Sep 22, 2010

Interview with Martin Perna from Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra (June 2004)

The interview is published by, Interview by Vinnie Baggadonuts


Where are you guys based?

Milwaukee, so I’m pretty excited to see you guys in a few weeks.

Did you see us last time we came through? Is that how you found out about us?

No. I was out of town, unfortunately. I’ve actually known about you guys since Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1.

Oh, cool. Wow.

But I've never seen you guys.

The shows in Milwaukee have always been really off the hook. I think we’ve been there twice. We did three shows. The second time we were there, we played twice.

What is it, man? Do you guys put something in the water when you come here?

(laughs) I don’t know.

I read that you came up with the idea of Antibalas in a Mexico City hotel room.

(laughs) Yeah. Everyone asks me about that. I actually have family there, but I normally don’t stay with them because they’re afraid for me to walk around there. (laughs) I was on tour there with another group, and I wasn’t really happy playing there. My roommate at the time, our [Antibalas'] trombone player, we were listening to some Eddie Palmieri. I don’t know if you know much about him.


Eddie Palmieri is a visionary salsa pianist and Latin jazz pianist. He put together this group in the mid-Seventies called Harlem River Drive. They played really hard funk and salsa. And I wanted to create something like that. Not to recreate Harlem River Drive, but to play some Latin music and funk; and I was really into Afrobeat.


So, it was sort of that initial thing, thinking something really vague, that I knew could bring different audiences together.

Was the political message aspect of the music a part of that initial vision?

Yeah, always. The idea of politics or political struggle is part of Afrobeat music. I don’t think the two could ever really be separated.

And did you ever imagine Antibalas would be as large in number as it is?

You know, I always wanted it to be as big as it needed to be. If the music dictated that we needed six members, then we would get six members. But with Afrobeat, you can always add more. At one point during his Egypt 80 days, Fela [Kuti] had something like 20 musicians, not counting all his singers. He had a ton of horns, two bass players, and even two drummers, at times. Ultimately, it’s however many people can be down and dedicated and focused at the time.

Is that the hardest part? To find people who are more interested in playing for the cause, than to be millionaires in music?

In the beginning it was hard, because the concept of it was so new. It seemed so abstract and daunting. Even for my friends who play music and had some familiarity with Afrobeat. There was a handful of people down from the very beginning who, with me, pushed forward. We definitely looked for people who were into Afrobeat. And there were some great guitar players who came through. But, the thing is, to play Afrobeat guitar, you don’t need to be a virtuoso in the American sense of the guitar virtuoso. You have to be really into keeping rhythm like crazy, you know? Really focus to play those meditative guitar parts for, sometimes, 20 minutes.

It is meditative, but at the same time, it's also really powerful. Do you ever look around when you guys are playing onstage, and think, "Wow. We’re doing something really different. Something magical."

Yeah. I think it feels like that a lot of times. But it’s become second nature, you know? And there are some times where it feels more like that than other times. I think it sort of depends on a whole bunch of things: the sound of the room, the energy of the audience....

How hard is it to organize and create an album when there are so many of you involved?

In some instances, it’s a lot easier than I think people would imagine. Like, for example, one of the easiest things is writing the songs. The hardest thing is getting everyone in the same room at the same time.


We’re constantly on the road, on tour, running around. And when we get back to New York, it’s like everybody has to go back to work to pay the rent, or catch up on all the things they missed while on the road. I mean, we probably have about 20 tunes we still haven’t recorded yet.


Yeah. Good ones, too.


They’re ones where we’re like, "We gotta record that one!" So we want to record some more. We’re going to try and get back in the studio this summer. But that’s always one of the trickiest things.

With so many of you on tour, do you feel like you lucked out, that there’s this huge community of support for you guys? I assume you don’t have to pay huge tour bus budgets, or get hotel rooms often.

(laughs) Actually, we do. I mean, there’s enough of us where we have friends in a lot of cities, and we might not have to get so many hotel rooms. But we don’t know that many people. Even if we could stay at somebody’s house, to have all 12 or 14 of us stay at one house would be kinda rough. I mean, imagine the line to take a shit in the morning!


It’d take three hours! So, a lot of times, even if we have people offering us a place to stay, we wind up getting a hotel room for practicality’s sake. I definitely prefer to stay with people if we know someone in a specific town. It’s nice to be able to get a home-cooked meal, sleep in a real bed... or on a real floor.


So, I’d like to talk about the record a bit.


With Who Is This America?, did you enter the studio with a different mindset, or any different intentions than you did on previous records?

Well, this record is definitely the most collaborative record. It really represents us all as a group, instead of just representing a few people. Like, the first record, Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1, was all tunes that I wrote, and everybody just kind of put their finishing touches on. The second record was more half-and-half. And this one is more "us". There are five or six different songwriters. Quite a few of the tunes, like "Big Man", and one of the ones I brought in, "Payback Africa", were big collaborations; a bunch of people really working to tighten it up and polish it. And that’s really how we’ve been doing it for a long time; but the recordings are so far behind where we are in our live shows. This record’s a good feeling, though. People are really psyched about the artwork, and we’re all really excited about the effort that Ropeadope Records, our label, is putting into us. There’s definitely a better feeling coming through than on previous records.

You guys have been around since 1998, correct?


So, you’ve existed as a band during the end of Bill Clinton’s last administration, and into this new Bush administration.


Has there been a shift in attitude? I mean, has the change in administrations affected your songwriting at all, or fueled your live show?

In a lot of ways, it makes it seem even more necessary. In a way, that’s a bad thing. Ideally, you’d want conditions where music of struggle wasn’t necessary. But it is, and things continue to get so much darker. And, you know, Clinton wasn’t a very good person, all things said. But, comparatively....


It’s so much more than one person, though. It’s everyone who’s working for him, and everyone who’s been working in the government for so long. They’re just as responsible for setting these policies, and setting the course for this country. So, it’s definitely a lot bigger than Clinton, and a lot bigger than Bush. The strange thing about Afrobeat is that a lot of the earliest songs were written during military dictatorships in Nigeria; those Afrobeat classics that Fela was writing. We’ll perform some of them, and the sad thing about it is that some of the lyrics that we’re singing, about those military dictatorships in Africa in the Seventies, are very, very relevant to what we’re living in now in the United States. It definitely shows a regression on the part of the United States. We’re more chaotic, more dictator-like, more fearful, less organized... all conditions that were really characteristic of Nigeria in the Seventies. And now, Nigeria in the 2000s is beyond chaos.



I don’t know how much international touring you’ve been able to do, but is it different playing in other countries than it is here?

It depends on the countries. We’ve played in 14 different countries, all limited to Europe, and people are so much more connected to the world. We can drive six hours north into Canada, and, upon leaving the United States, it’s like, "Welcome to the rest of the world!" (laughs) People outside of America seem so much more tied into the actions of their country, you know? They know what’s going on in the rest of the world, and have a connection to it all; a sense of responsibility, maybe, that’s implied. Whereas the United States is a bubble. Even New York is more connected to the world in a lot of ways than middle America, but not by much. You know, some place in Iraq is burning, and people are just interested in going to the corner store and getting their bagel; living life as if nothing different’s happening.

Is that hard for you to see? Doing what you do, amidst the existing possibility that there are more people on Earth not as concerned as you are?

It’s frustrating. Especially when we go abroad, because people see us as cultural ambassadors. We’re the only Americans they get to talk to who aren’t backpackers or people in uniform. They’ll say, "Come here for a sec. What the fuck is going on over there?"


They’re like, "Why didn’t you guys have a revolution when Bush rigged the election?" They’re holding us accountable! And we tell them, "We’re doing what we can." America’s such a big country; it’s not like one group is going to have the solution, or one group will be placed happily upon the mantle. Plus, it’s not a wise thing to do. If you try to take it all on yourself, and they knock you out, then it’s over, you know?


So, the responsibility has to be shared by everyone. And that’s where any movement gets its strength; a lot of people who are down for the cause, and contributing their little bit, rather than one group that’s trying to shoulder everything.

Have you ever been able to meet any of Fela’s family?

We actually were hanging out with his youngest son over in England. He’s done shows with Femi Kuti’s group, and he sat in with us on a couple of occasions. So, without being with him, we’re as connected to Fela as we can be. We’ve done some shows with members of his Egypt 80. It’s important for us to have all this, too, so that we’re not just some music geeks creating this music in a vacuum. We’re genuinely trying to stay connected to the traditions, even though we’re in New York.

I wondered, too, if anyone connected to Fela had seen you, and been like, "Holy shit! These guys are doing it! They got it!"

Yeah. There’s a drummer who was on a couple of Fela’s recordings from the Eighties. He actually recorded three songs on our first record, Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1. He was really supportive from the beginning. He was like, "You guys got it! You guys are Afrobeat musicians. People who play classical music are classical musicians. You guys are Afrobeat musicians." Just having that encouragement... I mean, I don’t like to rely too heavily on people's opinions. But when you’re doing a type of music that is seemingly so far from the context in which you grew up, and you have somebody who was right in the middle of it from the very beginning tell you, "You’re a part of it, too,” that does go a long way.

What are your dreams with this?

Well, my dreams aren’t really relevant. (laughs) I’ve definitely... I wouldn’t say retreated, but definitely changed my role in the group. I mean, I still do most of the press and stuff. But as far as me being the main person in the group with the ideas, you know, the facilitator, no. Now I’m trying to just be a better saxophone player, keep on writing tunes, and keep figuring out creative ways to push the group forward. Really, the strength in Antibalas is each musician. That’s the depth that the group has. Like I said, with this record, there’s something like five different songwriters. One of the reasons that make it so much better is that it’d be really boring if it were a record of just my tunes.


I wouldn’t want to listen to that.


I think what would make me happy dream-wise, is just to get to more countries. Especially a lot of the poor countries, who might not normally be able to afford to bring us. We could do some creative fundraising. The thing with sponsorship is, we’ve been approached by a lot of different people at a lot of different times, but we’re really particular about who we take money from. The Catch-22 is, a lot of the people who have the means to bring us to, say, Mexico, are people we don’t want to have anything to do with, you know?


It’s been a real evolutionary process for everyone in the band, as far as how to relate to people in a non-hierarchical structure. There’s not some one person who has the final "yes" or "no". Our manager might make a decision, but it’s after he’s talked to a whole bunch of us. And we as a group will decide, "No. We’re not going to do this," or "Yes. We’ll do this, but under these conditions." We try to respect everybody in the group. Most of our brains are in the same general head, you know what I mean? But, sometimes, we end up spending hours talking about details. So, like I said, it’s a big evolutionary process. And it’s preparing us for a society in the future where maybe there is real democracy. You don’t even have to vote for somebody. You just express what you need, and what your goals are. I think one of the myths of democracy is that what you’re supposed to be doing is turning over your power to someone who doesn’t have to care about you for a couple of years. That’s not it at all. What’s happening in America is that, there are only a handful of people in all of Congress who really have the people’s backs. It’s really unfortunate. So, Antibalas is just a training ground for getting along in a truly democratic way. (laughs)

Do you think that, maybe if some of those guys in Congress started a band....

(laughs) I don’t know. I don’t think those guys in Congress have the funk.


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