Antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof,” and you don’t get that sort of distinction without a lot of hard work and dedication to what really matters. In the case of Martín Perna, what really matters is his music and the relationships that it has helped him form. In the late ‘90s, Perna brought together the musicians who now make up the Antibalas collective, which is modeled after the band of Fela Kuti, the godfather of the Afrobeat genre who’s torch he and his bandmates proudly bear today and into the future.
Antibalas’ monthly residency at Brooklyn Bowl continues tonight with special guests Brian Jackson (Gil Scott-Heron) and Steven Bernstein (Sex Mob, Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9). In the midst of this, Perna speaks about the band’s relationship with the venue and the borough in general, what playing with Kuti’s band members has taught his own group about Afrobeat and his personal and musical history with Brooklyn’s Daptone Records and its co-founder Gabriel Roth.
You guys have become a steady presence at Brooklyn Bowl. How did your relationship with the venue start out?
We had a relationship with the Brooklyn Bowl people dating back to the Wetlands, which was a legendary venue, and it was always something like, “Well, when you guys are around more in New York, you know, come do a regular thing.” So it kind of took a while to line up, but we helped open their London venue in 2014—we did three nights there. We have been wanting to get a residency up and running, because we had one in New York back in ’98–’01 and it was great, having something regular in the city in the same space and stage. That’s the best, when you can just get used to the stage and not have to deal with all of these other variables. You can really focus on the music and get the music into a much different, more powerful place. When you are worried about how you’re going to see the people on the other side of the stage or how it sounds or anything like that, it takes one or two shows to get it dialed in. You know you could start doing really cool things; we are looking forward to that.
What does it mean to you guys to have a residency like that in New York City, close to home?
It is cool to do something in Brooklyn—a number of us still live in Brooklyn—but it’s also kind of bittersweet. You know, it’s like belonging to a church or something where you can’t afford to live in that neighborhood and nobody else lives in that neighborhood either. There was a time when 10 of us were living on the south side of Williamsburg and we could walk to each other’s houses and we had a rehearsal space. None of that exists anymore. Sort of like this kind of bitter reminder of how much the city has changed—it’s too bad.
You’ve had some great guests for your past residencies and I’m sure you have some more lined up. How do you go about selecting guests for a run like that?
We make a big list of people that we have worked with and people that we haven’t worked with but that we would like to work with and we just call them, usually reach out to them directly—musician to musician—rather than our manager trying to get in touch with their manager and stuff. It’s folks that, in one way or another, we are connected to and we feel like there is either some common thread in our music or there are some cool possibilities when we get together, that something really interesting and musical will happen.
It’s tricky, because anyone who is worth making music with is very tough to pin down. There are a lot of folks that are constantly on tour, and we are doing it once a month, so some of the stuff comes through last minute, but it’s really exciting when it does. We never know—maybe like a month out—who can do it. It is cool to just revisit and catch up with friends on the stage and see where they are at and how they plug into our music and vice versa. Usually it’s really open-ended with the collaborations, you know—we’ll do some of our songs, some of their songs, some covers. It’s just a process that gets hashed out a couple of weeks before the show, and we usually have some time the week of the show when we come to our rehearsal space and run through the stuff and figure out how they want to do it and we make it happen.
I am really looking forward to all of these residencies. It’s so much fun to have a really good reason to call up friends and say, “Hey, we’ve got this thing going, here are the dates. We’ve always talked about doing something together, and now we have the chance so let’s do it!” It’s always hard, because everybody is sort of in this musical climate—if I have to be on the road everything is up in the air, and then we figure out how to make it happen, you know, we don’t want it to end, because it goes so fast.
I know you guys have played with musicians who have played with Fela Kuti. What is it like, playing with those people who were so vital to the growth of the Afrobeat genre? Was it a learning experience for you?
Yeah, absolutely. We have played many times with his drummer Tony Allen, and I think that was probably the most educational because you can really feel how the music breathes. It’s one thing to listen to a record—and you can learn a lot by dissecting the record—but being able to actually feel how the music breathes and see and feel dynamically how the energy goes up and down, the different sort of waves it has, these tense moments and these moments of release, there is no substitute for that. So on the musical end, I think that’s really, really important, just understanding the nuances of how it’s supposed to sound in a live setting. Still important, but on a lesser [note], it’s sort of a validation—if we weren’t confident in this, we wouldn’t be messing with this—they wouldn’t come around and play with us—so that feels really good. Tony Allan doesn’t play with everybody, so he feels like we have some mastery of the music, and he feels like he can get to that place with us musically, so that’s pretty exciting.
The same was true, we got to play with Fela’s keyboard player, Dele Sosimi. He’s based in England, but we brought him over in the summer of 2000 and we got really deep. We weren’t really doing any of his tunes—we knew them, but we didn’t really play them out. We knew them as jazz standards, but we were just focusing on original stuff. We had to learn a whole bunch of his material, and it kind of opened us up to learning more of his songs and just mastering them and having them in our pocket in case we did want to play them out. So that was this door to getting deeper and deeper into his repertoire And the other thing—there are these different harmonies with the way Fela would write— his horn harmonies, in particular, are kind of unconventional. They don’t follow normal lines of jazz arranging and stuff, so there are things that are really hard to pick out by ear. You can swear one horn is playing this note and the other horn is playing this note, and then when we get together with him he said, “Oh no, the baritone”—even though it’s a lower horn—“you’re actually on top here and the tenor is lower.” Different things that only someone who was in the room could sort of pick apart and tell you, “Oh no, this is how it’s actually supposed to be.” I think we have given a lot of integrity to our understanding of Fela’s music, but also the structure of afrobeat music.
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