Martin Perna (Ocote Soul Sounds, Antibalas, TV On the Radio)

Martin Perna (Ocote Soul Sounds, Antibalas, TV On the Radio)
Martin Perna (Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra) has reunited with long-time friend and collaborator Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma, Brownout) under his pseudonym Ocote Soul Sounds, to create The Alchemist Manifesto (ESL music) a blend of psych, Latin, funk and dub resulting in one of the year’s most beautifully crafted albums. As a follow-up to 2006’s El Niño y El Sol, The Alchemist Manifesto fuses elements of the past, present and future into a very unique vision.

Aside from being a working musician (regularly contributing his skills to Antibalas, Sharon Jones, TV on the Radio as well as the recent Beck and Scarlett Johansson records), Martin is a passionate social activist that is never one to shy away from political messages. Through his music, Martin has established his socio-political identity that continues to inspire others through his commitment to positive social change. And it’s not only music that Martin uses to speak his mind – his entire lifestyle is an extension of his beliefs.

Now, living in Austin, TX, Martin has found both the space and the means to live his life in a way he couldn’t while in New York City. And with the underlying threat of some sort of a disaster waiting for us in the next few years, Martin’s lifestyle has taken on even more significance. Martin took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the new album, the evolution of Latino culture, Obama and radical urban sustainability.

Martin, it seems to me that the music that you create not only looks back towards the ancestors but still pushes our culture to another level. Is that intentional or is that you guys just doing you?
It's both. We definitely do it on purpose but I don't think it's that calculated. It's not like we go into the studio and say. "Okay, we're going to take A and B and make C” or "We have enough old stuff in this song, let'’s balance it out with new stuff.” I think that's just when [Adrian] and I put our heads together, that's just what comes out. We both share a lot of common aesthetic. We spend a lot of time apart, working on stuff, and then we'll get together and I'll tell him to think about this song and I'll do the same thing and I always like what he brings to the table. At times we just kinda finish off each other’s compositions. We add these elements, a melody here or a bit of percussion. I think we just compliment each other - we're both Tauruses! [Laughs.]

I know that aside from being a musician, you’re a very hard-working social activist. How have you been able to find a balance between your art and your activism?
I'm still figuring that out because on one hand, as we get older and in certain ways become more comfortable and have access to things that might be considered luxuries and recognizing that there are so many people that don't have that, how can we have this and be comfortable with it? I think part of it as an artist is to be consistent and to never build the wall around and let it become so big that you can't see what's going on or let anybody in. The music that we have, the musical tools that we have, we can give a voice to certain key issues. La Reja, the border fence, is one of the crazy, crazy things that is going on. With music, one of my weaker points is as a lyricist, that's something that's just coming together and there is a lot more that I really want to say, but we were just like let's talk about the border. We have a presidential election coming up and no one is really talking about that idea. I like Obama a lot and he's going to get my vote but I think one of the things that we got to do is continue pressing him let him know that although he may, as a political tactic, swing a little more to the centre or to the right to get more voters, he cannot forget everybody that is trying to get into the United States, or are currently working as the backbone of our economy.

It’s been a long and weird eight years for everybody in the world. Has the recent political climate in the U.S. made you want to say, screw it I’m moving to Europe?
Screw it I want to stay in Canada [laughs]. It's definitely like that. One of the things, being born in the United States and especially with Antibalas which is the band that we tour with most of the time, when we go to Europe, which is by no means perfect, people are like, "after four years of Bush, how did y'all let that happen again?” and I just find myself scratching my head and being like, "You know, I'm still trying to figure that out [laughs]. It's crazy and at the same time, a lot of things have changed in the United States and a lot of things haven't. It's created such a cushion of wealth that for all the messed up things that have happened it's created this giant piggy bank. And granted that the piggy bank is empty or full of funny-money, it's really how I think things have gotten harder but things are still in many ways very easy but I think that bottom is going to drop out from under us at any time.

Is that a constant fear that you sense in the American people? Are they aware of what is around the corner?
I don't think that many people are conscious of it because there aren't that many people that are aware of history. Like the great depression, all of that happened after a series of financial events where things began to accelerate very quickly and then all of a sudden the dollar wasn't worth very much and considered as really hard to get. All that happened, that whole process that lead the people into the great depression happened very quickly and it happened at a time when people thought the economy was as strong as ever. So I see something like that happening in the United States, just in the same way that September 11 happened and within a week the country was on lock-down and then they let all the Saudi royal family onto a plane while the country was on lock-down. That's the other frustrating thing with living in this time and feeling that, with all the information that we can find we never really have the whole story.

Well things are definitely getting harder for everybody everywhere. How do you see the music industry changing with everything that’s happening?
I see on one hand, people are re-locating to places that are more affordable where they feel like they can make either a living or make a life. I know a lot of people have moved out of New York and actually into my neighbourhood in Austin [laughs]. There are like eight or nine people that have moved down here from New York. It's just that, it's a lot cheaper to live, in my backyard I'm growing vegetables and just doing stuff that's more along the lines of being self-sufficient. I see us definitely touring less, Antibalas, I don't know if we can afford to do a coast-to-coast tour of America anymore with the price of gas and hotels and stuff. We're doing some stuff this year, but kinda just flying out to Europe and California. I don't think it's a very responsible thing nowadays to go on the road and burn up a bunch of gas.

I know you’ve been regularly touring for many years now, so is the fact that you won’t be able to be on the road with your music worry you at all?
For me, like right now, every bit of time that I have at home is valuable because that's when I can study and learn about different skills that may save my life and collectively save our lives. We all got to be spending more time in the garden; we all got to be spending time studying maps and learning about collecting water. Part of the Alchemist Manifesto, it's not like some track that's written somewhere with the rules, but trying to inspire people with the idea that all of us are going to have to learn these skills that our Abuelos y Abuelas had of making something out of nothing. Specifically our generation, for all the great breakthroughs in technology, we're lazy; our brains and our backs are atrophied. People don't know how to use a shovel; people don't know how to use a machete. People don't know how to work the earth and we got to get there. Other people, that I'm connected to, are doing workshops to teach these kinds of skills. There's a really cool collective/living space here in town called Rhizome and once or twice a year they do radical urban sustainability training so you can learn how to, say you have a vacant lot that's been contaminated with car fluids or different types of toxins, they'll show what plants to use to breakdown the toxins down and then you can use that soil for farming. They're in Austin, there's a lot of Cubanos living there in Rhizome, it’s a really, uh, [laughs] an interesting place. I think, one way that I deal with that anxiety, rather than just worry about these types of things, I try to do little things. Instead of trying to learn everything in one day, I try to learn and do a little everyday.