A Soulful Heartbeat of Rhythm: Interview with Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra

Interview with:  Camille Sledge (Singer/Front Woman), Aldy Montufar (Trumpet/Musical Director) , and Zach Vogt (Keyboards)
By: Song River

When I approached Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra (PAO) about doing an interview I had a feeling it would take on a collective conversation. PAO is more than just a group of people, and more than just a band. PAO is a force of music passion that is a whole body and soul experience. I had the honor of speaking with three of PAO's force today about their passion.

Song River:  Time began with a rhythm or a melody?

Aldy: Wow, didn’t know we we’re going to start with such a tough question.  That’s like the chicken or the egg conundrum. I’m going to go with rhythm.  I can see cavemen hitting sticks or rocks to a beat.

Zach: Time is rhythm, literally the distance between any two events is a rhythm. All melody is contextual and socialized, but rhythm exists outside of the human imagination. Melody requires rhythm to provide context and meaning, a note by itself is not a melody. The stars will still pulse with light and the seasons would still change without us here to measure them. Expect a book from me someday, I've tried to parse the iconic philosophy of this exact question for the last 15 years.

Camille:  As a singer, rhythm is everything to me, but melodies and song are where time began. :-) A lullaby, a bird's song, water flowing these are all melody.

SR: When was PAO founded, and why? 

Zach: David Marquez started this whole narrative a few years ago, spending a few years of jamming and false starts before he got a serious group of people thinking realistically about Afrobeat.

SR: Where does the heartbeat for PAO come from?

Camille: I think the heartbeat of PAO is there because we are all so different yet have the same vision, we thrive together for a common cause and sound and groove.

SR: How did all the members come together and is there a process which is required for entering the circle of PAO?

Zach: Early on, after Marquez had a sizable group together, we spent a fair amount of time having discussions about music, politics, philosophy; seeing what core values we share and how our personal agendas line up with the spirit of Afrobeat as defined by Fela and Tony. At that point it's about developing musical habits that honor the music and seeing how new additions fit into that, both musically and ideologically. We've built ourselves slowly and methodically, to the point where there is now a foundational PAO identity which is  beyond the influence of any individual change to the lineup.

SR: When it comes to creating a new song, how does the effort work? Is it a collaboration and what part does each person bring?

Aldy:  It really depends on the piece, but for the most part it is a collaboration.  Sometimes a certain member will spark an idea and we build on it.  Other times a member can come with something more fully composed and everyone can add a little spice.  Or we all just hang out in our rehearsal space and jam out a gem.

SR: Where do you draw your sound from? What are your influences?

Aldy: Fela Kuti and Tony Allen are the fathers of Afrobeat music.  So they definitely play a role in what we create.  Jazz and improvisation is also a defining character of our music, so we admire  musicians like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra.  Also, musicians that play the type of music we play today like Antibalas and  The Daktaris.

SR: How much does the past, present and future merge itself into the group as a whole?

Zach: Because Afrobeat is such a unique fusion of African and Black American music it demands an active engagement with history, be it musical, political or social. To play Afrobeat without understanding how it related to Fela social and political reality would be parody or, at best, mere mimicry. That the same conditions exist today, both in Nigeria and elsewhere, demands that we engage with the social realities of the present. Lyrically Afrobeat is a descriptive genre, able to highlight issues and present them in a focused manner. The model for the future comes from improvisation, interpretation and group interaction, as it is in group improvisation that you find humans interacting honestly and collectively in the moment towards a unified goal.


SR: Performing seems to be your most comfortable place to be. It as if all the lights come on and a unification of souls takes place. Describe the magic from your point of view.

Aldy:  We all love what we do as musicians and as members of our community.  On stage performing and projecting our message is where we want to be.  The magic comes when our audience is feeling what we are putting out there.  We feed off of each other to create this inexplicable feeling which can only happen when we are one.

Zach: There is no point to a funky beat if there is no one dancing. This is a social music. The level of improvisation in our music guarantees that no performance is ever the same.

Camille: Performing is also more of where our music comes to life. We make a funky groove and SEE them dance to it, we give a real and sincere message and watch them UNDERSTAND it.  It's not as powerful if there is no audience to build with us in our music.


SR: The words vibrant colour come to mind when listening and watching you perform.  I'm presenting you with a box of crayons what colors are most important to you and why?

Zach: Great art creates dynamic experiences. I bet you'll find that food tastes better when you're listening to us as well.

Camille: There are so many feelings and emotions that portray color. I could never really give just one color to any of my feelings, they are so vast. I do feel that sound has color as well, and when you change the sound with your own improv and light, you change these colors as well. They are ever-changing.

SR: With the advent of download 'streaming' at .99 cents a song, has it affected the dynamics of how you as a group create, produce and sell your music?

Zach: Yes and no. The Internet has changed how music moves through culture, but in reality there was never an economic system in place to create an industry around this music in the first place. What we used to call Artistic Identity we now call branding. Luckily, with 16 people, there are a few with some business and marketing savvy.

Aldy:  I don’t tend to think about it when writing or producing our music.  I try to focus on creating music that we are proud of and stimulates us as musicians and music lovers.

SR: Reading your lyrics over again. Each song carries a message with it.  What is it about music that brings the message out?

Aldy: Our music is the vehicle for our message.  Keeping it funky and interesting is what makes it consumable for the listener.

Zach: That inspiration comes from the political awareness of figures like Fela, Nina Simone and John Coltrane, all of whom directly addressed the issues of their time. If you don't honor that legacy then you can't play the music, simple as that. Dishonest art is for politicians and commercials.

Camille: I fully agree with Zach, we are not afraid or feel threatened into a mild, or ineffective music message.

SR: Which songs carry the most relevance to who you are and your story?

Zach: Each song has its own function, but as of now “Come with Us” is the most overt distillation of our agenda.

Camille: We also have some very powerful new material we are working on, very directly related to our country's current state of protest and discontent.


SR: What have been some of the important lessons you have learned as you've been a part of PAO since its inception?

Zach: Becoming a better artist requires becoming a better person, true democracy takes work and time, and the people of Arizona are desperate to dance.

Aldy: Ha, totally! With so many of us, communication is key.  It takes a village, and we have one.

Camille: I’ve learned that IT CAN BE DONE! Against all odds, we are fully able to have a collective of like-minded people that have a common goal. The revolution has begun.

SR:  2016 is unfolding... where are you going as a group?

Aldy: To know where you’re going you have to realize from where you’ve come. 2015 has been a great year for PAO!  We have reached more ears, hearts, and minds than ever before.  We have also been lucky enough to share the stage with some of our favorite artists like The Roots, George Clinton, and Ozomatli and so many more.
That being said we are still a relatively young band with me being one of it’s newest members, so I’m stoked to see all we have done in a short period of time.  It shows that our hard work is justified and people are into what we are doing.  As the musical director I will keep us on this path and am looking forward to writing more music and sharing it with the masses
In 2016, PAO will release its first full length album!  We are looking at an early spring release.  We are excited to say that it will be released on vinyl and of course have digital mediums for download.  It was recorded live to tape with all 15 of us playing together.  No computers were on during the entire recording process to try and capture the real and organic sound that Afrobeat is.  It is our goal to spread the message of love, unity, collaboration, and celebration.

Zach: Since we're already deep into a second album’s worth of tunes, chances are we might have two LPs out or ready to release by this time next year. Create. Collaborate. Celebrate.


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