Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra Is Finally Releasing an Album After Six Years as a Band

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Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra will finally be able to convey its soulful message off the dance floor.

And it will celebrate with a party, naturally.

Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra is one of the top local bands to seek out if you’re looking to dance, and after six years of existence, the group is finally releasing its first studio album, PAO!. How all that groove will fit on one album remains a mystery. In celebration of the release, PAO will do what it does best and get down with a performance at Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, November 19. Also on the bill are Vox Urbana, Harriet Brown, and Mariachi de Grand Ave.

Founded by David Marquez in 2010, the ensemble now boasts 16 members, fronted by lead vocalist and “leader of rituals” Camille Sledge. She joined in 2013, when the band played its first shows.

“I would definitely call us a tribe,” Sledge says. “We congregate and make music with hands, feet, rhythms, and sounds.”

Afrobeat master Fela Kuti is the band’s main inspiration. Starting in the ’60s, Kuti played with a large band called Africa 70, which later changed names to Egypt 80. Kuti coined the genre Afrobeat, and once he recorded a song, he is said to have never played it again.

“I think we are chasing the quality that was set about by guys like Fela Kuti and Tony Allen when they started Afrobeat music,” Marquez says. 

Beyond sonic inspiration, Kuti’s music also inspired PAO in social ways.

“You can’t do Afrobeat without a protest or human element,” Marquez says.

Sledge agrees.

“We want people to all stand up. It’s not a sit-down thing where you can be idle and just listen to it. This is a serious message that needs action behind it. Maybe you’ll start thinking about what’s going on in the world around you in one way or another,” Sledge says.

With lyrics like, “If you underestimate the power of your soul / They’ll catch you,” Sledge takes a spiritual approach to writing, often encouraged and empowered by the band to make her voice heard.

“I appreciate PAO for keeping me from writing lyrics that are hidden or softer than they need to be,” she says. “I was really affected by the Black Lives [Matter] movement, and I wanted to write a song about it. Something that is happening that is so belligerent needs to be said out loud and straightforward.”

Yet it’s about more than just the lyrics for PAO. The band brings one of the most consistently energetic dance parties wherever it plays, a result of the group’s tightly performed and composed tracks.
From a musical standpoint, the improvisational qualities of the band add high energy to the sound. Creating sounds in the present moment adds a potent power to the live performance, as the band members play off of the crowd and each other. In regard to structure, Marquez says their music is like “a lot of small pieces that fit together and repeat to form a trance.” The repetitive rhythms of Afrobeat keep everyone moving.

PAO hopes its music helps foster positive messages within people, like a seed that grows.

“The message is to love your brother and your sister. It’s that we are all one, and the things that separate us are things that we created, that man created, to bring us apart,” Marquez says. PAO concerts offer this opportunity through a lively musical experience.

“We’re hiding that seed inside an invitation to come dance,” he says.

This message is not exclusively passed on through song lyrics.

“You might not even remember what’s being said, but you’re gonna feel it because the intention is there,” Marquez says.

Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra will play Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, November 19.

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