Before the Internet, Jim Thomson used to scan the newspaper for musical performances. Years ago, he came across a listing for Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a name he recognized as playing oud (a Middle Eastern lute) on an obscure John Coltrane live album. He wound up seeing Abdul-Malik perform at the Richmond public library for about 10 people.
“I was always looking for something weird or cool that was off the beaten path,” Thomson said. “Not just to be different, but it’s a little more enriching. Maybe they make you feel a little more special.”
It’s all about that search for the extraordinary and the ephemeral for Thomson, who runs the D.C. booking agency Multiflora Productions, vinyl label Electric Cowbell Records and this October’s Flash of the Spirit Worldwide Sound Festival. The festival is a month-long celebration of global music, featuring performers from across the world. And in the D.C. tradition, it’s a do-it-yourself endeavor. “The DIY aesthetic is part of who I am,” Thomson said.
It’s long been that way. Growing up in Front Royal, Va., on an apple orchard, Thomson would make the drive to the District to take in avant-garde bills at long-gone venues like Kilimanjaro Club and the iconic venue d.c. space, which hosted jazz, punk, poetry, film and more from 1977 to 1991.
After years in Richmond and Brooklyn — playing in bands as diverse as instrumental rock act Alter Natives, salsa outfit Bio Ritmo and even metal jokesters Gwar — Thomson moved to Washington and worked as the booker at U Street nightclub Tropicalia. He booked the club like a “global dancehall,” but it failed to make the kind of money ownership expected of a club at the intersection of 14th and U. “I tried to program an Angolan house DJ, and it just didn’t jibe with the vibe,” Thomson joked.
Thomson then struck out on his own, booking at venues across the city under his Multiflora banner. He promotes about 40 events a month, many at Bossa Bistro and Lounge in Adams Morgan, where he manages a calendar heavy with long-running gigs. With his experience, booking several dozen bands from around the world for a month-long festival is daunting, but not impossible. “The festival is the condensation of my weekly hustle,” he said.
It’s also the culmination of his eclectic taste. After calling the festival Multiflora during its inaugural run last year, Thomson chose “Flash of the Spirit” this year. The name is a nod to the landmark book by Robert Farris Thompson, which examined the African art, music and culture that survived the Atlantic slave trade. “I carry that book around with me,” Thomson said. He called it a “testament to endurance” and compared it to the music he’s drawn to — the kind he said is at risk of disappearing, too.
His thirst for music that communes with “anything that’s ancient” is evident across the Flash of the Spirit schedule. The festival promises folk music from China (Zhou Family Band) and Ukraine (Kurbasy); guitar from Mali (Mamadou Kelly); 14th-century Sufi music (Falsa); ancestral music from Colombia (La Marvela) and Cuba (Septeto Santiaguero); and the classical music of Aleppo (Takht Al-Nagham), the city ravished by the Syrian civil war, to name just a few.
And the festival isn’t just about international acts: It also draws from Washington’s rich immigrant communities and features local acts that also celebrate the music of their homelands, like Ethio-jazz combo Feedel Band and cumbia group La Colombopercutiva. Supporting the local scene is a central focus for Thomson, who bemoans the lack of venues and support for those types of bands.
For comparison, one of Thomson’s inspirations was the World Music Festival Chicago, which bills itself as the largest and longest-running festival of international music in the United States and is presented and supported by the city. “I’m starting [Flash of the Spirit] DIY, but hoping to get support from the city” once the festival is more established, he explained.
The key will be bringing out Washington’s over-scheduled audiences. Flash of the Spirit doesn’t offer mainstream names or high-end experiences, but it does offer something much more unique.
“It’s really humbling when you see somebody from far away that’s here, and they’re so down to share, and they’re so touched that you’re there caring,” Thomson said. “This hustle can be really exhausting, but I get a hit of that and it does make it worthwhile.”
Tuesday-Oct. 31. Various venues. Prices vary.