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Bearing Witness: Antibalas re-release, Who Is This America?

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A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of getting some vegetarian Vietnamese grub with Martín Perna, founder of Antibalas and Ocote Soul Sounds. Activist, artist, apprentice of earth architecture master Nader Khalili, children’s book author, Martín is an original and the conversation is always fresh.

Over springrolls and tea we discussed the re-release of Antibalas’ Who Is This America? Originally dropped in 2004 by Ropeadope, this album was their fourth release and showed a range of musical influences in a mid-tempo, deep-groove funk. The percussion is pulsating, the horns fat, the commentary sharp. And unlike many groove laden bands, Antibalas doesn’t become stale, opting for harmonic variations over dull trappings of lesser beat music.

I asked Martín for his thoughts about the album and the state of the U.S. since the album’s original release. This is what he had to say:

“The album was recorded during 2004 at DapTone Studios. We were really mad, we’re still really mad…the war was starting, all the unanswered questions about September 11th. And speaking for myself, we were right in the middle of all of this. After September 11th the country really missed an opportunity to learn and heal and come together. There were moments like that immediately following the towers going down, there were moments like that all over New York City but there clearly was another political agenda and that was to take advantage of that moment to start up the war machine again.”

“The country, I think in many ways, has gotten worse. Both of the wars that were initiated during that time, Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re still going. We’re pulling out of Iraq, but they’re both bottomless pits, nobody won. Iraq is in shambles, Afghanistan is in shambles. There’s no cultural understanding…they’re still hurting from all the other harm that has been inflicted because of the invasion. And all the people who are fighting it, they get over there and they’re like, “This isn’t what I signed up for.” They see it one way on the news here then they get over there and it’s reality. Enemies everywhere and nowhere at the same time, witnessing all these atrocities, sometimes being put up to do things they know is against their moral judgment, and losing people around them, being separated from loved ones, it’s really horrible.”

“So, I think the government has become – even though we have a Democratic administration, and there are people in there who are closer to people’s everyday worries than in the Bush administration – the country is largely the same, you know, the new administration is not reflecting on all the different ways America was harmed during the Bush administration, from the Patriot Act to the violation of privacy, poor economic decisions, poor environmental decisions.”

“So, we’re optimists but I think so many people are let down. Not that they expected Obama to be a Superman. But he spends so much time with the Republicans, trying to placate them or rationalize things to them, and their actions clearly, the way they deny global warming, wanting to start wars all over the globe, there’s a disconnect. They’ve put themselves in a position to profit from the consequences. War is a win-win situation for them. If they win the war, they get the resources. If they lose, the companies they run have still made billions and billions of dollars from the contracts.”

“One of the things that’s happened, especially couched in the language of patriotism, there becomes less and less space for free speech. Meanwhile, on television, people are saying outrageous things. Look at Glenn Beck for inciting that man who went armed for violence to the Tides Center. Glenn Beck has mentioned the Tides Center thirty-one times since January, 2009.”

“One of the things that’s happened – it happened during Clinton but it expanded under Bush – was the amount of control, the amount of reach that different media entities are able to have. There used to be laws that limited the amount of media outlets in any area. But now, companies like Clear Channel are able to own as much as much as they want. And from a corporate point of view it makes sense for them to align their message. Whether it’s a gospel station, or an R&B station, or a classic rock station, the messages are aligned. You have these different languages speaking to different audiences but the message is the same. On mainstream radio, when the Iraq War was starting up, there wasn’t any dissent. They just blacklist it. It’s not allowed on the airwaves.”

“And the idea that all the tricks the government will play on people are over…it’s still happening. There was an FBI informant here in Austin who was just revealed. He was active in the activist community for years, a man named Brandon Darby. Right after Katrina he was down there positioning himself into a leadership role for a non-profit called Common Ground and was a very passionate spokesman for victims’ rights, so on the surface it looked like he was doing all this very important, socially conscious work, all the while reporting back to the FBI, feeding information back to disrupt attempts to clean up the corruption and set New Orleans in a different political direction.”

“He came out as an informant during the Republican convention of 2008. He was up in Minneapolis and there were two young, white activists, and he basically incited them to violence, making Molotov cocktails and getting them all hyped up. Then the police came and arrested them (the two young activists). During their trial, there was a subpoena that named him as a witness, and the activist community found out about him.”

“And that same thing happened in Oakland. A black man named Oscar Grant was shot on a train platform, face down, by this white officer. It was one of the most egregious incidents of a very common pattern of white officers and unjustified shootings of black and Latino youth. There were different protests that got rowdy, and one of the guys who was one of the most vocal activists turned out to be an informant. He was inciting people to violence, he was a provocateur. Same thing is happening in Arizona with SB 1070. Most of the people who are protesting against SB 1070 don’t want to raise hell. It’s about people being able to live and work peacefully here. And so, to raise hell is antithetical to that.”

“So, even though we have a president who is left-of-center and progressive, the country has moved a lot more towards the Right, and the wealth, there’s been one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the working-class and middle-class people up to the upper classes because of all the foreclosures, credit card companies and all the financial instruments that have been deregulated.”

“There’s room in this country. I’ve been across it ten times. It’s a matter of not blaming the immigrants. It’s a matter of not being lazy. There will be room for people to make a living wage when we start moving the national wealth from Defense to investing in infrastructure, education, healthcare.”

“I’m happy to see the album come out. There’s a song on there called, “Sister,” which is about patriarchy, male privilege. You know, when you live in a place like New York where everyone lives on top of each other you see a lot more human interaction. The amount of armor a woman has to wear when she goes out in the world to shield her from harassment…guys don’t get harassed like women do. So, it’s a responsibility, as a band of twelve, thirteen dudes, if we’re going to be critical, we really need to look at that.”

“We made the album, not with the sense that we were making a lasting political statement, but rather that we were bearing witness to the power grab. Now that it’s coming back it’s interesting to go back and see where things lie, is it more true today. If you can’t do anything else, bear witness, acknowledge it. And we felt really powerless. We felt that our city was hi-jacked, soldiers everywhere, a climate of fear, under the guise of protecting us.”

Fighting the war against musical mediocrity and cultural ignorance, the music of Antibalas is music without borders, weaving a jazz, funk, Afro-Caribbean, and West African tapestry. Who Is This America? has been reissued on CD with a previously unreleased track produced by Scott Harding entitled “Money Talks.” The iTunes version of the reissue include the exclusive cut‚ “Paz.” Additionally‚ a special limited edition package featuring the CD‚ the album download and a reprint of the original Ropeadope “Running Man” t-shirt will be sold at both Antibalas’ and Ropeadope’s websites.

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