Interview: Camara Kambon, pianist and composer

Camara Kambon, pianist and composer, has performed for Jazz Pensacola both at our Jazz Jams and Jazz Gumbos. Many of our members and guests do not have knowledge or appreciation of the extent of his talents. Imagine jamming with jazz greats even before entering high school and winning an Emmy Award at age 23!

Camara Kambon—unusual name.  What’s the background?

Camara Kambon is an African name, full name Camara Yero Kambon, which, in Swahili translates as “teacher, warrior of the people.”  I guess you could say I definitely grew into my name.

Riff a bit about your schooling. I know your home was Baltimore and that you were enrolled in Peabody while in high school.  How did that work? How did you get to Berklee?

I was born in Northwest Baltimore. From an early age, my education was twofold, attending one school for academics and another for music. My studies at the Peabody Preparatory of Johns Hopkins University began at age 10. Although my high school years started at St. Paul’s School for Boys, I transferred in my junior year, accepting a scholarship and graduated from Friends School and Peabody with honors in both musicianship and classical/jazz piano. I received several scholarships to subsidize my academic and musical studies, namely the Eubie Blake Scholarship. 

Besides piano, what instruments are you proficient on?

Piano is my main instrument, but I am also a percussionist.

Were you in a band or other musical group during youth and schooling?  Riff a bit about Berklee, inspiration, drawbacks, your fellow music students.

I was in my first band at age 6, playing at local fairs, skating rinks, etc. around Baltimore. At age 11, I performed with several musicians, Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Bartz, Greg Thomas, Max Roach, as well as local musicians, but I performed as a soloists more during my grade school years. Ever since being introduced to Berklee as the alma mater of many of my musical heroes, I was convinced I’d also attend one day.  In fact, when it came time to apply for colleges, although I’d visited several, I only applied to Berklee. I was the recipient of the Jesse Stone Scholarship, sponsored by Atlantic Records and funded my schooling by composing music for documentaries.

How did you get started in working for films, composing?

I’d been composing music since I was 5 years old. I attended Peabody for musicianship, theory and performance. During the summers in my middle school years, I attended The Walden School for Young Composer’s camp, which was a wonderful platform introducing me to the music of Roger Fripp, Brian Eno, John Cage, Penderecki, George Crumb, Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and the list goes on. My first experience writing for TV was on the NBC TV hits, “The Cosby Show” and “Living Single,” starring Queen Latifah, while I was a high school student. After moving to Boston to attend Berklee, I began writing music for documentaries.  

Give a couple of examples of your work with films/composing. For example- one really challenging project and another which is more routine—just busy-work.

In the fall of my senior year in college, I was contacted by HBO Sports, after producers heard my score for the Emmy-winning PBS documentary, “Malcolm X: Make it Plain,” to compose the score for a film entitled, “Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life of a Champion.” I composed this score while completing my last year in college, so life was quite hectic between senior projects and deadlines. I would later receive an Emmy Award for this score, becoming the youngest composer to have received a national Emmy Award at age 23.

After moving to Los Angeles, I’d always questioned how to embark on my career as a film composer. Although I had credits on my resumé, I didn’t have the credits needed to turn heads, so I hoped I would cross paths with someone who recognized my potential and acknowledge my track record as proof of reliability and ability to deliver. That opportunity came when Oliver Stone was producing and directing his film, “Any Given Sunday,” starring Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J, Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, James Woods and many others. It was during a conversation with Oliver that he expressed the importance of “living” because of its influence on how the artist expresses himself.  This was a concept I would hold onto as I maneuvered my way through the business.  Oliver is known for adopting a process that is extremely unpredictable, playing off of the daily interactions of creative minds. During this project there was a composer cattle call in a sense, and each composer had to prove his value through the work he produced. Composers were eliminated left and right. Attending screenings was a bit uneasy, never sure if my music was still in the film, constantly uncertain whether it had “made the cut” just like a football player in a game. I realized Oliver’s process was conceptual and applied to every aspect of his filmmaking. Nevertheless, I kept producing music, never knowing if it was “right” or “wrong.” Oliver was really excited about Macy Gray at the time (she was also an acquaintance of mine), so I pitched the idea of bringing her on to write a song for the film.  So, I co-wrote and produced a song for the film entitled, “Dinosaur.” At the end of it all, there were five composers credited in the film and I was one of them. It was such a liberating feeling to see my name on the silver screen of a studio film. When working with such a filmmaking genius, people will always have varying experiences with Oliver Stone, but I can truly say, mine was awesome. Although the process was ambiguous at times, Oliver was never wishy washy about whether something was working or not. It either was or wasn’t so there weren’t any gray areas with his opinion. So, I knew where I stood in all the ambiguity that defined my experience. This approach of brutal honesty allowed me to present not what I thought Oliver was expecting, but what I thought was best to give him. This was an experience I will treasure for a lifetime.

How did you get to Pensacola? Your statement:  Now I can work anywhere.  So tell me about that and how you spend your time at Pensacola Beach.

Ironically, my work as a film composer actually brought me to the Pensacola area. And the fact that I can perform my work and have since the beginning of my career makes it easy to work anywhere. As technology has developed, it’s also made the ability for film composers to create on-the-go just as easily as in a home studio. This also gives the composer the chance to experience different environments during a process that can be very insular and isolating at times.