Working in Los Angeles
First One In, Last One Out
"Word of mouth is very powerful, but it's really nice to have a strong advocate." —Tariqh Akoni
When Josh Groban’s management offered guitarist Tariqh Akoni ’91 the chance to leave his role as a sideman and become the music director (MD), he initially balked. “I told them that I wasn’t interested,” Akoni says. “I knew that job could put me in a political spot, and I just wanted to play guitar.” But working with an interim MD prompted Akoni to reconsider. “I knew they needed someone to step in and be a strong leader, so when they asked me again, I accepted.” Akoni has been MD and guitarist for Groban since the singer’s 2007 tour. But this offer to become the MD for a major artist didn’t come out of nowhere, Akoni had paid his dues.
After studying at Berklee, Akoni remained in Boston for another five years playing local clubs with various musicians, including saxophonist and Berklee professor Walter Beasley. Later, when Beasley was on tour with an L.A. group that included saxophonist Gerald Albright, the band’s guitarist left. Beasley recommended that they call Akoni to finish the tour.
“That was all I needed to convince me to move to L.A.,” Akoni says. “Through working with Gerald, I met other people and that led to work with George Duke, Tom Scott, and Eric Benét. It all started happening during my first six months in Los Angeles and was primarily by word of mouth.” Studio bassist Larry Kimpel and fellow Berklee alumnus Jetro Da Silva were among those recommending Akoni to bandleaders. “There were a number of times when people stuck their necks out for me,” Akoni says. “Word of mouth is very powerful, but it’s really nice to have a strong advocate.”
One opportunity led to the next and Akoni was hired for a succession of tours with Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, and Jennifer Lopez. But after years of backing pop artists, Akoni was looking for a new musical challenge. “A friend of mine had been playing with Josh Groban and asked if I would sub for him on some gigs,” Akoni recalls. “He tried to explain Josh’s music because he was a new artist at the time: ‘He sings in Italian in 5/4.’ I did the gig and fell in love with the music. I told myself that if the opportunity to work with him ever came up, I’d drop everything to do it.” When Groban called him for his 2004 tour, Akoni signed on. “We started doing theaters and they sold out immediately, so they booked an arena tour next. We were on the road for about a year, and I’ve been working with Josh ever since.
Before Akoni became Groban’s MD, he had observed how veterans like Rickey Minor, Patrice Rushen, and Tom Scott had led bands on tour. Akoni understood that to get the best performance each night required managing logistical challenges and working well with people inside and outside of Groban’s organization. It often means that Akoni is the first member of the team at the venue on show days and the last one out.
“In each city on the last tour, there was a different chamber orchestra and choir,” Akoni says. “I’d rehearse the orchestra from 1:00 to 2:00 P.M., and after that, we’d rehearse the choir. Next, there was a sound check and rehearsal with the band. Around 3:30 or 4:00, I’d get the orchestra and choir onstage for their sound check. At 5:00 Josh would do his sound check. I’d have dinner around 6:00, and after that, I’d check in with different departments and put out fires where needed. Then I’d just shut down—maybe take a nap before we went onstage between 8:00 and 9:00.” Finally, I give it my best onstage as a guitar player.”
Akoni knows that it’s important for his musicians to have the right frame of mind for every concert. “There is a very positive and loving attitude among our musicians,” he says. “I need to make the goal very clear so everyone can bring his or her unique talents and abilities to the success of the project. Regardless of what has happened during the day, I tell my band members that we are not allowed to lose. We are what people see and hear, and if we fail, Josh can’t do his best, and that affects ticket sales.”
When asked if there is a path to a career as a music director, Akoni replies that there are parallels to building a reputation as a producer. “People have to know what you can do,” he says. “Through action, interaction, and opportunity, you prove yourself. This was not something I sought out. I had gotten to do some production and work with a few people as an MD and established a reputation.”
When Akoni and I spoke for this interview, Groban wasn’t on tour, but the high-energy Akoni had filled in his calendar serving as the MD for Weezer’s tour, playing gigs with Huey Lewis, working for American Idol, and flying to Kuala Lumpur to work with producer David Foster. “The work is very eclectic, and I love it,” Akoni says. “We all got into music for the creative aspects. I would still do this work even if I won the lottery tomorrow.”