This has been a strong year so far in terms of the quality of music that has been released. In an age of uncertainty, one thing that can calm or excite the senses is a solid cut, and Fu Chronicles, the seventh album from Brooklyn afrobeat act Antibalas that recently dropped on Daptone Records, is full of enough of them to make you dance until tomorrow.
The Antibalas experience comes to the Sinclair in Cambridge on March 19; ahead of their show, I spoke with founder and baritone saxophonist Martin Perna about the making of Fu Chronicles, being in your favorite band’s favorite band, the state of music education in America, and a certain new collaboration he’s involved in.
Before you started Antibalas in 1997, what were you doing with your music career? What inspired you to form a band that fused the sounds of Fela Kuti, jazz, and funk together?
I was part of what became Daptone Records, with the precursor to that being Desto. That was the label that was putting out 45s by Sharon Jones and Lee Fields; I was part of all that stuff while playing tenor sax and flute. A lot of those musicians I was with came together with West African musicians, including a drummer who was part of one of Fela Kuti’s bands. We made a record called Daktaris in ’96, then it sat in the can waiting to get mixed and it came out in ’97. I really liked that project and that musical direction even more than the soul music that I was playing with Sharon Jones, but that wasn’t my principal project to take hold of.
Being in Brooklyn and being part of this sort of legacy of African and Caribbean music with some of the world’s best musicians coming to New York and making it their home, I was really inspired by the great Afro-Latin groups of the ’60s and ’70s. Musicians like Eddie Palmieri and bands like Mandrill. There’s too many groups to name, but that was even more of an inspiration than Fela at the time to bring this group together and create diasporic rhythms while having music with a message in a big band structure. It felt like the time was right, and when Fela died in 1997, nobody was really holding the torch for that kind of music besides his son Femi. It isn’t as much of a tribute to him, but there’s this giant void for where people can get together to see this music that’s built like this. It was a long, organic process to put the band together and find the right players.
A lot of the original lineup came together from people that I was playing with in Sharon Jones’ band. There were about six or seven of us who were in both bands for the first five or six years of both of the bands’ existence. Around 2004, we had to split up officially so both bands could function full-time on the road as much as they need to. It’s a neighborhood band and there was a feeling that this was the time to do this.
Last month, Antibalas released their seventh album to celebrate the 20th anniversary of touring the globe. Where was it made and how much has Antibalas musically grown since the beginning?
We made the record at the Daptone House Of Soul Studios in Bushwick [Brooklyn] in the summer of 2018. We’ve grown a lot and it’s been a lot of things. It’s musical transparency, musical family, the team; it’s a lot more than just a band. To say otherwise, it’s not quite accurate because it’s spawned other musical projects, it’s been a training ground, and some of the world’s top touring acts come see us and then they’ll grab some of our musicians for a tour or even forever sometimes. It’s a very difficult style of music to play, and when we get to showcase that it catches a lot people’s eyes, particularly other musicians. They understand what we’re doing, what it takes to do that, and we’ve gotten better at it, that’s the main thing.
We’ve become more mature while making an effort to write songs that are timeless; that’s our main focus right now. Writing songs that are politically topical, or really useful, that needs to get done, but we’ve been doing that for 20 years. The ones that really resonate, with some exceptions, are the ones that deal with the things that don’t change. They’re either internal, or they’re problems that are longer than just one political administration.
Over the past 20 years, so much has happened. You’ve also conducted musical workshops at Yale, McGill, and the University Of Texas, among other places. On a public level, music education seems to have been taken out of schools, with nonprofits trying to fill the void created by this. What are your opinions on this issue? Do you see a solution?
I think it’s going to take a while. Public education in general has been hollowed away over the past 35 years. This whole process of pulling music out of the schools began in the late ’70s and early ’80s. People are always going to want to make music, but the tools for making it, understanding it, and having access to something more than a laptop is what a lot of kids are not getting. I was teaching music in Oakland this semester, and there are entire high schools, including the one where MC Hammer went, that don’t have a fully functional band program.
All these jazz greats came out of those high schools too. It’s really, really sad because it’s a lot harder to reestablish something that you’ve taken away in order to have something that’s functional after you’ve defunded it. It’s kind of like how it’s way harder to take someone who’s homeless and put them back in a house after they’ve been on the street. It’s cheaper in the long run, but under the economic system we have, we’re looking for the instant return on an investment. That’s not how education works; you measure these gains in decades and generations.
The people who basically govern life as we know it have everything being broken down. A story that you’re gonna write is going to have somebody who’s involved in the publication not wondering whether it’s good or thorough, they’re wondering how many clicks it’s going to get. I think that’s what is frustrating about this moment; all of our values are boiling down to clicks and pennies while not thinking about the long-term investment. It’s a sign that we’re not a mature society when we’re unable to think about the generations after us, and we’re really starting to see things fall apart at the seams in so many different ways.
Our response to that as a band is that we’ve been around for a generation now and we’re still committed to, as best we can, keeping it a big band. If I wanted this to be a money-making thing, I would have figured out how to write songs on a laptop that seven people can play instead of 11, 12, 13, or how many they’ll be. This is an investment that we’re making with music and culture. It’s our livelihood; it’s also like there are much cheaper ways for us to be paying our rent that would put more money into our pockets, but this is something that pays back on multiple levels. We get that, and whenever we take to the stage we inspire [fans] to make similar long-term investments in things that they believe in.
Back in 2015, Antibalas got to be involved in one of the biggest hits of the 2010s, “Uptown Funk” with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. How did you get involved in the making of the song and what are your feelings on being a part of a #1 hit?
Some of us were part of sessions on that record, Uptown Special, which were for that song and another song called “I Can’t Lose.” A couple of our guys worked closely with Mark Ronson and that relationship started during the first Amy Winehouse record. That’s something not really related to the band or our direction. Our band is composed of some of the top musicians in the country, so that’s probably the least interesting thing that we have to talk about. A lot of the time you’re in the studio and you have no idea where the thing is gonna go, so it’s mostly coming in to play these parts and knocking them out. Sometimes it doesn’t take more than 30 minutes; it’s such a footnote as far as our direction and what we’re about. We’re your favorite band’s favorite band [laughs], people call us for all sorts of things because they know we can deliver when they need us for something.
How do you guys manage the band’s schedule when you get these session gigs? Do you all meet up together about it?
A lot of it is negotiated by individuals because the minute we get off tour, we’re working. The economics are such that we can never do a tour and come back to rest on our laurels. We’re constantly working and we really like making music but we also have to.
Outside of the band, do you have anything going on this year with collaborating or teaching?
I’m teaching at the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music, working with high school bands consisting of jazz musicians, boys and girls from seven different high schools. I’ve been working with a team of really good instrumental instructors and it’s been a lot of fun. I’m also working on some music with Tunde Adebimpe, who is the vocalist from TV On The Radio. He’s an old friend, we both used to live in the same apartment, so that’s happening. Antibalas is also already in the process of writing a new record, which will come out as soon as we can get into the studio and record it. We’re looking at a year, a year and a half out from now.
ANTIBALAS & MDOU MOCTAR AT THE SINCLAIR. THU, 3.19. MORE INFO AT SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM.