Sep 1, 2010
An article: Martin Perna of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra
Martin Perna and I arranged, on his suggestion, to meet at the Five Spot, a neighborhood-favorite music venue and eatery in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. Perna – sporting a white be-rimmed beanie, and crimson short-sleeved shirt – arrived flustered: having earlier that day gotten off a flight, he had just discovered that his beloved (not to mention very expensive) saxophone had received a serious in-flight battering with nasty dents to show for it. Nevertheless Perna dispelled the dark clouds, proving to be an intelligent, eloquent conversationalist, prior to rushing off to give a saxophone lesson. Our second hook-up, for the photo shoot, was outside his Brownstone apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Perna arrived from a nearby rehearsal (he was about to head off on a Canadian tour); this time stressed-Perna has been replaced by exhausted-Perna. It turned out he’d arisen at 5am that morning to go surfing. I kicked myself as I imagined a lost opportunity of an Apocalypse Now-inspired photo shoot, with Perna as Robert Duvall and the other members of Antibalas as the surfing soldiers, Fela Kuti’s Water Get No Enemy blasting out in place of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. That would’ve been fly. Back to reality though, and Perna’s eagerness to catch an early wave (in the somewhat more mundane locale of NYC’s Jamaica Bay) was now clearly taking its toll in the form of a certain hazy-headedness. But again he pulled through, patiently posing whilst amicably dealing with somewhat suspicious onlookers: raised eyebrow, “what you takin’ photos of?” I start to see why his band is monikered “The Hardest Working Afrobeat Soldiers In showbusiness”. Ain’t no joke.
Perna is front-man for Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, the NYC-based afro-funk supergroup whose music, continuing the legacy of the late great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, has graced two critically well-received albums to date. Much has already been said about Antibalas by the press, who have been fascinated (and rightly so) by the potent combination of political message and firing afrobeat arrangements espoused by the band. A favourite topic following the release of their first album, Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1 (2001, Ninja Tune) used to be that of whether they were (delete according to opinion): a) a potent force in afrobeat’s renaissance or b) churning out carbon-copy replicas of Fela’s hits. That discussion was put to rest with their second album Talkatif (2002, Ninja Tune), which contains numerous original works that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Fela covers. And then there are the oft-churned-out afrobeat 101s which I will, albeit briefly, succumb to recounting, lest you know not. Afrobeat was invented by Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and is the only music that pretty much always has a political theme. Fela Kuti was Nigeria’s equivalent of James Brown. He was polygamous, he declared his compound an independent country, he was persecuted by the government (who ended up killing his mother), he tragically died of aids. And he was one of the most enigmatic, talented, and funkiest artists that has ever graced this earth. The contrast-and-compare, Antibalas v Fela, angle is an interesting story in itself - or at least it was the first couple of times around. So, in a way, it’s not surprising that far, far less has been said about the multitude of endeavours that Martin Perna has been involved in – extra-Antibalas relationships if you will – on the side.
One such project was that undertaken with Brett Cook-Dizney, the artist best known for his pointillist aerosol-on-plywood and mural works that approximate a cross between Chuck Close, George Seurat, and Shepard Fairey. Aiming to, as Perna explains “create art that’s democratic, that’s moving towards peace, A Collaboration For Peace And Democracy took place on September 10 2002. The aim was to explore feelings associated with 9/11, and in particular the way in which it was commandeered as an excuse for the questionable response of the US and UK governments. “That whole tragedy was taken and spun, our feelings were manipulated, and rather than trying to create a world where no-one would ever want to do that again, it was more like ‘alright, blood’ - vengeance” says Perna. And so, instead of just complaining about the situation, Perna and Cook-Dizney set out to create, as he puts it, “a transcendental event”, a happening which worked towards the future that they wanted to see instead of that which the powers that be were – and still are – moving us towards. The instructions were to “design an encyclopaedia of peace and democracy”; the results were what Perna describes as “an outpouring of genius”, an example of an overwhelmingly positive collaborative activity standing in stark relief against the backdrop of “so little participation that goes on in our society”.
I ask Perna how he feels about current US foreign policy. He doesn’t think it has changed all that much – that it has been “going in this direction for a couple of generations now” – but that it has got worse recently. He feels that the US has a lot of internal issues that need to be urgently addressed, and that it “needs to look inwards more than anything else…having travelled to 30 states in the past year and a half and seeing cities in the countryside, the US is eroding. It’s really falling apart at the seams. People are not getting what they need… people are not eating well, and at the same time getting fatter than ever”. The endemic culture of money worship disturbs Perna: “the whole idea of making a buck - with Enron, with MCI WorldCom, or all these other companies, is bankrupting the country in a monetary sense. I’m not against commerce (because if I were that would mean we wouldn’t go to another country and perform) but the whole idea of capitalism as it’s encouraged in the US is that you create a need but then don’t quite satisfy it - you always leave people wanting. Maybe someone needs to get from point A to point B, so you sell them a car - but that car falls apart after 5 years. Or you make it impossible to get to point B via any other means besides a car.” It’s the whole series of downward spirals that each person has to battle with just to survive: “I can’t cultivate my food so I need to get a job so that I have money to buy food. In order to get to that job, I need to buy a car”. And it’s this feeling that the market economy has robbed people of the right to live off the earth, of the right to not have to work for themselves, that truly troubles Perna.
And then there’s the related subject of media influence. “The opinions that people are clinging to so fiercely are not even their own opinions. If you take a couple of steps back and see who owns Fox, who owns a company like Clear Channel (which 10 years ago owned 40 radio stations and now owns over 1200), it turns out that the owner is a close friend and supporter of the Bush family. Or, that the head of the RCC (the government agency which allows media mergers to actually happen) is Colin Powell’s son, Michael Powell. So there’s a tremendous degree of collusion. But people still aren’t…realising the danger in consolidation of the media. Just because it makes business sense doesn’t mean that it’s democratic [or that it] fosters free speech or freethinking. In fact, it fosters the opposite of both…and when people stop thinking for themselves then it’s so much harder”. On a roll now, an animated Perna continues, “at the same time we’re taught to fear and be suspicious. For instance, I have a sticker on my saxophone that says ‘I love Iraq’. It doesn’t mean that I love Saddam, it doesn’t mean that I hate America, it just means that I’m worried about the Iraqi people we promised to liberate, I’m worried about the children. I don’t do it as a provocative thing to piss people off, but rather to stimulate dialogue, to say that I’m not going to stoop to the level of hating anybody, but rather rise to the level of ‘loving the enemy’”. Strong views, but there’s nothing irrational about them, and one would surely hope that most well-informed people would agree with him - wherein, it seems, lies the problem.
Switching to a lighter subject, another project Perna is working on is a book about the phenomenon of – and artistic process behind – the DJ. It’s part of his quest to better-understand the “the magic of” the oh-so postmodern movement which forms such an important part of the musico-cultural zeitgeist. “The DJ has this immense power of music that he or she can present to an audience and take them on this journey from Turkey to the Bronx in 5 minutes”, says Perna. “A band might not be able to do that, but at the same time, recorded music is a recorded product, whereas a live band is actually taking and creating music live. So I wanted to understand how that jump has been bridged, why people all of a sudden accept a substitute for live music, and how most people these days are more open to dancing to a DJ than to a live band. They’re very suspicious of live acts, and rightly so.” To that end, he’s been conversating with some of the cream of New York City’s funk-inclined DJs, including Bobbito Garcia, DJ Language, and Rich Medina. Perna picked his DJ interlocutors specifically, “because their breadth spans so much of the African diaspora, from roots music all the way up to the most contemporary music, with an emphasis on non-commercial stuff.” In those explorations they’ve examined the history, both personal and anthropological, behind the art of DJing. As Perna quite rightly opines, “it’s more than just grabbing some records off the shelf, throwing them in a bag, and putting them on the turntable and making the beats match up. It’s a whole series of moods, of histories, of narratives, that these guys are weaving together as far as the music that they pick”.
I’m interested in this point of view – one which I find surprising coming from a musician – and so I press Perna: why does he think it is that people are nowadays keener to dance to DJs rather than to bands? “Here in the US, arts programs in the schools have been cut drastically since the ‘60s and ‘70s. So now we’re into the second or third generation of people that didn’t grow up surrounded by musical instruments. Back in the day, rather than going to the record shop, people would go and buy sheet music and then play it on their piano, or they’d grab the guitar and the sing folk tunes, you know. But then radio and recorded music offered the whole possibility without actually having to play it yourself. And each technological development has provided people with more and more musical products, while at the same time limiting their actual participation in the music-making process.” Now, to a certain extent, the situation has swung back, with the home computer becoming ubiquitous in the US, and people making more music on their computers. But “it’s still very disconnected from the roots music - it’s almost like creating an automated musical process."
Perna evidently has a fascination with the distinction between – and combination of – things new and old. Perhaps he’s come to the conclusion that looking at how things have happened in the past can be a powerful tool for ensuring positive results in the future. The wheel need not always be reinvented, and those who seek to do so may infact have ulterior motives. Whether political, commercial, or personal, the likelihood of the accomplishment of these motives is bolstered by a general lack of ‘knowing-better’ within the general populace. And this in turn may go some way to explain, on the one hand, his acute awareness of the need to question activities that he believes are heading the community in the wrong direction (as with US foreign policy), and on the other, his intensely anthropological take on music. Fela’s message of defiance of harmful forces and embracement of self-empowerment lives on. If so, then that same belief-system can be detected in his architectural work, which revisits time-tested techniques and gives them a contemporary makeover.
A couple of years back Perna, having saved some money, bought a piece of land in Mexico, with the intention of “doing some building on it”. But instead of just attacking the task in a conventional manner, he “wanted to see what possibilities there were for building with earth - an eco-friendly, sustainable building.” He came across the work of Iranian architect Nader Khalili had worked both in the States and in Iran throughout the 1960s and 1970s designing sky scrapers, but who then completely abandoned that, and devoted 5 years of his life to studying and developing building techniques with earth. And “not just the ancient techniques, but how to apply modern technology and a little bit of ingenuity to making these ancient traditions – which were so beautiful but had a couple of flaws – nearly perfect.” Perna did an apprenticeship in fall 2002 at Khalili’s institute, and discovered that the applications of Khalili’s super adobe technique are anything from river erosion control to emergency shelters to luxury homes. Not to mention the fact that NASA are planning to use the technique on the Moon and Mars. And so, taking what he had learnt, Perna initiated the construction of a building on his land that will eventually serve as a tamascal (a native Mexican vapor bath) and, when the elements dictate, an emergency tropical storm shelter. The entire work crew consisted of children aged six to sixteen, and Perna enthuses that being able to “show them that with their own hands that they can build a serious, beautiful, strong structure out of earth”, was one of the best parts about it: “get the six year olds going and, by the time they’re sixteen, they can build this for themselves, commercially, or use it to help out in emergencies.”
Of course, no article on Perna would be complete without a mention of the music that, after all, is the main love of his life - the old lover he will always return to and can always rely upon. Perna had (at the time of interviewing) just released a solo double a-side 7” single called Look Sharp / Divinorum under the pseudonym Ocote Soul Sounds. Released on Bobbito Garcia’s Fruitmeat label, he played everything except guitar and drums, for which two other musicians were enlisted. He says that Look Sharp is “the first of a lot of music to come out. It’s definitely funky, and definitely informed by afrobeat, but it doesn’t have as big a scope as Antibalas. You know, I’m just trying to think a little bit smaller: sometimes some of the compositions I have in my head don’t have a 4-piece horn section, a flute, a saxophone, etc”. Consisting of one dancefloor-oriented track and one downtempo track, both are great tunes that retain a strong afro-funk feel whilst introducing a slightly psychedelic edge. A new Antibalas single, Che Che Cole (a stomping rework of the Hector Lavoe salsa classic), hit the stores soon afterwards. But the great news is that they returning to the studio in August to record some of the twenty new songs they’ve composed since the last recording, with the new album anticipated in late Autumn 2003, backed up by a US and European tour. We also talk about the phenomenon of there being so many different groups that the members of Antibalas play in and vice versa. There are some 20 band members and 20 groups that collaborate in this way, including the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the Sugarman 3, Fu-Arkistra, and Dub Is A Weapon. Perna explains that the community came about because “when people can help each other out they do”, but laughs at the fact that “sometimes you catch your breath and realise ‘damn I’m in, like, 5 different bands!’” He does believe, however, that the existence of all these projects adds to the integrity of the core Antibalas line-up, “because everybody has some other form of satisfaction; it’s like having a mistress or something - you can be happy at home with your steady thing, and you’ve got a little something on the side to keep you happy.”