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 earthentextures 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 Canyon, 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.

Niño began recording music when he was a teenager. Over the decades, as he became more confident in himself as a musician and performer, his circle of collaborators expanded.Credit…Adali Schell for The New York Times

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.”

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