Interview with Martin Pena
Martin Perna is perhaps best known for founding Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, but his work with Ocote Soul Sounds is equally respected and renowned. Taurus, the fourth studio album from Ocote out June 7, 2011 on ESL Records, represents the latest progression of his collaboration with Adrian Quesada and a host of other extremely talented musicians. I’ve interviewed Martin twice before, both times in connection to his work with Antibalas. This time we focused on Ocote (although we did sneak in a question or two on Antibalas). If you haven’t heard the album yet, I would absolutely pick up a copy, but only if you like danceable, smooth, funky ass music:
Marc Gabriel Amigone: First of all, congrats on an amazing new album, I’ve been spinning this a lot when I dj as of late and it’s been getting people dancing. I feel like this album has a different vibe than Coconut Rock. Was that a conscious effort, or more of a natural evolution?
Martin Perna: One of the biggest difference between Taurus and the previous albums was that we had a chance to do some touring last year, opening for Thievery Corporation where we first had the chance to play several shows over a concentrated time, and this allowed us to really see how the music resonated in different people in different places. We didn’t sit down and consciously address these reflections in the album-making process but I think it ultimately shows on Taurus- there’s more songs people can sing to, and the bass and drums have a lot more clarity than on previous albums which translates into a heavier impact on the dance floor. Working with Eric Hilton and the engineers at ESL helped us get much better results sonically.
MGA: The thing that stands out to me the most about this album is the groove. It steadily flows from song to song throughout with a very smooth, danceable production value and rich texture. Was that a goal you set out to accomplish when recording the album?
MP: Again, I don’t know how explicitly conscious it was but it was the result of working together with a shared vision that we didn’t always need language to articulate. All of our previous albums are definitely groove-oriented to them but this album probably has the most sonic consistency from song to song. It helped that we worked on all the songs at the same time rather than piece by piece months apart like we did on previous albums.
MGA: Could you give a run-down of who played what on the album?
MP: Adrian Quesada- guitars, some bass, some keys. Martín Perna- flutes, baritone sax, some acoustic guitar, some bass, shekere, and other percussion and vocals. John Speice plays drums, congas, bata, and other percussion. Will Rast plays keys, organs, and clav–all the solos and elaborate stuff are him. Marcos García and Courtney Morris sing. We also have some guest vocalists: Courtney Morris and from Thievery Corporation- Verny Varela, Natalia Clavier, Sitali Siyolwe, and Sista Pat. Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation makes some cameo appearances on percussion as well. They were all around in the DC neighborhood when we were making the record and we became friends with them while in the road so it made sense to make some music together. The live band
MGA: Marcos Garcia definitely makes his presence felt on this album. How did you and Marcos first meet, how would you describe your musical relationship with him and the impact he has on Ocote?
MP: Marcos and I have been playing together for almost ten years with Antibalas, and are close friends. I love the music he makes with Chico Mann, and on our last album Coconut Rock, he recorded some vocals and other instruments. Over the years he and Adrian have started a good collaborative relationship and we all work together pretty well, over time and space. It’s fun working with him and he brings a lot to the group, especially on the albums..
MGA: Who is your target audience for this album, if you have one?
MP: That’s a tough question because I never have felt like my music has had one target audience. When you consciously try to please everybody, you don’t end up pleasing anybody. Ultimately, if my peers- musicians and DJs like it, it is successful to me. However, it makes me really really happy when people tell me, “my twelve year old brother who only listens to Lil Wayne really dug the album” or “my mom heard you on NPR and went out and bought your record.”
MGA: Living in Austin, Texas, your music has access to a Spanish speaking population. Is your music marketed and/or distributed in Spanish speaking countries in Latin America at all?
MP: This is kind of a loaded question since folks were speaking Spanish on the continent for at least a hundred years before English was common place and we find both new and generations-old Spanish speaking populations across North America so Austin is just one of many bilingual cities. We do a fair amount of Spanish press down here and have performed in a lot of Spanish language events like Pachanga Festival and some big Cinco de Mayo jams, and our music gets air play on a lot of university, public, and underground radio stations in the Spanish speaking US and Latin America, but hasn’t ever cracked the big bubble of Spanish commercial radio. We performed at Summerstage last year for the LAMC and got a really good response, but the mainstream Latin music world can be as shallow, fractured and corrupt as the Anglo music industry. I’m not really concerned about kissing anyone’s butt or trying to convince people to like the music- if they get it, good.
MGA: Has Ocote ever toured/performed in Mexico, Central or South America?
MP: Adrian and I have been there with our other groups but not yet with Ocote. With Ocote, touring is harder to do because we have to squeeze everything in between other tours and family stuff. I would love to do some more performances in Latin America but it’s considerably harder to do because there’s not the same amount of resources or infrastructure to tour there as opposed to western Europe. Given the violence along the border, there are a lot more very real risks dipping down to Monterrey or Torreon to play a show, even if it’s only five or six hours away by car.
MGA: Your work with Antibalas makes no attempt to hide its anti-establishment message. Ocote’s message although definitely anti-establishment, is a bit more subdued. Do you feel like you can reach a wider audience with Ocote due to the fact the songs are more palatable to a mainstream audience and record industry standards?
MP: I don’t think the songs are any less political…they just have a different mood and a different voice. That said, with Antibalas and Afrobeat music we operate within a genre, a musical idiom and musical legacy that is explicitly political, or should be anyway given the history of the music. Ocote isn’t necessarily beholden to the expectations or inheritance of solely one genre or tradition so there’s not that same push to be explicit, although several songs on the album definitely are. Politically, I think the music is shaped mostly by the nueva canción protest music tradition of the 60s/70s in Latin America more than anything else- artists like Victor Jara, Daniel Viglietti, Mercedes Sosa, Violeta Parra, Silvio Rodriguez, as well as some Brazilian artists from the Tropicalia era like Caetano Veloso and Tom Zé.
MGA: What are you listening to these days that’s inspiring you?
MP: At this very moment, Donald Byrd “Street Lady”. I have been going back to a lot of the early funk that i grew up listening to like Slave, Aurra, Lakeside, and a lot of the eclectic soul and funk, and house played by the great djs at the Loft, Paradise Garage, Warehouse, and Music Box. I love the latest Erykah Badu album. I’m always inspired by music made by my musical family- Budos band, Echocentrics, Dap Kings, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, Karl Hector, Michael Leonhart, Superhuman Happiness, Beyondo, TVOTR, Brownout, etc. I’m biased, but I do feel like thats some of the best music being made today.
MGA: What artists/bands would you recommend to fans of Ocote looking to hear what inspired you and your bandmates to create this music?
MP: Cymande, Larry Harlow, Frankie Dante, Celso Piña, Grupo Folklorico y Experimental, Los Pasteles Verdes, Toto la Momposina…
MGA: I just picked up a copy of Rat Race on vinyl, does Antibalas have any plans to record more new music anytime soon?
MP: I don’t know about soon, but definitely, yes. Antibalas has a very deep well of creative juice. It just takes a long time to extract it.