We recorded over a beat Tarik made, and then we recorded over a beat I made. Want to hear them?” I’m sitting in Aaron Mentos’s room on Boston Avenue as he’s cycling through tracks he’s made with Tarik Smith, another Jumbo beat-maker. Aaron sits at his desk, his laptop screen revealing an open project on Logic Pro, a music production software, between two Yamaha studio monitors. Pulling up one of the tracks he made with Tarik, he describes the process, “I just said ‘Bro, you should just take the beginning of your verse, pitch-shift it down, and make it the chorus instead.’” Looking around the room, you can see his electric guitar standing up next to a few potted plants and a MIDI keyboard at his fingertips: the common setup of any bedroom producer.
“Growing up I played the cello in an orchestra, steel pan, and I played the bass in some steel pan groups in Springfield.” Mentos grew up in Western Massachusetts surrounded by music. “My dad also had a reggae band so I’d sit in on his band playing when it didn’t interfere with soccer,” Mentos explains. At Phillips Academy Andover, he took advantage of free music lessons, continuing his development as a cello and bass player. “I was also introduced to music production in a digital music class. We did mostly analog stuff, but the entire musical experience at Andover started an addiction,” he says. Before coming to Tufts, Aaron played Division I soccer at Colgate University; but he didn’t let his commitment as a student-athlete dampen the time he’d put into his music. “A lot of the times I’d be up until 3AM working on music and waking up at 6AM for morning lift,” he recalls. Mentos was also selected as a member of the national soccer team of Saint Kitts, an island nation about 250 miles east of Puerto Rico, of which he is a dual citizen. He has the flag of St. Kitts hanging in his room and I take his picture in front of it. A career-ending head injury while playing soccer meant a two-and-a-half-year hiatus to recover, during which he had to take a break from school, soccer, and music. “The way that I operated changed after the head injury. Everything was about healing so I had to learn to heal myself,” he reflects.
Over this past winter break, Mentos worked with One Trybe Company and Jitegemee, an NGO whose name translates to “self-dependence” in Swahili, that focuses on academic excellence for street children in Kenya. The project was made possible through the Tisch Fund for Civic Engagement and the Pratt Enrichment Fund for R.E.A.L. “One Trybe Company is basically a collective of artists from Kenya and the U.S., as of now, who see the potential music has to transform lives for the better,” he tells me. With a focus on bringing music workshops to children in under-resourced areas and schools, OTC uses free music theory and production clinics to inspire children to pursue music as a positive outlet.
“I was co-teaching the class with Mtu Saba, a native of Mombasa who was fluent in Swahili. He was a crazy, exceptional performer,” Mentos says, “I was teaching [the kids] about the basics of music theory, harmonic theory. We were teaching it in a way that they could relate to it; so basically, things that you might hear in popular music. He was translating what I was saying into Swahili, and I was playing the guitar, just to give the kids an idea of the difference between a major and minor chord, major scale and minor scale, different tempos and that sort of thing.” Mentos and Mtu Saba’s teaching style focused on making the class fun and engaging for the kids. “We took a beat I made to show them the different ways that we could take a song and manipulate the tempo to give it a different feel. We started with 70 BPM and it sounded very slow, and I asked the kids, does this make you want to get up and dance? We then sped up the tempo to 120 BPM so it went from a slow-paced song to a fast-paced dancehall song. So, then I asked again if it made them want to get up and dance, and they were all like, ‘yeah it does,’” says Mentos, “Mtusaba started getting all of the kids into it. He ended up singing along to it. I didn’t know what he was saying because it was in Swahili, but he would sing and end it with Tegemea, and the kids would respond with Tegemea which means to depend on someone or something. Mtu Saba organized a choreographed dance to go along with it. This all came about when we were just freestyling in the moment. And that was kind of how the song came together and that’s the one we recorded.” Mentos also produced and performed on a song titled “My COMPANy” with Kenyan artist Machakos Kyalo. The two released a music video for the song, shot in Kyalo’s village Kyuluni.
Mentos says he has plans to bring OTC to Saint Kitts with fellow Tufts student and steelpan performer Isaiah Thomas-Marshall. “We’re working on getting funding for the trip right now to make it possible. It’ll involve similar theory and song-writing workshops, as well as helping to orchestrate a steelpan band,” Mentos says, “One of our older kids from Jitigemee also asked me to produce a song for him to sing over, so we’re making it happen.” Aside from his work in music advocacy programs, Mentos has some music that he’ll be releasing in the future as well. “Towards the end of my two-and-a-half-year break from school, I started working on a project called the Brainwaves EP,” Aaron says, “We’re also trying to release the songs Tarik and I recorded while school’s still in session, because we need the support of Tufts students. We’re trying to coordinate music videos, too.” For those wishing to get involved, Mentos has ways in which the Tufts and Boston community can help. “We’re also trying to do a book drive show for Jitegemee. They expressed a need for books to fill the new library they had built for them,” Mentos says.