Future Man meets master kalimba player

Staff reports, Black Mountain News

Kalimba virtuoso Kevin Spears and Roy “Future Man” Wooten, two brilliant explorers of danceable percussive electronica, team up for an uplifting show at White Horse Black Mountain on Saturday, Jan. 28.

In Kevin Spears' hands, the  kalimba sounds like a bass, electric guitar, a horn section, electric piano and various percussion instruments.

In Spears' hands, the kalimba - an ancient African thumb piano - journeys through an electronic landscape to emerge as a powerful voice for both tradition and innovation. The basic idea is simple: a row of springy, tuned metal strips fastened to a wooden sound box are plucked with the thumbs, producing an almost xylophone-like tone. But Spears’ virtuosic technique and wide-ranging musical vision are anything but simple.

Spears first spotted the kalimba in 1974 in a photo of the late Maurice White on an Earth, Wind and Fire album cover, and it soon became the focus of his life. As his gigs moved into larger venues, the use of a pickup for amplification became a must. The introduction of electronic timbres and effects mushroomed, becoming a signature component of Spears’ compositions. His kalimba pieces include composed and improvisational elements, with rhythmic, bass and chordal loops layered to create a platform for soloing. Digital magic makes the kalimba sound like a bass, electric guitar, a horn section, electric piano and various percussion instruments, transforming Spears into a one-man orchestra.

While it’s important to Spears to honor the African roots of his chosen instrument, his penchant for pushing the envelope has earned comparisons to innovators like Herbie Hancock, Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul and Charlie Parker. Guiding all Spears’ diverse musical adventures is a freeing mantra he learned long ago: ”There are no rules, just good taste." 

Roy "Future Man" Wooten taps out intricate drum patterns on his Synthaxe Drumitar.

Five-time Grammy winner Roy “Future Man” Wooten is best known for his iconic work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, playing alongside the trailblazing banjoist, muti-instrumentalist Howard Levy and older brother Victor Wooten, a virtuoso bass player. Stalking the stage decked out like a high-tech pirate, he taps out intricate drum patterns on his Synthaxe Drumitar. The dizzying array of buttons on his instrument, which resembles an alien guitar, allows him to trigger sounds from a synthesizer module that can range from standard drum kit timbres to world percussion and regions where no sound has gone before. He’s essentially able to use each finger as a separate drumstick, enabling him to conjure up elaborate polyrhythms in real time.

In addition to performing and composing, Future Man, also known as "RoyEl" or "Futche" to his many fans, is also an inventor. His current project is “The RoyEl,” a piano-shaped instrument with keys laid out to resemble the periodic table of the elements. “More and more,” he said, "I see the the piano like a drum set and the drum set like a piano.” His restless aesthetic has recently produced a symphonic  work, "Chevalier: II Play & II Fight, with The Black Mozart Ensemble." 

True musical visionaries, Spears and Future Man are sometimes considered part of the "Afrofuturist" movement, which incorporates fantasy, technological and science-fiction elements in creating an Afrocentric narrative for interpreting the past, present and future. Their White Horse show is a rare opportunity to see two wildly creative musical pathfinders on the same stage.

Back to the Afrofuture

Who: Kevin Spears and Roy “Future Man” Wooten 

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 28

Where: White Horse Black Mountain

Cost: $10 advance, $12 door