Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Before his trip to Tucson, I had the chance to speak with Martín Perna of Antibalas on the phone. We discussed their current tour with the amazing Zap Mama, a unique take on culture and what gets people dancing, architecture of music, and what's to come for the band.
How are you doing today Martín?
I’m doing really well! We’re in the west coast now and we were in the thick of the north eastern storm for like two and a half weeks…and it’s no joke. My heart goes out to everybody who can’t come out to the west coast ‘cause it’s really no fun. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie The Wiz when the people are peeling themselves off the walls and getting themselves out of the ugly costumes, but it was just like that for us and the crew as soon as we arrived to San Francisco. It was that dramatic. This tour is 29 dates and we have 9 shows remaining, so we’re in the final stretch. It’s already been one of the best tours we’ve ever been on already.
From what I’ve heard, the shows on this tour with Zap Mama are not like your usual show where the opener goes on first and then you all play – rather it’s a collaborative experience. Could you shed some light on how this works and what each of you bring to the collaboration?
We kind of made of new band that may have a life after this. Maybe we’ll get to record after this or go back out on the road again. It’s definitely not the permanent direction of either group, but it’s a really rich collaboration and really generative for both groups. About six months ago, Marie Daulne, the lead member and founder of Zap Mama, started talking with me and we familiarized ourselves with each other and then discussed the repertoire…how the show was going to go and the other of it. We have the constraints of 90-110 minutes so we wanted to figure out how we would have equal parts. We want them to do what they do really well, for us to do what we do really well, and then how we can also all create something together. A few months later, we get to a rehearsal studio in Brooklyn where we have a few days to fuse a few songs together and see how it feels. We took it down to Florida, which is where we started the tour, and every night the music and the musicians grew closer and closer together. By the sixth or seventh show, it’s where we wanted it to be. Now it gets more fun each night because we can do it without thinking and get to that other place or creativity when you don’t have to remember what next. It’s pure energy now, which is great.
The way it starts out is that they take the stage, and the four vocalist Zap Mama will play songs that they are known for in terms of tight, polyphonic harmonies with mouth percussion and a little bit of acoustic percussion and looping. Then, they are joined by a few of us backing them up on horns, guitars, percussion, etc. Then we do a few songs with the entire band on stage with them. Afterwards, they’ll leave the set and then we play an Antibalas set. We do three or four songs, including two brand new ones.
It’s a lot of fun because Antibalas is normally twelve men on stage. We have collaborated with female musicians, but the nature of the group was such that it has this guy energy. I wouldn’t say it’s a “dude” energy, cause we’re not “dudely” in that sense [laughs]. It’s a very balancing of yin and yang in that sense. The female energy is very amplified and the male energy is very amplified, and it’s all balanced. It’s hard to describe without seeing it, but it feels great. Zap Mama brings so much energy to the stage that we feed off of, and vice versa. There are fans that are there for them, some are there for us, and because we are playing a lot of Performing Arts Centers we are getting a lot of people who haven’t seen either of us before. We’re sharing this new creative venture with our fans. There are so many different creative possibilities that are being activated by this collaboration, and that’s fantastic.
I read that one of the new songs you’re performing is a cover of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”. You mentioned that this song turned out to be a prophetic, can you elaborate on that?
The song was written in 1984, and it was by this artist that no one had heard of, but Michael Jackson was singing the hook. It was during the apex of Michael’s career. But when the song came out, it was this silly sort of novelty song. Here’s this guy who thinks that he can’t have any peace ‘cause his TV is watching him and there’s people snooping…but now that’s all of our realities! [laughs] I just read from a reputable publication that a new line of Samsung TVs are capable of recording your conversations. Not only for voice commands, but they have the capability to record everything. I read yesterday that the NSA have placed information in the firmware of all the hard drives that we have used for over fifteen years. They claim it’s mostly to track terrorist activity, but still it’s in all of our hard drives. So none of us are really safe from this. So this idea that was sort of a weird paranoid fantasty in ’84 was a pop song that no one took seriously, but this same song word-for-word is totally capturing what’s going on today. I think this captures the feeling of a lot of people today.
We definitely put our own twist on it. People don’t realize it’s a cover until it gets to the hook. So I think people appreciate the craftsmanship that we use to re-work it. We have generally tried to stay away from doing covers or things that seem like it’s too easy, but people do like to sing along to songs that they do. So if we can do that with a real justification behind it in an artistic way, it makes sense. And it feels like it makes sense at this point in time.
Since you are touring a lot, you must see a lot of changes going on around the U.S. due to gentrification. You’ve posted about the Renaissance Theater in Harlem being torn down and other historical venues vanishing. This history seems very important for Antibalas, so how do you intend on working through this change?
You have to be creative. Nostalgia alone isn’t going to bring anything back to where it was. There were social conditions that created why there had to be a Renaissance Theater and why there was a theater that wasn’t open to everybody. It’s not about having a blind nostalgia for the past, but to realize and identify the different forces that work that don’t have any regard for things that are important in history. More than anything else, we are seeing this erasure of history. That’s a really scary thing. We have all these hard drives that can store data with all this information, but it’s not the same as remembering history.
In different ways I think musically and to the degree that we can be involved in social projects (which is very hard when you’re on the tour), we have to think what we can do to remember history. It’s dangerous when people don’t understand why the voting rights act is important, or that thousands of black folks were lynched and that there is a continuum between that and police violence today. It’s important to remind them and educate them because there’s a gap between what old folks know and what young folks know. Reality and history doesn’t go away just because you don’t know it. I think more than anything as artists, that’s something we can do through the music, whether it’s doing interviews or writing songs with that theme in the music.
This tour it seems like you’re hitting a lot of Performing Arts venues that are mainly seated. I imagine it’s impossible to not dance during an Antibalas show, but nonetheless do you find it harder to engage with audiences in these types of venues?
Usually a third of the way into the show, most of the people are on their feet. There are a few venues where it takes longer because there is no dancing room, but people inevitably get up. In Chicago on Valentine’s Day, there were tables that went right up to the stage. We asked them to put the tables away, and they said no at first. I said I’ll get off stage and put them away myself! I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and I know people were going to fill up that space. It turned out to be the best show of the tour so far, and it was packed. It was the same thing with the University of Connecticut. It was an auditorium style place, and they put a physical barrier in front of the stage. The crew member said he placed it there so people wouldn’t dance in front of the stage, but we said, “Well, that’s the reason we came out here in the first place.” They relented, but we pulled it out and it turned out to be another really great show.
We had a Q&A with 150 students afterwards, and it went on for super long in a good way. They asked really great questions, and we wanted to know what questions they had about the music. So, overall it hasn’t been hard to engage them but I wish more theaters had more space to dance. There is also people in their 70s or women who are carrying babies that need to sit. Most of the places are good, but there are a few that are more challenging because of the seated nature. It has been great though on this tour because we are going to places that we either have never been or haven’t been to in a really long time. It’s because we’re playing these Performing Arts Centers that we are able to reach these cities. They have more of a budget than a rock club that’s depending on selling drinks. We can have projections, quality equipment and get dressed in a dressing room rather than in a toilet. Those are things that the fans might not think about, but we couldn’t do a show like this in rock clubs. We’ve done a few of them, and it’s more uncomfortable. There are some places that are more ideal to stage it and we make it work wherever we go.
That reminds me how you’ve mentioned that people are instantly more receptive to your show in areas closer to the equator. Do you think the physical environment is a main factor of this?
I think it is partially the environment and also the culture, and a lot of times those two things are intertwined. We’re all made out of water, right? There’s our physical temperature and mental temperature, and our inertia that we have to stay put or the impulse to move around. It’s like when you heat up water, those molecules are boiling, expanding and moving around. I see our goal as band to take whatever state people are in and to heat it up, so a transformation to occur. Some places it’s like melting a block of ice. You can put all the energy in, and what you have is transformation from ice to water and the water is a little warm, but that’s the best you were able to do with what you were given. There are places where the people’s water is already pre-heated, so when you put it your energy everything turns into this steam. That bubbles into the air, and it’s uncontrollable like it. Those are the best kind of shows.
Having done almost 2000 shows with the band over 17 years, this reaction generally happens in warmer places. It’s not exclusively that, it’s not like a hard and fast rule. It’s not like people in southern Italy are going to dance and people in Norway are not going to dance, we have surprises everywhere. Sometimes it’s the venue, how physically warm or cold the venue is, how the weather is that day…there are so many factors that play a role into the bassline temperature when we get in there. We do better in places where people have more exposure to music that includes them…the kind of music where there is a call and response relationship happening. That happens more in warmer areas where people are out and near each other more. I could talk about it forever, but that’s the CliffNotes version.
You’ve debuted three new songs on this tour: Action Time, Tombstown, and Hook and Crook. Tell us how these songs came about and if we can expect them to be recorded soon.
Those three tunes were written by our lead singer, Amayo. “Action Time” is really new, I think it was written in the past few months. “Tombstown” was a song we recorded about ten years ago, but then we weren’t happy with the recording and it didn’t fit in with our sets. It’s also a really complicated song, and we weren’t happy with the final version. We finally had the time that to go back to it and re-work it. It’s like this unfinished novel that a writer has and knows it’s a good thing, but has to put everything aside to finally finish it. “Hook and Crook” got to work on some sound checks in our last tour, but it took the back seat to the sets that we had to do over the past year which were mostly shorter since we were touring with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Charles Bradley. For the past year, we got to do all these great festivals but the sets were only 40 minutes or so. That and we were sharing the stage with 5 other bands on the bill. So this tour has been cool in that we’re able to go back and work on this stuff and then play it out every night for 5 weeks, and then have an idea on whether or not we want it to go on our next record. I think we will record it, ‘cause we got them tuned up to the point where we’re excited to play them.
In other interviews, you’ve stated several times that you’ve working with a musical architecture that Fela created. I read that you’re also practicing superadobe architecture. Do you find any parallels between music architecture and building architecture? How does one assist the other?
Yeah, I think so. Superadobe is pioneered by an Iranian architect Nader Khalili. He used to design skyscrapers in Iran and left all of that behind after a series of earthquakes. What was seen as state-of-the-art crumbled in a matter of seconds. All of this time and money and expertise went into making these forms, and then the Earth moved and the building became nothing. At the same time, he dedicated two years of his life traveling Iran on his motorcycle and visiting ancient villages where they had been building with earth. He noticed that they were using arches and domes, and all those buildings withstood the earthquakes. These were buildings made by people with little to no knowledge of architecture, just folk knowledge which is actually a lot stronger since it stood the test of time and is in harmony with the natural elements.
I kind of see that in our approach to music. I think most electronic music is disposable, no one is going to care a year from now what someone made on their laptop. There are definitely exceptions, but by and large it’s not music with a lasting power. There are rhythmic components that afrobeat has that makes it a very robust music. You can hear it a hundred times, and you will hear and appreciate different things each time. It’s never going to sound dated, it will always sound modern. It’s the same way that if you walk into a building that has a dome or an arch, even though arches have been built in architecture for the past 2,000 years, there is something that feels contemporary and fresh about them.
You’ve also integrated education into your work and conduct workshops at several universities. What are some of the lessons that you teach, and is there any general advice you would give to a student studying music at the universities?
All of the different things that we’ve done vary on the university. Sometimes it’s just at Q&A before or after the concert. I prefer after the concert so people can see what it is that we’re doing and can have something to formulate their questions. We’ve done a few that incorporate playing the music and breaking it down into specific elements – the musical and sonic elements, how the vocals work, and all the different call and response relationships.
As far as advice, make music with people that you like. It’s a lot easier to become a good musician than it is to become a good person [laughs]. You want to find people that are already pretty good people, because becoming a good musician is the easy part, becoming a good person is the harder part. If you’re going to be dedicating your life to a craft and doing it with other people intimately in that sense, they have to be good people that you respect.
The other thing I would say is to keep your overheard low, don’t spend more money than you have. The constraints of being broke can actually be really good up to a certain point, and then you will need some money to make things happen one way or another. Do what you can with what you have. There’s no piece of gear that’s standing between you and an artistic vision. You just have to realize it with what you have and keep on pushing it at that level. What you need to get to the next level will inevitably come along.
After this tour, what can we look forward to for the rest of this year from Antibalas?
It’s up in the air right now. We’re just sorting out summer touring stuff and figuring out when we can get back in the studio to record these new songs. On March 23rd we’re playing in Carnegie Hall in New York where we’ll be the host band along with some friends from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. We’ll be doing a tribute to David Burn and The Talking Heads. Each song has a different singer. Some of the confirmed artists are CeeLo Green, Bebel Gilberto, Rufus Wainright, and I think David Byrn will be there too. It’s almost two dozen singers, so we’ll get to learn all this Talking Heads song that are faithful to the original and do some that are more in our arrangement style. We’ll get to work with a lot of new people and make a lot of new friends.
Last question – what are some things that would describe the smell of the Antibalas tour van at this point?
Well, we just got this bus yesterday. So more than anything it smells like febreeze [laughs]. Whatever the driver used to cover up the smell of the last band, it smells like that. It doesn’t smell too funky right now.
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