ATOMGA: Afrobeat With a Colorado Twist

Ryan Fitzgerald
People are drawn to Afrobeat music for two reasons, says saxophone player Leah Concialdi of the band ATOMGA: They are familiar with genre pioneer Fela Kuti and they enjoy Afrobeat's layered, energetic sound.

ATOMGA formed in 2011 and comprises ten members who put their own twist on the genre, which Concialdi describes as an “inclusive style of music that fights oppression, strives for equality and fights against corporate greed.” The band incorporates those themes into its lyrics while adding upbeat, dynamic horn lines and percussion to create a dance party for the audience.

Westword sat down with Concialdi, guitarist Casey Hrdlicka and saxophone player Frank Roddy to discuss their spin on the genre, the band's newest EP, AGA, and how communication is vital when performing with such a large outfit.

Westword: What about Afrobeat do you enjoy and hope to emulate?

Frank Roddy: It seems to me that in modern Afrobeat bands, no matter where they’re from, they always take what Fela Kuti started and put their own twist on it. A lot of times bands will be more Afro-Cuban, Latin jazz and more funky sometimes. … I feel like we have incorporated a lot of those different elements in our sound. I also think that we’ve gone in a direction that I haven’t really heard in the Afrobeat community that much. … Sometimes it comes out in the horn lines; they kind of have a hip-hop approach to them.

What does that sound like?

Roddy: It’s aggressive, bouncy, and some of the horn lines are pointed. It’s not like we’re directly lifting from hip-hop, but we are using that as an influence. Again, not in all our songs.

Leah Concialdi:
The rhythm section will put that feel behind it and have a heavier lean in certain parts.

I also feel like with so many people, it seems that with all the different polyrhythms, each instrument’s part has to work mathematically. It has to work mathematically independently, and then how each of the parts fits together for the whole band has to work collectively and mathematically. Not that we have to know math, but all the different polyrhythms have to click together to make it work.

Filling in each other’s spaces…

Or leaving space for something else to happen or for nothing to happen.

My personal favorite way to write and the way I like to develop some of the horn lines [Frank was] talking about is listening to if the rhythm section has a solid foundation, the percussion is on point, and Casey and our bass player, Sam, have their parts intact. I re-record a lot of stuff in our rehearsals and performances, then listening to that and then writing horn lines for that. … We all have different writing styles and develop a song collectively. That’s one of my favorite things about the band.

Casey Hrdlicka:
From a rhythmic standpoint, it’s very hypnotic, but something that we’ll do at times is key changes in a song while still kind of holding that hypnotic groove, or mode changes where we stay to the same root note but change the mood of the song.

click to enlarge ATOMGA - COURTESY OF ATOMGA
Courtesy of ATOMGA
How would you describe the band’s evolution, and how is that reflected in the new EP?

Roddy: I feel like in the very beginning, either none of us or few of us had played Afrobeat at all. So the first few songs, it was almost like we were trying to figure out how to write in the genre of Afrobeat. As we learned from each other, grew as a band and got stronger as a unit, I think our writing styles, since we understood more how to write polyrhythmic, Afrobeat type of structures, I think it naturally evolved in some ways into more complex songs and even a more simplistic way to look at some of those rhythms. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the current lineup. It’s kind of new to us; they just came in the band. But I feel like there’s going to be some exciting stuff coming out. It feels like we’re hitting the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing with some of the new members of ATOMGA.

We have a new drummer J.R. Ranck, a new singer, Calyptic, and we added a second percussionist, Matt Schooley. All three of them are musicians at their highest echelon. So I think that has kind of given everyone a bit of a boost in morale. Having new, fresh blood in the band to —

— to leech off of [all laugh].

I feel like they really helped give the four songs on the EP new life. All four of those songs were a very collective effort. I think every single one was developed by multiple people in the band or evolved quite a bit. On our previous albums, there are songs where one or two people might have primarily written them. ... I think [this EP] happened really organically, and the new members in the group helped a lot. We haven’t had a second percussionist in a while, and he also plays guitar, too. So he’s a really valuable asset to have moving forward and builds out the sound and helps it feel more true to Afrobeat. Because Afrobeat bands usually have multiple percussionists and two guitars.

Soundwise, how is this EP different from your previous projects?

Hrdlicka: Personally on my instrument, I’m constantly trying to improve on my craft. I think all of us are. So there is a lot more wisdom and knowledge musically than our previous albums that were from a couple years ago. Also, I think a lot more freedom in what we’re trying to do. We’ll throw in some Eastern Mediterranean scales and some heavy-metal-esque sounding stuff. Not being afraid to kind of stretch it out musically, whereas in the past, maybe we were trying to go for more of a refined sound.

For performance, I feel like working with nine people beyond yourselves individually is a really unique experience. What have you learned from that?

Roddy: Personally, I’ve learned to really pay attention to what the other musicians on stage are doing, and feeding off of their energy, as we’re also reciprocal with the audience and feeding off of their energy as well. In doing that, we can cue changes or go in a different direction from an improv standpoint that we might not have been planning. But because everyone is paying attention to each other, [maintaining] eye contact and really listening to what each other is doing, we can explore right on stage.

I think it’s the utmost communication skills anyone can ever experience. You have so many other people to look at and listen to. Honor their space and have them honor yours. There are ten people who get their different moments to shine and different textures. So if you’re not paying attention and honoring the big collective, it takes away from that. From an audience perspective, the ten people gives them something to visually pay attention to. There are ten musicians banging or blowing into different things, so people can’t help but dance, move and feed off of us having fun.

I think Afrobeat in general is a lot more accessible to the average listener. Styles like jazz, for instance, [have a] very complex harmonic structure. If you don’t know what you’re listening for, sometimes it’s hard to follow. Where from an audience perspective, it looks like a scene from a movie where everyone is on the dance floor dancing, except it’s on stage because there are so many of us on there. [The audience thinks], “Oh, those guys are having fun, so I’ll have some fun, too.” We try to bring as much musicality as we can, but when it comes down to it, everything is just a good, fun time.

ATOMGA, 9 p.m. Saturday, March 31, Oskar Blues, 921 Pearl Street, Boulder, 720-645-1749.