The Artist Spotlight series aims to celebrate creators at a time when art is being consumed the most. We wanted to invite individuals working within the creative field to provide their voice, opinions and suggestions for the improvement, development and future of the Canadian creative community.

This week I sat down with Alex Punzalan, a Toronto- based artist father, musician and producer with over 10 years of audio production experience. Alex works as a freelancer, helping clients with everything from creation, songwriting and composing, mixing, mastering and ADR, to more recently having his own original songs picked up by Apple for a set of commercials. Alex shared with artsUNITE / UNITÉ des arts how he has been responding to the pandemic, including starting a resource list of and for BIPOC folks in the music industry, and reiterates the importance of ally ship within our communities.

Q: Can you share a little about yourself and your background in the creative field?

I am a musician (multi-instrumentalist) and producer. I play guitar and sing lead for DATU, a cultural band that focuses on infusing Filipino folklore and storytelling mixed with modern influences of R&B, Hip Hop and House music. I am also an Artist Father, meaning that I am part of an artist family along with my partner and healer, Jennifer Maramba, and our two sons Kawayan & Kaleo Punzaramba.

I do a lot of music as a composer and as a collaborator with various artists. I’ve also been getting my music, and other artist’s music, licensed for video games and TV shows and I do a lot of placing of music for commercial work. Luckily enough, just last September I had two of my songs placed in Apple commercials called Driftin’  and Pop Panic.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a producer so I work with clients to provide any custom audio needs as well as sound designing for theatre shows and assisting in live production setups. I also produce full music albums for a diverse range of artists and bands including a lot of local talent from Toronto like Zaki Ibrahim,  Tanika Charles, HanHan and I’ve also done some work with Jesse Reyes in the past.

Q: How did you get into Audio Visual Technician work in the Non- profit sector for Artscape?

Well prior to all that back in the day I used to be part of the Indie Punk scene in Toronto, I was in two groups called Styrofoam Ones & Times Neue Roman. So I think because I was part of the music scene or like heavily involved in the music and arts community, I ended up being given the opportunity to become a technician at Daniels Spectrum when it first opened. Before that I had heard about Artscape for their affordable artist housing initiatives, and I mean the landscape was very different back then. I was looking for studio space probably back in 2008/09 and had been on the wait list for a long time. It took until 2015 when the opportunity came up to co- own one of the live/work spaces (there are options to rent or buy, the wait list for renting is obviously pretty high) and I took it. It’s all timing; I hadn’t gotten my head on straight until then, and the stars just kind of aligned.

Q: What are you working on right now?

As an artist in the community I’m also continually trying to be active and aware and learning about what’s happening. With everything that’s arisen over the pandemic and through the anti-racism movements, I felt called back to my previous gig with an organization called Across Boundaries , which is a mental health center for racialized communities. I do music therapy but as a facilitator, not necessarily as a fully licensed music therapist. It was actually great that I was able to reach back out to them after working through some past organizational issues. Now we’re majorly rebuilding their holistic music program to really emphasize an anti-racism framework.

That’s something I’m really trying to focus on a lot of right now, more so the community work. Another thing which I think is really important that I can share with you is a BIPOC Tech list that I’m working on with Hillary Fong from the group CutSleeve and Daniel Wilson from Joncro. Being a worker in the background, there’s obviously you know a lot of racist remarks and sometimes even a lack of respect towards BIPOC technicians. We want to provide a platform for those voices and also hope to address the lack of Black, Indigenous and female representatives in the field by compiling a list of producers, live sound engineers, mastering engineers, guitar/musical instrument and gear technicians, venues, etc. to share as a resource for our communities. It’s still in the works, but we’re thinking of releasing with the NIA Centre.

If you would like to contribute to the call-out to collectively create a directory of Black & Indigenous (and People of Colour) folks in the ‘Toronto’ music scene, click here for more information.

Other things I’m working on is a project called Freq Motif; it’s a collaboration with another artist called Bookworm, he’s also from Toronto but now lives in LA. Together with my Romeo Candido, Gee Soropia, Fly Lady Di and Candace Kumar we’re releasing a new song called SWAN with a video performance.We’re also finishing off a new single release for DATU that will be out sometime this month.

Q: Is there a quote or mantra that you live by?

Something worth noting is that we’re living in a cancel culture right now. And while I think it’s very important that we continue to do so (there is a time and place), I’ve learned to now call people in versus calling people out. When you’re talking to people that are part of your community – sometimes you’re also dealing with people that have mental health issues that can affect their ability to clearly voice themselves or their ability to continually navigate in the world – it’s easier to call them in then call them out because really, we’re not here to segregate people, we’re here to bring people together.

So whenever I do my performances, or how I try to continue the dialogue, is mostly calling people in. I’ve learned that from mentors and in some virtual workshops I’ve recently been a part of. The work that a friend of mine, Lesley Batson, does has been really good at calling people in; it includes inviting the police into these conversations, inviting white people, to come in and just listen. I think that’s an important part.

Q: What inspires and/or motivates you right now? Do you feel inspired right now?

Within the past six months, and I think everyone has gone through it at some point, I had issues really wanting to work or not having the momentum or energy. As a father of two boys as well with my partner, I mean we live in a small place, so it’s been hard to feel motivated.

But I think reaching out to people outside of my immediate circle has helped me kind of gather the pieces and problem solve. I think as artists we tend to problem solve ourselves, sometimes a little too much, and I think we shouldn’t. There can be another side to artistry where we should learn how to use our networks, use our connections, use our collaborators. And sometimes those are the voices that provide the mediation and clarity you need.

Q: (How) Has the pandemic and physical distancing measures affected you and your family/your art?

At home 100% this has affected me, especially having a partner who is from a strong matriarchy; she’s breaking down my patriarchal conditioning. I think as a father, I’ve learned that another aspect of learning is how to unlearn from the schooling system that I thought was proper, which it wasn’t, and isn’t. I’m still learning. So I think the thing I’ve been able to learn is to drop my guard down, I think vulnerability is a real achievement. Sometimes being a father is to think that you are the head of the house but you need to learn to compromise with the people around you. It’s okay to be wrong, we’re all learning. I think it’s a growing process.

Q: What do you think companies/collectives/local organizations need to be focusing on to address the ongoing systemic racial inequalities in the arts and culture sector?

So obviously with any initiative that’s anti-racist, you have to also include holistic programs. I think we’re so stuck in the assimilation of what the colonization of education has provided us, we disregard anything that seems out of the conditioning that we’re used to. One of the Indigenous leaders who spoke during the national ceremony on Canada Day said something like, “until you stop talking, then, maybe, just maybe us leaders of the First Nations will speak.” Starting from the basics, you know, knowing the Canadian treaties is a big thing. If anything’s being broken, or the government is breaking promises, at least we know where the root of it is coming from, right?

And you know, it’s still happening everywhere. Another thing that I’ve been hearing about in another community that is strong to me, the Filipino community, is about the President of the Philippines and the Anti- terror law which pretty much says that if you say something on Facebook, or you message or text someone about the government, you’ll be arrested. Videos are getting taken down. So we are living in a very weird time with this level of censorship, because people are now speaking up more than ever. I think if they’re getting shut down by Facebook, Tik Tok and other online spaces, the grassroots organizations doing the work that can allow people to have this dialogue is very important, because we’re going to keep getting shut down. We need organizations that are really going to back these voices and keep the momentum going to make change.

Q: How do you envision the future of interactive events like panels, art shows and live music events, given physical distancing measures and capacity limitations? Is the future all digital?

So how I’ve been navigating that is promoting more behind the scenes work with the music production. You know, as much as we focus on the lead singer, some of the best things that I’ve seen have been people showcasing production techniques or even the BTS processes. I think the process is something that I’m wanting to show more of. I’m also learning how to do things myself. I think re/self- educating has been a big thing that a lot of people have gotten into, just taking extra courses or learning about new things.

I feel like live music and events will never be the same thought, right? I haven’t been as social media savvy as I would have wished –  mind you, I hadn’t necessarily been like that before (the pandemic) in general – but I’ve been seeing more people doing (online content) and I think it’s a great thing to see. I feel like whether you’re learning Twitch or learning more about ZOOM and having your own workshops, I think that is the future; and I think our networks are expanding because of it. But I feel like if we were physically going to be working with people, I think we will do so very locally. But then in wanting to keep our global connection going, we’ll need to have both facets really strong.

“I feel like you practice what you preach within your local community and preach what you practice to the global community.”