Thanks in equal parts to the chart dominance of hip-hop and the universal human urge to shake that thing, funk, once a niche product, today stands tall amid music’s most popular and durable genres. While the first instrument that comes to mind when you think of funk might be an electric bass guitar, those who know how the funk is made might see something else — a Moog synthesizer. Although the road to funk can be traced back all the way to New Orleans, there’s one track — Parliament’s 1977 classic “Flash Light” — that marks that map’s busiest intersection, and “Flash Light” is driven by Bernie Worrell’s irresistible Minimoog bass line.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Worrell conjured a bubbling, springy new musical vocabulary from a host of keyboard instruments, including multiple early analog synthesizers. Thanks to Volt per Octaves, the Santa Barbara–based band that specializes in performing live on these classic analog instruments, there’s a beautiful new EP of original material to celebrate the achievement and commemorate the life of Bernie Worrell. Echoes of Bernie is available now on the group’s YouTube channel.
On a recent visit to their rehearsal studio, a Milpas Street space filled with exotic analog instruments including a theremin, I learned about Nick and Anna Montoya’s connection to Bernie Worrell, and about their unique family life and dedication to all things analog. Shuttling back and forth between Santa Barbara and Asheville, North Carolina, where the original Moog factory is still very much in operation, Nick and Anna raised their daughter, Eva, to play multiple instruments and take part in at least half of the family business — performing live on original analog synthesizer equipment. Eva has gone off to college and now makes music of her own, but the Montoyas continue to perform as a duo and engage in the work that brought them to become close friends with Bernie Worrell, which is the care and repair of vintage synthesizers.
When Worrell became ill in 2016, they had already known and jammed with him for years as employees of Moog. While staying close by his side through a final series of personal appearances, the Montoyas tended to his arsenal of keyboards. As a result, their studio on Milpas street is filled with the stuff of funk history. “This is Bernie’s ARP,” Nick Montoya says to me, gesturing toward a vintage keyboard synthesizer produced by Moog’s chief market rival in the 1970s. “It’s going to the Smithsonian. In 2023, they’re having an afro-futurism exhibition.” When Worrell’s widow auctioned off his keyboard collection after his death, one of his Minimoogs was with the Montoyas for repairs. Despite the high prices coming in for other examples from the same era, she felt that this particular instrument belonged with the couple. “I hadn’t fixed it yet, so he hadn’t gotten it back” Montoya told me, “but when I spoke to Judie [Worrell, Bernie’s widow], she said to fix it and keep it.”
That Minimoog and many more can be heard on the Echoes of Bernie EP, which filters Worrell’s infectious bassline bumps through the Volt per Octaves’ more contemplative, small-group sensibility. For those who yearn to hear the foundations of funk on the instruments that laid them, there’s no better option today. Add to that the fact that the studio is available for recording sessions, and you have the makings of another “One Nation Under a Groove.” Why not get on the good foot now and be the one to make it happen?