbals and gongs. He shakes desiccated palm fronds. Wind chimes are involved.

A fixture in the Los Angeles music world for nearly 30 years, Niño has become a key practitioner of what he calls “spiritual, improvisational, space collage music.” (The genre it’s probably most related to is spiritual jazz.) He’s a beacon of energy and knowledge who can get in touch with the city’s transformative saxophonists and give you the name of a master acupuncturist. He’s also prolific, with seven releases from various projects arriving over the past eight months alone. His latest, “Placenta,” is due on May 24.

On a recent afternoon at Endless Color, a cafe and record store near Niño’s home in Topanga, Calif., he was effusive and enthusiastic, recommending both menu items and vinyl. A multicolored knit cap sat atop his wavy brown hair. Wisps of gray ran through the bushy beard radiating from his face.

Along with being an instrumentalist and a producer, Niño, 47, has been a beatmaker, a D.J. on both terrestrial and online radio, a record collector and a venue programmer. But most of all, he is a listener. “There’s a lot of times where there’s literally no music playing in my life, but I still feel the current of sound,” he said. “I’m in the stream, essentially. I’m not really ever not in the stream, which is kind of awesome.”

Nate Mercereau, a guitarist who has become one of Niño’s frequent collaborators, said listening is a crucial part of their dynamic, but it’s far from a passive experience. “It’s listening to yourself and letting that be part of the communication,” he said. “It’s not just a receiving thing, it’s like waves within waves towards each other and within.”

The influence of Niño’s approach is beginning to be felt outside of his fairly niche creative pocket. He was essential to the making of “New Blue Sun” (2023), the unexpected first solo record from André 3000, based around flutes. Niño produced the album with André and co-wrote the music. He also assembled the other musicians who appear on it and perform at the live shows.

“It’s a true collective, and that’s what I really dig about what we’re doing, and when I met Carlos, he put that in front of me,” André said in a phone interview. “And even more than that, I always like to meet people that are crazier than me. People that say ideas and it’s like, ‘Oh hell yeah. Let’s go.’”

Born in Santa Monica and raised in the San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Reseda and Canoga Park during the ’80s and early ’90s, Niño had the era-typical experiences of getting into break dancing and spending lots of time at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, the mall used during the filming of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Before he entered his teens, his older cousin began opening up his world. Ernesto Potdevin, a painter, took him to concerts and clubs in parts of Los Angeles that Niño couldn’t get to on his skateboard and exposed him to the boundless jazz of artists like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “I might’ve listened to ‘Giant Steps’ and INXS in the same day,” Niño recalled. “I might’ve listened to Run-DMC and the Fat Boys, and then listened to ‘Heavy Weather’ by Weather Report.”

While in high school, he got a job at Reseda’s public library, where he studied up on the musicians he loved and spent most of his paycheck on old records. He recognized the improvisation-based connection between his jazz heroes and emerging rap virtuosos like Freestyle Fellowship. He started making crude mixes of songs he recorded off the radio, and at 18 he began his own show at the North Hollywood station KPFK and kept it going for two decades. In his early 20s, he was one of the founding D.J.s at Dublab, the pioneering streaming station.

Niño began recording music when he was a teenager, initially using a four-track recorder with three functional tracks. Over the decades, as he became more confident as a musician and performer, his circle of collaborators expanded to include the South African composer Thandi Ntuli and the multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. It also swept up elder mentors like the jazz percussionist Adam Rudolph, the ambient architect Laraaji, and Iasos, the foundational new age artist who died earlier this year.

Since 2011, many of his albums have been credited to Carlos Niño & Friends, an apt name for his feelings-based approach. “If I’d invite them over to my house, I probably would make a record with them,” Niño said.

Mercereau said artists are drawn to Niño’s vibe: “He brings a lot of enthusiasm. He brings a lot of actual connection. He brings a lot of support. He opens people up.”

At first, Niño didn’t know if André 3000 would be one of those people. He’d heard the Outkast rapper had moved to Venice, Calif., and had seen videos on social media of him playing his flute alone as he walked the city’s streets. “I was like, oh, he’s journeying, he’s on a quest,” Niño remembered. “He’s getting to something that’s really deep and inspiring for him, and it felt resonant with me.”

Niño decided that if they were meant to meet, it would happen naturally. And then it did, at an Erewhon grocery store. Niño introduced himself and invited André to an Alice Coltrane tribute that he and the keyboardist Surya Botofasina had put together. André coincidentally had been listening to Coltrane’s music on repeat for the past week. Soon he was in Niño’s garage with his flutes, and their sessions developed into “New Blue Sun.”

“It felt like discovery, it felt new to me,” André said. “That’s really what I gravitate towards. No matter what it was, it was honest.” He plans to release more of the music they’ve recorded in the near future.

“Placenta,” the latest LP in the Carlos Niño & Friends collection, offers a different perspective on parenthood. Niño was inspired by the recent arrival of his son Moss as well as his feelings when his first child, Azul, was born 24 years earlier. But instead of centering his own experience, Niño wanted “Placenta” to celebrate and support his partner, Annelise, as well as all the doulas, midwives and birth workers who help bring life into this world.

“There was just so much closeness and intimacy and sound and feeling,” Niño said of the time period after Moss’s arrival, “and so much connection with the people that were involved.”

The album, like the early months of parenthood, can be both serene and overwhelming. “Moonlight Watsu in Dub” finds an easy rhythm among echoey clatter and nature sounds, while “Generous Pelvis” soars over Sam Gendel’s swirling saxophone. The 17-minute closer “Play Kerri Chandler’s RAIN” — built off a live performance by Niño, Mercereau and Botofasina in Köln, Germany, with the vocalist Cavana Lee — twists with anticipation and uncertainty before reaching a safe landing place.

“This is also a tribute to the majesty of how we get here — you have to be inside and you have to emerge somehow,” Niño said. “In that process there’s always a placenta.”

To Niño, making music is a spiritual practice, one that he considers his calling and gladly accepts. “I’m interested in actually communing and trying to find the common ground so we can reduce the massive amounts of suffering that happen when people are so hyper-greedy and hypercompetitive and hyper-violent with each other,” he said, the words quickly tumbling out of his mouth. “I’m really interested in representing something else.”

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