Q&A: Antibalas Founder Martin Perna Talks to Knockdown Alley

Posted on Monday November 2nd in

Martín Perna grew up in Philadelphia listening to the likes of Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and Talking Heads before getting into funk, jazz, soul, and salsa — and taking up the baritone sax and other woodwind instruments. All of this informed his decision to form Antibalas (below, performing “Dirty Money” live in studio for WFUV FM), heavily influenced by Fela Kuti and Africa ’70, back in ’98. The Brooklyn-based Afrobeat outfit has been steadily busy ever since, getting people to shake it all across the globe, while still finding time to record music in the studio, including their most recent, an eponymous album (stream it below), out in 2012. On Wednesday, Antibalas continue their Wednesday residency at Brooklyn Bowl, and Martín Perna spoke to Knockdown Alley about it.

(See Antibalas on November 4th with Saul Williams, on November 11th with Santigold, and on November 18th with Lee Fields and Will Holla.)

Do you have any new music on the way? And do you ever road-test new material live before recording it? We have a couple different album concepts of both new, original material and crazy, unexpected cover tunes from other genres that we’ve put into our own voice. We regularly road-test songs before recording them — sometimes for six or seven years before they end up on a record.

As a New York City band, do you notice if your music is received any differently here than it is in other parts of the country? And is there any significance in playing in Brooklyn? We have more friends and family in the audience in NYC, and there are more people who have been following us since the early days of the band dating back almost 18 years, so there is a deeper appreciation here. Also, NYC folks have a greater understanding of how the city has changed, gotten more expensive and hostile to the creative working class, and because of that, they respect that we’ve been able to continue to stick together and push forward.

You’ve got a four-show Wednesday residency at Brooklyn Bowl. What can we expect? And will each show have a different set list? We’re doing a different set every week, drawing on songs from all of our albums and newer unrecorded material, and doing it more or less in chronological way. In the first week, we’ll be doing songs from our first two albums, some of which we haven’t performed in over 10 years. We also have a special-guest vocalist each week and have done Antibalas-flavored arrangements of their songs so it’ll be a surprise for us, them, and the audience.

What music or song always makes you dance? Hector Lavoe, “Mi Gente.”

Do you have any crutches when writing a song — are there certain words or styles you feel you lean on too much? In Antibalas, lyrics are usually the last thing to be written, and the hardest to tackle because of the language element, and questions of whether to do lyrics in standard English or pidgin/West African vernacular or Yoruba, or Spanish.

Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you? I don’t think it needs to have happened to you. You just need to be a sensitive storyteller and be able to relate to those feelings of deep sorrow and become fluent in them and then translate them into musical language that is authentic to the listeners, regardless of whether it happened to you or not. When Johnny Cash sung about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, those lyrics and the feeling behind them carried an immense amount of weight despite the fact that it was fiction.

At your after-party there’s an endless jukebox, and we give you a buck. Which three songs are you playing? Gotta get a lot of bang for my buck so I’ll think of the best long-form songs: “Beasts of No Nation” by Fela [Kuti] and the Egypt 80, “Pedro Navaja” by Ruben Blades, and “Lovin’ Man” by Eugene McDaniels.

It’s 4 a.m. and last call has come and gone. What’s your next move? If somebody has a car, head down to Far Rockaway and watch the sunrise. Otherwise, go home, get some sleep, and get up and a decent hour and make the most of whatever is left of the day. —R.Zizmor | @Hand_Dog



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