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Right before local World Beat ensemble Bottomland got set to take the stage at the 12th annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival in Annapolis last weekend, percussionist Anderson Allen quietly explained that trumpeter Clifton Brockington had gotten sick the previous day and wouldn’t be performing. The band’s spirited lead singer, Amikaeyla Gaston, was also MIA, somewhere in London performing at a folk festival.

“We’re shrinking,” Allen said with a wistful shrug before returning to the task of setting up the nine-member band’s equipment. Vocalist and flutist Wendy Lanxner would take over lead vocals. Ten-year-old Irena Tovar, the daughter of close friends who often sits in on rehearsals, would sing Lanxner’s parts.

“The Creator sits in with us every once in a while, too,” percussionist Saleem Wayne Waters added.

For all the bad luck that day the short, outdoor set went well. Afterward, when the band members loaded up their equipment, a heavy partition almost fell on bassist Franz Kellner, but the long electric bass strapped to his back blocked it from hitting him in the head. At times, it does seem as if this band has its own guardian angel standing by.

Bottomland started two years ago, as the dream—literally—of songwriter-pianist Matt Jones. “I basically woke up one morning with this crystal-clear vision of this band that would have percussion and original songs and vocal harmony,” says Jones.

He made a compilation tape of the kind of sound he was going

for, everything from Talking Heads to Cassandra Wilson, Donald Fagen, and Sting. He shared it with friends. The resulting band’s sound blends West African percussion, soul vocals, and jazz-inflected melodies.

“I had this sense that the music was going to be uplifting,” says Jones. “I wanted the audience to come away somehow spiritually brighter.”

A positive review in the Washington Post of the band’s debut CD, Feet of Clay, prompted a friend to pitch it to co-workers at NPR.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, check out this great band,’” says Allen. “It was more like, ‘These people are in this basement, and they still manage to pull it off.’”

But the national airplay resulted in e-mails from places as far away as Wichita and Seattle. A man in Mississippi wrote that when he heard the music, he was driving down a beautiful tree-lined

road and it all came together. So far, Bottomland has sold more than a fourth of its CDs via amazon.com and is planning a

second pressing.

“We’re not talking big numbers here,” Allen says. “But from where we’re starting, 250 is a big number.”

“Two-hundred and fifty,” Waters pipes in, “is bigger than zero.”—Holly Bass