Interview: The Ambassadors

Most bands start off small, playing their first gig at a coffee shop on a weekday night or maybe a house show. The Ambassadors aren’t like most bands. Their first ever show was to a sold-out Saturday night crowd at The Cedar Cultural Center, opening for Somali hip-hop collective Waayaha Cusub.

Supported by the Minnesota State Arts Board Folk & Traditional Arts Program, the project is a cross-cultural collaboration between veteran musicians Dalmar Yare and Holly Mūnoz. Supported by Martin Dosh, Al Church, Zach Brose, Steve Schwartz and Kyle Burbey the group tells traditional and modern stories with a sound of Somali music mixed with a dash of reggae, pop, and rock.

You can catch The Ambassadors live as they play their third show ever this Friday, November 4th with Waayaha Cusub in St. Cloud at the Paramount Center for the Arts.

We spoke with band member Holly Mūnoz during a rehearsal at The Cedar in October.

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Justine Perez: How did you get this band (The Ambassadors) together?
Holly Muñoz: The Ambassadors formed due to a Minnesota State Arts Board-funded project through The Cedar Cultural Center. The award went to Dalmar Yare, and they asked me to come help produce an album of traditional Somali music. I’m a songwriter and a musician and I lived in the Twin Cities for almost 14 years, I’m on the road now, I travel and tour but I still have a lot of connections here. So when they reached out to me about doing that, I was happy to be a part of it and I kind of pulled together my favorite multi-instrumentalists who I thought would be able to really dive into this music because it’s a totally new form for a lot of us. We haven’t really played non-Western music, so I knew there would be a bit of a learning curve but these guys are the best.

JP: Did you know these guys from other bands that you’ve seen play?
HM: Yeah, so Al Church – who is playing bass primarily – I met years and years ago in a Guitar Center. Martin Dosh who is quite renowned in the Twin Cities, I’ve been a fan of his for a really long time and we’ve played a couple of shows together. Zach Brose is new, he’s young, but he’s friends with Al. The trumpet and sax players, Steve Schwartz and Kyle Burbey, they play with Dalmar – they have an Augsburg music connection and they’ve been doing stuff in the Somali scene, they were recommended to us.

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JP: What has it been like working with Somali music for the first time?
HM: It’s been fun. It’s been definitely challenging, some of us in the band are readers, so we have charts which can help demystify the process, I have to learn by ear because I’m not formally trained, so I tend to just listen and follow along but it’s not instinctive because it is a different style of music. They’re aren’t dynamics in the way that most Western pop music has – there aren’t intros and verses and choruses and bridges and breakdowns, ways that the mood of the song changes, which many people are accustomed to since we’ve been listening to pop music for our whole lives.

I’m finding that the Somali tunes are more like reggae or more of a jam, in the sense that it starts and it goes on and then ends many minutes later – the songs are long. But there are so many nuances in the arrangements, in the way that the songs are written. There are interesting rhythmic rests. There’s a rest in the C part of the song, the third time that you go through it, but it’s not in one, two, or four the first time that you do the cycle of that chord progression. It’s unpredictable in that way if you’re not deeply steeped in the music which none of us are. We’ve learned a lot. It’s been fun but it’s been hard. I think if you don’t overthink it you can focus on the fun side of it.

JP: What has it been like to combine the Somali music with your style?
HM: I wanted to write some original Holly tunes that were inspired by some of the melodies and chord progressions and stories of the traditional Somali songs, so Dalmar and I sat down and he kind of walked me through what two of the songs were about. I basically wrote Western pop tunes using some of those ideas and the musical nods to the Somali tunes. You’d really have to listen closely to both to hear it, but I think if you were to break it down it would be really interesting because you’d be able to see that it does sound a lot like the Somali tune in terms of the rhythm or the simple ascending chord progression. That has been a really fun way to write. I’m curious to see how the audience will feel about the Holly tunes.

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JP: What’s it like to be on stage with Dalmar?
HM: He’s fabulous, he’s got great energy. He’s a real band-leader or front person because I think everyone is vibing off of his energy, which is great. I think when I’m playing my songs too you have to step into that role of “follow me,” or the whole thing falls apart. He’s very charismatic, he’s super positive, he was great in the studio too. I worry and I’m a perfectionist, I want things to be perfect, and coming in to the sessions I was like, is he going to hate it? Is he going to hate the band that I put together? Are they going to be able to play the tunes? Is he going to hate the way they’re interpreting it? Is he going to like the new stuff that I wrote? He was so low-key and happy and had great ideas. He was like, “ok, I’m gonna sing Somali over this” and then we had him singing English and he was like, “I’ve never sang in English before!” Like any other recording session that’s going well, there were happy accidents and moments where you’re like, “this is how it should be.” This is what all creative processes should look like because it’s just people having fun and enjoying each other’s talent.

JP: What have you been most nervous about?
HM: I’ve been nervous about the live show just because we haven’t had a lot of rehearsal time. These musicians are professionals, everyone is working full time as musicians so they are in many bands. Martin Dosh last night was doing a puppet show at Heart of the Beast and Al teaches music lessons and plays in a couple of bands. Zach is busy too. Dalmar is hard to pin down. He travels a lot for work. I’m not around a lot either. So there hasn’t been a lot of opportunities for us to rehearse. I was nervous about how it would sound, all of us coming together. But it sounds good.

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JP: What are you most excited for?
HM: I really want to record more songs and put out an LP and press a couple CDs. I would love to really formally present this material as a band. We’re calling it The Ambassadors. So that could be fun to actually tour and play some bigger shows, it could be neat.

JP: How was the name “The Ambassadors” created?
HM: Dalmar created it. At first it was “The Ambassadors of Culture” and I was like, “shorten it to just The Ambassadors.” We had a bunch of potential band names. I think it’s great. I did research and I didn’t see any other bands called that, so who knows if we’ll get a cease and desist by some other band like, “we’ve been The Ambassadors for 40 years and we play like two shows out of our garage in Ohio,” but for the time being it will work. I think it’s great. I guess we are ambassadors of an experience, for sure. We’re having our own moment up there and to share that with other people is really the whole point.

Interview with Holly Muñoz
Conducted by Justine Perez
October 21 2016 at The Cedar Cultural Center

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.