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Backstage with: Sokamba

BACKSTAGE WITH: SOKAMBA | SOKAMBA MUSIC on SPOTIFY | LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

What is Sokamba? How long did it take to make this project happen?

The Los Angeles based Sokamba Collective has been facilitating cross-media creation since its inception in 2012. Sokamba is made up of a diverse group of artists including dancers, acrobats, actors, musicians, visual artists, animators, cinematographers, educators and software engineers.

With collaboration and connection at our core, we produce multimedia art shows, educational workshops, and performing arts classes with the mission of fostering community, igniting social-emotional reflection, and creating space for growth, healing, and transformation.

We believe in using thoughtful creation to push boundaries, start conversations, and incite the shifts we hope to see in our social systems, politics, and interactions – utilizing the power of imagination individually and collectively to transform and revive our communities.

The show ‘Petrichor’ was an idea seed dating back to ~2015 – we had finished up our show ‘Thereafter,’ and were looking to take our shows to a new kind of canvas and community space. This led us to collaborate with the Vortex Dome in Los Angeles – an amazing group of individuals! We traded contacts and began planning the ‘how,’ as early as 2016.

How did this vision come to life? Which parts of it were planned and which parts of it just happened by accident?

Between 2016-17 we had a number of USC graduations in our collective so things were a bit busy, but we were able to begin the process of doing a demo show to test out some concepts, with the dome, alongside some one-off shows with the World Art Day organization, and a few performances at LA Artwalk (this is just stuff I was a part of – I know there are more experiences, including a collab with the Summit organization!). 

We were able to become artists-in-residence, with many Sokamba dancers and visual artists contributing efforts to the Dome’s other programming. We finally found the right moment in 2018; around April, after a few months of ‘almosts,’ and some preliminary fundraising rounds, things finally get set in motion! 

We had about 2 months by  to create the entire show from scratch, market it, continue to raise funding, and perform it. Let’s just say there have been months where we got a bit more sleep than that particular spell of time…

Sokamba Black White Image
What is Sokamba? How long did it take to make this project happen?

The Los Angeles based Sokamba Collective has been facilitating cross-media creation since its inception in 2012. Sokamba is made up of a diverse group of artists including dancers, acrobats, actors, musicians, visual artists, animators, cinematographers, educators and software engineers.

With collaboration and connection at our core, we produce multimedia art shows, educational workshops, and performing arts classes with the mission of fostering community, igniting social-emotional reflection, and creating space for growth, healing, and transformation.

We believe in using thoughtful creation to push boundaries, start conversations, and incite the shifts we hope to see in our social systems, politics, and interactions – utilizing the power of imagination individually and collectively to transform and revive our communities.

The show ‘Petrichor’ was an idea seed dating back to ~2015 – we had finished up our show ‘Thereafter,’ and were looking to take our shows to a new kind of canvas and community space. This led us to collaborate with the Vortex Dome in Los Angeles – an amazing group of individuals! We traded contacts and began planning the ‘how,’ as early as 2016.

How did this vision come to life? Which parts of it were planned and which parts of it just happened by accident?

Between 2016-17 we had a number of USC graduations in our collective so things were a bit busy, but we were able to begin the process of doing a demo show to test out some concepts, with the dome, alongside some one-off shows with the World Art Day organization, and a few performances at LA Artwalk (this is just stuff I was a part of – I know there are more experiences, including a collab with the Summit organization!). 

We were able to become artists-in-residence, with many Sokamba dancers and visual artists contributing efforts to the Dome’s other programming. We finally found the right moment in 2018; around April, after a few months of ‘almosts,’ and some preliminary fundraising rounds, things finally get set in motion! 

We had about 2 months by  to create the entire show from scratch, market it, continue to raise funding, and perform it. Let’s just say there have been months where we got a bit more sleep than that particular spell of time…

What were your main challenges in bringing this immersive experience to life?

There was so much we wanted to do – finding our limits was pretty difficult because our dreams are sometimes too big for a budget! 

Interactive animation and dance’s intersection is something we would’ve liked to explore in more detail, alongside having more time for animation, and pre- + post-show activities. There were some talks of sculpture. 

I can’t imagine that Rissi (our director) ever slept. She was coordinating everybody from a directorial standpoint and that is a monumental effort alongside a full time job. Communicating among the music team proved difficult as well – wish we’d had IndieFlow then! Also despite my best efforts, nobody artistic will seemingly ever stay on Slack for more than a week at best. 

I should also shoutout the intention to perform the whole show live, rather than using tracks, and also to mix that live show for spatial audio. That unfortunately was something we ran out of time for, although composer Casey Astorino (better known for her solo project ASTRINA) was absolutely instrumental in helping us translate some of the elements to the live stage.

How did you guys assemble so many people to be a part of this project?

That’s a credit to Rissi, Stevie, and those who built the Sokamba universe from the get-go. Everybody here is such a fire performer that the connections people have created are unreal, and not only that but they’re all people that love to nurture connections as opposed to ‘name-drop.’ USC’s music program also played a role in helping all of us come together, as did the Downtown LA Capoeira center, Downtown Dance, to name a few key places.

The Sokamba experience entitles various art formats. Animation, dance, sound design, and composition being the leading parts. How is a composition born and what happens afterwards? Describe the artistic process of getting to that final result?

While I can’t speak exactly to the process that led Rissi to create the unifying show vision – within that, we had broad categories. Some of the song names were actually simply the names of the original prompt we were given as a jumping off point, including the first few tracks, ‘Union, Seed & Womb, Breath, etc.’ That really helped us, though – a unifying vision.

Sound is the first developed sense, but movement comes naturally to many Sokambas – we initially split up the music composer team into individuals and pairs to each create from a prompt, and there would usually be dialog with the dance choreographer who was paired with the same prompt about the vibe of a piece.

Once a ~V3 was completed musically, dance would begin choreographing. Jamie Lew, the in-house animation genius, did most of the animation at the last step. We generally approach the music like ‘indie rock / electronic music’ – not as ‘film-score music bed,’ and any sound design linked to choreography is included as a sound within a ‘song.’

Many different artists and composers have joined forces to make this thing happen and it also sounds like there’s a lot of artistic freedom throughout the whole album. Did you use some sort of creative guideline to make sure all music pieces stay aligned?

Justin Bell came in to help me out as I was getting swamped trying to both music direct and help out on the interactive tech side, and he ended up saving the day, and he became the co-music director (but basically did all the intelligent organization + helped me ground ideas into reality (love you Justin!)).

Initially it was mostly about the choreographers catching a vibe from the music. Justin or I would help step in to make sure that pieces could flow together – we rearranged the order here and there, created an ‘intensity map’ and an ‘abstract to organic’ spectrum for the music and that helped us maintain a sense of flow across the pieces.

What are the goals for Sokamba down the line? Where do you wish to see yourselves 5 years from today?

I’m going to quote our mission statement first: 

With collaboration and connection at our core, we produce multimedia art shows, educational workshops, and performing arts classes with the mission of fostering community, igniting social-emotional reflection, and creating space for growth, healing, and transformation.

What could this all look like manifested? A Sokamba Center in Los Angeles, where education, free artistic practices, community-building, and performances can take place side by side, alongside a growing worldwide network of collaborators and amazing humans engaging in a beautifully flowing community.

Additionally, I imagine we’d love to keep pushing the boundaries within our individual artistic mediums and embracing new technologies that allow us to further facilitate community, as they come! You’ll also likely see further crossover with environmental and social activism efforts.

We love seeing independent projects like these and wanted to know what are your 3-4 main takeaways from the experience? What tips would you give someone who also tries to do something like this?

Concept is key! Unified concept is key.

Pitch decks and organizational frameworks for these kinds of shows should be developed early, well in advance.

Work with your sponsors to figure out when is best to reach out to them in a way that’s win-win as far as funding.

Don’t try to boil the ocean! Know your limits going in and don’t be afraid to ask hard questions along the way.
Communicate well! Communicate well! Communicate well! Meditate!

Tell us about the Dome experience and how did Covid affect your plans?

Thankfully we were able to perform the show in 2018, but the soundtrack album’s release was significantly delayed by a combination of incorrect metadata translation between myself and our original distributors (this was my first proper music distribution effort for an LP – I recommend starting slightly smaller if the pressure is on!), and then COVID hit and basically we got stuck in many inboxes forever, waiting to hear back from Apple Music about why something labeled ‘deluxe’ was considered erroneous, for example. 

All these little types of miscommunications that come down to nitpicky details that are specific to each streaming platform, basically stalled the distribution process in a very frustrating way. Multiply that by the COVID pandemic and nobody had the patience to handle this project without the extra nudge from the distributor (that is where IndieFlow came in & saved the day!). 

COVID also caused us to move our school programming to a virtual setting for now.

What is the Sokamba school?

Sokamba believes a healthy community is rooted in nurturing the full depth of our creative senses. We guide participants in learning artistic skills while reflecting collectively on social-emotional experiences. Through each course participants develop a creative project rooted in their personal story. Right now, we offer Virtual Dance, Music, Storytelling & Visual Art Courses!

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