Through friendship, turmoil, division and reconciliation, Cincinnati duo Me or the Moon have been creating their unusual brand of "rhythmic storytelling" for the past few years. I sat down recently with Matthew Shelton (vocals, kalimba, mbira) and Victor Strunk (bass, vocals) to ask them just what a kalimba is, and just what it is that Me or the Moon are all about. Like many projects, Me or the Moon started with a longtime friendship. But this project's journey was hardly smooth.
"About three or four years ago I was living in Portland, and I baited Matt out there with the promise of coming up with this incredible band. I got him to move from Cincinnati, and that was the birthplace of Me or the Moon," Strunk tells me. "But then due to some unforeseen road obstacles in both our lives, Me or the Moon went on a pretty intense hiatus."
"We didn't speak," Shelton interjects.
"We almost hated each other," Strunk admits.
"Almost?" Shelton says, incredulously. The pair chuckle about the split now.
After "almost hating" each other for over a year, they reconciled and returned to Cincinnati, and began playing music together again. Me or the Moon played its first official show in December 2001.
If you have yet to catch one of their shows, you should. Shelton's poetic lyrics, the impressive and unusual blend of melodic and percussive sounds that come from the kalimba and the expert rhythm provided by Strunk's upright bass make a Me or the Moon show far different than most shows you've seen. Their music draws you into the experience in a truly visceral way.
The songs range from the upbeat and lighthearted to the deep and meditative. Shelton's voice has a rare, soothing resonance, and his lyrics are some of the most graceful and inspired I've heard. The band's name originates in Shelton's poetry and is also the title of one of their loveliest songs.
Their music is arguably some of the most unusual in Cincinnati, possibly even the entire country. "Kalimba is big in the Northwest," Shelton says of the instrument, called the "thumb-piano" in the Western world. "But I haven't heard of anybody writing songs on it. As far as putting it in a Pop format, there's nothing I know of. Earth, Wind & Fire did a song — 'Kalimba Song.' But you can barely hear the kalimba."
Shelton started playing the kalimba (and the similar mbira) several years ago. "My mom bought me (a kalimba), and I had it for a long time, but shortly before I moved to Portland, I was playing it more and more," he tells me. "It's a very healing instrument. It's very meditative."
"It's funny that you said the mbira was a healing thing," Strunk says. "Whatever differences we had, it's such a significant part of our reconciliation, too."
Shelton agrees, adding, "That's the same function it serves in Africa where it's used traditionally. It's for entertainment also, but they hold ceremonies and play it for whatever is ailing the village or the individual. Some of the slower songs are pretty meditative, but we've definitely got a bluesy sort of thing going on."
So what's the difference between an mbira and a kalimba? Shelton explains that the difference isn't physical, but one of intent. "I always call it a 'kalimba' because 'mbira' implies a lot of religious practice that I'm not really a part of. I play an mbira but I don't practice Mbira — Mbira is also a religious belief."
When asked about their ambitions for Me or the Moon, Shelton and Strunk emphasize their goal is to create, not necessarily to profit.
"It'd be nice to make money at it, but it's something based on friendship to begin with, and also hard work at trying to create something new musically," Shelton says.
"I feel like we've already accomplished a whole lot," Strunk says. "I would like to see the music get better, and that's my only agenda."
ME OR THE MOON (mymagnet.no-frills.net/) play two shows on Sunday. From 1-4 p.m., they'll be at the Contemporary Arts Center; later that evening, at 6 p.m., they'll join Len's Lounge at Jack Quinn's in Covington.