By Keir Nicoll
VANCOUVER – Martín Perna, founder of the gargantuan, 12-member Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, has spent his past several months in lieu between the Vancouver Jazz Festival, Salt Spring Island, and the snowy Appalachian Mountains. Now, on the heels of the latest Antibalas release, Where the Gods Are in Peace, Perna sits down with BeatRoute for a glimpse into the group’s inspiration.
Antibalas are a political band, and have been so for 20 years. They are continuing to push for change now just as much as they have in the past by using their songs as catalysts to ask questions. They aim to make change for both themselves and the world, framing it, in terms of balance, as analyzing the strains we put on ourselves and on each other that weigh us down, and how we can instead focus on taking care of ourselves.
“We need movements – mass movements – but we need healthy people in those movements,” says Perna. “Unhealthy individuals can’t do healthy work. It’s a lot more nuance to frame something and to know how to respond to it.”
The song “Gold Rush” was inspired by the gold rushes in the States in the 1800s, noting cycles in history, where people are steamrolled for resource exploitation. It still happens now: “Fracking, in Pennsylvania, or actual gold and minerals and uranium, that’s happening in the west,” Perna says. “They’ll bring in paramilitary to wipe out an entire tribe. Or they’ll have treaties with Natives in B.C. We’re trying to keep what we’re thinking about, what’s in front of us, connected to these global things that are disconnected from us chronologically and happening in other parts of the world.”
The legacy of famed Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti lives on in the music of Antibalas. Speaking to this, Perna states, “I think with jazz, the spirit of Louis Armstrong lives on in the music. If you’re not just quoting him, in some ‘70s soul jazz music, his DNA actually lives on in the music. It was more top-down in the past, and there wasn’t as much room for people. Now, in Antibalas, there’s all kinds of room for that, all sorts of people who write and solo.”
There were others, Kuti’s contemporaries, who weren’t as well-known but who still influenced the context of the music – the Funkees, for example, whose psychedelic rock sounds can be heard in “Gold Rush,” with its fuzzed out and overdriven guitars.
Speaking to the next project underway for Antibalas, Perna mentions that it is about women and mothers and taking this idea of balance a step further, to ask the question of what humanity needs.
“The root of our imbalance is the fracture between men and women keeping us from working together,” he says. “It happens on every level. We recorded a song called ‘Sister’ that was about calling us out, how we’re dudes and kind of imperfect and shying away from feminist ideals and reflecting on that. This next album is going to be about the ways these things are off. The earth is falling apart, and more often than not, it’s men making these decisions. What lessons did we learn?”
At their live show, Antibalas plays Where the Gods Are in Peace in its entirety, as well as old favourites they’ve been playing since the beginning. It will be full-on.
Antibalas perform March 18 at the Biltmore Cabaret.Antibalas, Biltmore Cabaret