By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For Montclair Local

When Denise Ford Sawadogo, co-owner of Montclair Brewery, reached out to Lily Vakili about bringing her band to the brewery for an event honoring Women’s History Month, it was an immediate yes.

“Denise is one of those people where, if they call me, they just tell me where,” Vakili said.

The two have a friendship based on deep respect, a “mutual admiration society,” the frontwoman of the Vakili Band (also featuring Ben St. Jacques on lead guitar, Gordon Kuba  on drums, Joel Dorow on harmonica and Matt Jovanis on bass) said.

“When she and Leo (Sawadogo’s husband, and the brewery’s master brewer) started the brewery, there was the usual Debbie downers,” Vakili said. “I knew they would be able to pull it off because I know Denise. She is so focused and willing to put in the work and have a dream and not be cynical about it.”

The band’s members live in Montclair or surrounding areas. Vakili herself raised three children in town, and has been a volunteer with the Township Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities, the school district’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee and Parents Who Rock.

“When we play locally, we try to highlight other local artists and businesses as a way of showing our love for the community that has given us so much,” she told Montclair Local.

The brewery show (also featuring singer-songwriter and Montclair resident Stacia Thiel), to be held March 11 starting at 7 p.m., is one of multiple activities through which the band is celebrating women in March. It’ll also be heading to Philadelphia on March 16 for a performance at the only female-owned music venue in the city, the Fire. The band is collaborating with female designers including Montclair’s AnnMarie Sekeres for its artwork and merchandise, and a portion of show proceeds will go to women-focused nonprofits, including the Oasis social service program in Paterson.

Vakili is enthusiastic about Stacia Thiel, a country singer, joining the night at the brewery.

“Stacia is a social worker and an amazing songwriter. We’re both storytellers and that’s the connection we have,” she said.

Merchandise from Sekeres will be on sale in the form of limited edition tote bags featuring her work. In addition to Sekeres being a well-known painter and illustrator with work featured in several publications, she is also the deputy director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District — plugged into the Montclair music scene, as she books acts to play on Church Street. 

Oasis, the beneficiary of the event, offers programs intended to help women succeed in the workforce, and to support children academically. It also has a soup kitchen and provides emergency food, clothing and other social support to Paterson residents.

Vakili learned of Oasis from her friend Margy Schilling, who has been a supporter of the organization.

“She reached out to a bunch of friends when the pandemic started and told us this organization in Paterson really needs help,” she said. “The people they are servicing are really getting hit hard.”

Schilling, a retired nurse, coordinated a collection of donated supplies for Oasis, and delivered them herself. She continues to gather donations for the group.

Vakili first met Schilling when Schilling’s husband, Ed Carine, an adviser to the student-run Terry’s Serendipity Cafe series of shows, played bass with the band. 

“I always want it to be more than just about the music,” Vakili  said. “I have a very small platform but you can still affect some measure of change and recognize other people and their value and in doing that encourage others.”

For those who can’t attend the show, Vakili strongly encourages donations to Oasis through OasisNJ.org.

When it comes to collaboration, Vakili’s vision is clear: “You see this in music. You work across age, type and gender. That’s the richness of it. You’re never isolated to one particular cohort. As an artist why would you do that?”

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of AnnMarie Sekeres's name, and to include a mention of band member Joel Dorow.