Profile: ON THE OFF BEAT
15 musicians playing instruments can create a cacophony, yet the layered music of Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra creates harmony while teaching love and acceptance.
It’s Sunday night on a quiet street west of downtown Phoenix. Rain trickles down, leftovers of the monsoon season. A few band members huddle around on a small slab of concrete, the only part of the backyard sheltered from the drizzle. They share the space with a few plastic chairs and a barbecue grill and stand around plucking indiscriminately on guitars, smoking cigarettes and drinking Goose Island Brewery beer. They are waiting for the rest of the band to arrive, or at least most of the rest of them. With a 15-piece group, practice can be a challenge.
In the practice room, a spare bedroom turned studio, someone on horns plays a military bugle call. Other members warm up by running through scales, drinking tequila or beer or a combination of the two.
Even without the band members in the practice space, the room is packed. Speakers, nearly four feet tall stand in the corners of the room, electrical cords, guitar cables and microphone wires snake over the floor. The doors to a shallow closet have been removed to make room for the recording equipment, hard drive and computer monitor. Above the black keyboard pushed up against the wall hangs a green chalkboard. Written on the chalk board in messy, all capital letters is “PAO FIGHTS 4 …” The phrase is cut off, lost. It has been smudged over, halfheartedly erased and written over with a chord progression “ACDF.”
PAO stands for Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra. The sloppy phrase on the chalkboard perfectly encapsulates what the band represents. What they fight for may be part blurry, part transient, but their message is wholly a motivating element for the band. But ever present is the music.
“If you play Afrobeat there is almost a responsibility to share a message,” said David Marquez, the drummer and brainchild of PAO. “Ultimately, it’s about activism and movement.”
Marquez attempted to create an Afrobeat band on multiple occasions, but the group never materialized. Then, about a year and a half ago, PAO in its current iteration began to take shape. It has grown to include 15 members, each with his or her own career and other bands, representing part of at least 30 others ranging in genres from the pop-soul sounds of Samuel L Cool J, the electronic ambient music of Yojimbo Billions to Playboy Manbaby’s rough ska punk.
They support no specific causes, but rather rally for equality and human rights. One song, titled “Go in, Get out” talks about the objectification of women as sexual objects and how women lose their innocence too quickly in a world where they are not equipped or properly educated or prepared for, said vocalist Camille Sledge.
The lyrics go like this: “When she go in, no, she no worry ’bout me, but when she get out, she become a woman.”
Camille said the music provides an avenue to talk about the issues that no one wants to talk about.
“Afrobeat has always been on a downturned political vibe,” she said. “We talk about things that affect us, our generation.”
“We band together and fight for the rights of people,” David said.
Once most of the band shows up, they congregate in the small room with little to no space to move. The proximity of bodies and movement heats up the room as members begin to move and vibe with the music.
A single overhead fan works hard to circulate the air, casting a barely noticeable breeze on the members below. The room is poorly lit with the fan’s three bulbs. One of which is dead, another has been replaced with a green bulb and the third casts white incandescent light on the group.
“Everybody is playing an individual part that fits together,” David said. “It takes care and finesse to get that.” The phrasing of the instruments must be in synch and the sounds must interlock, he said.
Erik Ryden, who plays bass put it simply, “You pick a rhythm, you pick a beat and you don’t stray.”
Ryden said PAO saved his life. Its positivity and uplifting nature rekindled his love for music and punk. Before, he played in a death metal band and a progressive rock band.
“It puts you in the right frame of mind, I think,” he said.
Afrobeat is both a musical genre and a movement. It gained in popularity in the 1970s as a combination of traditional African music and American jazz and funk. The resulting sound is powerful and movement inducing. It is marked by repetitive drumming and cut with sharp horn solos and chanting vocals.
Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician, songwriter and bandleader gave the genre its name during political unrest and corruption in his native country
It’s the beat and rhythm that provides the body for the music, opposed to most vocal-based modern music. A PAO song may go on for minutes before a single word is uttered.
When vocals are used, PAO embraces uncommon sounds that are rarely heard in modern music.
In the song “Go in, Get out,” Camille lets out short staccato bursts of sound between verses that are almost bird-like and piercing. She calls them “yoops” and are common in traditional African music. The yelping is a way of “giving thanks and praise to our ancestors,” she said.
In college, she performed with a traditional African dance troupe, where she first encountered yooping.
“They’re healthy,” she said. “Someone is letting out their artistry, someone can connect with you more … people relate to that.”
In modern, American music, think about when James Brown lets out a primal yell or Michael Jackson’s famous scream.
When the music crescendos with all the layered, built-up sounds, screaming, or yooping, is a logical response to release the immense pent-up energy.
Monosyllabic words and phrases are also strung together, like in the start of “Go In, Get Out” where the lead and backup vocalists all chant, “ay ya ya ai yay/ ay ya ya ai yo” together.
On stage, the band is a commanding force. The singers sway in unison and the horn quartet hits all their notes in unison. They make up everything that an orchestra should: strong as individuals, yet selfless in allowing the band to speak as a whole.
PAO’s ultimate goal is to get people moving.
“When you move, you’re listening with more than your head,” said keyboardist Zach Vogt,said. “It’s a universal language.”
When the band performs, children will often congregate near the front of the stage. They move effortlessly with no hierarchy or care.
“They get it,” Erik said. “It’s such a fundamental music thing.”
Describing the music on a structural level makes things complicated. On paper, PAO has four vocalists, two guitarists, one bassist, two trumpeters, two saxophonists, one keyboardist and four percussionists between the congas, shekeres, drums and other block and cowbell-type instruments, but other players join in from time to time.
“It’s basically big band, in a sense. That’s how I explained it to my parents,” Erik said. “African big band, to a degree.”
To many of the band members, music is engrained in their character. Camille grew up with music around her. Her mother was one of the three members of the band Sister Sledge, a disco and blues band that peaked in popularity with the song “We Are Family.”
She has lead bands, sang as a backup singer and worked on solo projects.
“It’s a part of my soul. It’s a part of who I am,” Camille said. “We’ve always had that in our family, just a big musical family.”
Camille is a commanding force behind the microphone. Her long, tight braids reach past the middle of her back. To this practice, she wears bold African-style prints, black tights and oxford shoes.
She is a mother, pregnant with her second child, works at a call center for Macy’s and is a coordinator for fashion shows.
As practice goes on, band members inject their opinion freely.
“It starts on a ‘one’ again.”
“Hit that fucking first note strong. That should punch people in the face.”
The music PAO is creating is in turn affecting the members’ other bands, David said, but they’re still working at finding and honing their collective sound as PAO.
David is brawny looking, of Hispanic heritage, wears a short beard and thick black-rimmed glasses. He talks with a wide historical knowledge of music, the Afrobeat movement and the various artists that formed it. When he gets on a roll, he becomes animated, using his hands for emphasis and correcting or adding detail to a sentence before it is completed. He has played music for nearly 30 years, since he was 10.
He nine-to-fives as a senior engineering technician for City of Phoenix water services, but it’s clear that his passion is capturing the zeitgeist of the Afrobeat movement and giving it a modern spin.
Around the time of SB1070, David said he felt very fired up and motivated to express his views about the movement. To him, music was the medium, and Afrobeat the genre.
“When people are discriminated against, it can happen to anyone,” he said. “That message is what Afrobeat is about.”
Fela Kuti combated corruption and spread the stories of atrocities in his village through music.
They can’t force an idea onto someone, but “what we can do is we can make people dance and we can give them a message,” David said.