When the members of AFRO N’AT—all eight of them—are asked how they would describe their music, there is a pause. They look at each other. They repeat the question aloud amongst themselves. Then bassist Randy Penrod offers a description: “post-funk?”
Next, trombonist Tom Buchko speaks up: “Afrofusion?”
The other band members seem agreeable to both descriptions, although drummer Elias Ghantous is quick to add that they’ve never really been able to describe their music, even to each other.
Perhaps it’s best to leave it up to the fans. A fan standing in front of the stage upon which AFRO N’AT is playing might describe the band as horn-driven, percussion-heavy, a little bit jazzy, totally danceable, insatiably fun – any or all of the above.
And any person perusing the band’s audience would quickly notice that you need not be a certain age to jump aboard the AFRO N’AT train … at their Cambria City Ethnic Festival gig this past summer, toddlers and senior citizens were present, staying awake past their bedtimes so they could hear eight friends make the music they’ve always wanted to make.
In addition to Penrod, Buchko and Ghantous, AFRO N’AT consists of Matt Partsch on guitar; James Augustine on guitar; Mark Goncher on percussion/keys; Alec Redd on saxophone; and Meredith Pouewells on trombone, euphonium and flute.
AFRO N’AT was born into the Johns-town music scene just a few years ago, when a majority of the members started bonding at Dively’s Tavern’s Wednesday evening JamNights hosted by David DiStefano. When they weren’t jamming, they were talking; the more they talked, the more they realized that they all wanted the same thing: a band to call “home.” And the more they talked about forming a band to call “home,” the more it became clear that they’d all like to play music that would celebrate their shared love of Afrobeat, a genre of music that blends West African musical styles such as fuji and highlife with soul, jazz and funk. (On your nearest device, cue up Fela Kuti, a musician credited for having pioneered the genre, and it’s easy to hear his influence in AFRO N’AT’s distinctive sound.)
The list of musical influences that each band member brings to the table is varied and vast. Partsch, for instance, grew up listening to metal bands, and even played in a few of them. Penrod, Buchko and Ghantous were always big into classic rock, while Augustine, who considers himself a huge fan of jazz greats John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, grew up fostering what he jokingly calls “a Modest Mouse problem.” Goncher’s a fan of Dream Theater, James Brown and Wu-Tang Clan, just to name a few. Pouewells lists euphonium player Demondrae Thurman as a huge inspiration, while Redd throws out some names, too: Brownout, The Budos Band and Monophonics among them.
Their musical influences, coupled with their individual musical backgrounds, allows them to, as Partsch puts it, “merge” rather beautifully. When they get together, they check their egos at the door and create a space where all of their voices are heard.
When Augustine describes how much creative freedom each band member has, Pouewells responds that she thinks that’s why AFRO N’AT’s music is so “out there.”
The band’s first performance took place July 2, 2017, at a friend’s Independence Day party in Westmont. A year later, they released their self-titled EP at Press Bistro in downtown Johnstown, playing to standing room only crowd.
“That night made me think … wow,” Penrod says. “People are actually coming out for this.”
And people keep coming out. This summer was a particularly exciting one for the band; they performed at Roxbury Bandshell, AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival, Johnstown Funk Fest, Cambria City Ethnic Festival and Tubapalooza, just to name a few. They even traveled outside of town for performances at Thunderbird Café and Music Hall in Pittsburgh, Larrypalooza V in Gibbon Glade and Happy Valley Music Fest in State College.
The band’s setlist features original songs (they have composed a little over a dozen) and is rounded out by some eclectic covers such as “Killing Me Softly,” a song made famous by Roberta Flack and then by Fugees, and “Toxic,” a song that rocketed pop star Britney Spears back to the top of the charts in 2004.
AFRO N’AT has a lot to look forward to as the calendar brings us closer to 2020. A full-length album is in the works, and it’s possible they’re going to be playing a “huge” New Year’s Eve show (for all the latest news and information about AFRO N’AT, find the band on Facebook or www.afronat.com).
“We just played a show last night,” Goncher says, “and I’m already so pumped for our next one.”
These musicians clearly love music … and each other’s company. They laugh a lot when they’re together and seem to enjoy getting to know more and more about each other. For example, while savoring some coffee outside, Ghantous and Buchko both look closely at a dandelion. Buchko mentions how the French called this flowering plant dent de lion, meaning “lion’s tooth.” “Learned that from my Eagle Scout days,” he says, to which Ghantous responds, “Dude! How did I not know that you were an Eagle Scout?”
It’s worth noting that the band members’ median age is 28. That makes them ‘90s kids through and through. As such, they’re happily inspired by the decade in which they grew up (on the day of our interview, Redd was proudly sporting a “Hey Arnold!” t-shirt.)
When the topic of video games comes up, Redd mentions how much he admires video game music because of its ability to colorfully tell a story without using words.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly what AFRO N’AT is up to … telling story after story in instrumental song after instrumental song, and inviting the audience to come and escape into their world for an hour or more.
“There is really nothing more exciting when you’re playing, doing your best and trying to lay it all out there and people can’t help but engage with you,” Redd says. “At the end of the day, making a connection with the people is what it’s all about. So, when people are up and dancing to our music, it’s like … ‘Yes! We’re doing the thing!’”
In keeping with the video game analogy, AFRO N’AT has been collecting coins (read: fans) and, ultimately, taking Johnstown’s music scene to “the next level.”