April 3, 2003

'Suffering and Smiling': N.Y. Afro Beat

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Martin Perna is a founding member of the Antibala Afrobeat Orchestra, which performed at the Haunt this past Thursday. He took a few minutes before his sound-checks to speak with the daze about the band’s work.

daze: To start off, I want to ask about the politics of the band — that’s something that comes up in any discussion of Antibalas, and it’s also a very prominent topic everywhere right now.

Martin Perna: Yeah, everyone keeps asking about the politics.

daze: Really? Ok …

MP: No — it’s good. It gives us the opportunity to engage people in dialogue. We’re not trying to necessarily get across the point that we’re right and you’re wrong, but rather that in America right now there’s no dialogue. It’s like the opinions that people hold are being dictated from somewhere else.

And it’s not common sense that brings people to those opinions, because if you step back and analyze it, the same vengeance with which America is attacking Iraq, was the same vengeance with which whoever crashed into the World Trade Center did that — it’s the same inspiration, the same motive. Americans were grieving so hard, thinking it was the biggest tragedy, and yet it’s being perpetrated on other people on the other side of the world.

daze: So would you call yourselves a political band?

MP: No! We don’t call ourselves a political band. [The politics are] more the inspiration for the music, what the lyrics are, and how we live — how we deal with people. Everything, when you think about it, is political. All wars start with a tiny bit of conflict in the heart and someone just not knowing how to deal with it, to the point that they just want to annihilate thousands of people. They just don’t know how to love at all, because if you did, that so-called solution would not occur to you.

So much of the political on a national and an international level all goes down to where each person’s individual spirit is, how much they’re capable of loving and how much they’re capable of fearing. Wars begin where reason ends. And it’s very frustrating to see on one hand, we’re a nation where rule of law is supposed to matter. But now we’ve created this body called the United Nations and only invoke it when it’s in our favor. When it’s not in our favor, whether it’s the Kyoto Treaty protecting the environment, human rights, or this war, whenever those have clashed with what the American government and businesses want, well the laws don’t matter. But then we’ll invoke those same laws to say that Saddam is breaking them. And that’s not to say he’s not guilty, because from even the most radical and liberal information, yeah, he murdered Kurds.

daze: So what is Antibalas saying to its audience?

MP: Well, we try to not be hypocrites, as far as living in America and enjoying the privileges that we’re enjoying, and at the same time wanting justice — there are so many paradoxes that we’re living. We’re trying to draw attention to them in our own lives, analyze them, and do what we do, which is making music as honestly as we can, and trying to initiate these dialogues when people come out.

First and foremost we gotta make people dance. But we also have to address these problems that we see going on right in front of our eyes. And bring these ideas to people when they might not otherwise see them anywhere else.

And dance they did. I’ve never seen an audience as responsive to the first bars of a group’s performance as was the Haunt on Thursday — and it’s no wonder; Antibalas emanated rhythm, from the beats themselves, interwoven polyrhythmic pulses from the drum set, congas, and wood block to the sight of a whole band in motion. The two guitarists on stage left and the four-piece horn section on the right all moved with the beat to a trance-like effect that made them look like dancers with their partners as much as musicians with their instruments.

After the percussionists’ deft command of the rhythm, the ensemble’s cohesion was most striking. Antibalas exploits that precision — driving the audience into a dancing frenzy –with suspenseful periods of pause during which a single percussionist or guitarist held a rhythm repetitively followed by a gust of sound as the horns entered and the Haunt was filled again with Antibalas’ thick soul.

Information on Antibalas, as well as upcoming concert and festival dates, can be found on the band’s website, at www.antibalas.com

Archived article by Chris Wells