The 16-headed, 32-armed musical beast known as Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra is throwing a party to celebrate the release of their latest record, Laugh To Keep From Crying.
PAO formed around 2010 but didn’t put out a record until six years later. Tangible product or not, they put that time to good use, playing live shows and working crowds into sweaty frenzies with their blended style.
The group's bassist and founder David Marquez says this sophomore release — out Friday, March 16 — highlights their evolution as a unit.
“The band has definitely changed shape and modified since the beginning,” he says. “We’ve been honing our craft with each other and have had some small personnel movements along the way that have helped strengthen us as a whole."
The Afrobeat style often features lengthy songs that are more like individual sonic journeys that require your trust as you dive in and let the surprises along the way guide you from beginning to end.
“Afrobeat music is music with movement for a movement,” Maruqez says. “[Fela] Kuti fought against the corruption rampant in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1960s and 1970s, and we aim to bring similar light to subjects we may not all have the answers to. We want to start conversations on subjects, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing. We need dialogue to achieve results.”
Kuti and drummer Tony Allen pioneered the Afrobeat style. It merges Ghanaian and Nigerian sounds that result in jazzy, funky songs that incorporate chanty vocals and intricate, driving drumbeats.
When listening to PAO, you may be enraptured by lead singer Camille Sledge and her band of vocalists when a blast of horns calls you to action and shifts your focus to a bass groove or a primitive drum beat.
That’s just what Marquez and company want – for the sound to overtake the listener and for instincts to prevail.
“We hope that people who have never heard this type of music open their ears and minds and just let go and allow the music to let them fall under the trance we create,” he says. "And find that place where they’re moving to the rhythms we make, getting lost to one part or another, whether it’s the poly-rhythms of drums, or conga, or bass, or when a melody shifts them one way or a vocal moves them another way.”
“That instinctual practice of moving in rhythm with other humans is a basic right we have, and I do hope to keep celebrating it together,” he adds.
Not just exemplifying the sounds Kuti and friends developed, PAO also holds up the Afrobeat tradition of creating music with important social messages. As agents for social change, enlightenment is part of the package.
“A long-term goal of ours,” Marquez says, “is that everyone who is listening and coming to shows is hearing our messages and then sharing peace and light with one another.”
Education and food waste reduction are a couple of pressing issues he mentions that they like to shed light on. Their release party at Crescent Ballroom is also a benefit for Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ).
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“Politically, there is a lot to be done for groups like SOSAZ,” Marquez says. “They are standing against the unfairness of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ school voucher system, which hurts many of our financially less fortunate families.”
This party with a purpose not only features PAO showcasing new tunes, but also putting a spotlight on some of their local favorites. Jerusafunk, Vox Urbana, The Stakes, and Djentrification share the stage with the funky orchestra.
“Dance and sing with us,” Marquez says, “It feels good, I promise.”
Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra’s record release party starts at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 16, at The Van Buren. Tickets to the 13-and-over show are $10 in advance; $13 at the door.