Fela listened to James who listened to Louis who inspired Tito who inspired Miles who inspired Carlos who listened to B.B. who listened to T-Bone and Frank in some never-ending double-helix of twentieth century popular music cross-pollinating itself across oceans but centered on an emerging America with enough time and space and energy and guts to just do it for the sake of entertainment and let the academics back-fill the logic at some later date. Politics should be so easy. If politicians could get along as easily as musicians of different genres and persuasions, the world would be a nicer place, n’est-ce pas? I bet Martin Perna, baritone sax player for Antibalas, and Adrian Quesada, guitarist for Grupo Fantasma, would probably think so. In addition to musical chops they share a forward-looking political consciousness that emphasizes action over theory, and… they share a band, sometimes at least… called ‘Ocote Soul Sounds/Adrian Quesada’. They’ve even got a new album out called “Coconut Rock.” It takes more than politics to make a good album of course. Does it work?
Certainly Afro-Beat and Latin-Funk have plenty in common, probably more than their differences, so what do you get when you cross them? In this case, you get something slower and dreamier than what either of them is probably used to. ‘Funk’ is the operative concept for both Antibalas’ brand of Afro-Beat and Grupo Fantasma’s brand of Latin Funk, music you digest on the dance floor, not in the sort of front-porch contemplation that ‘Coconut Rock’ inspires. But apparently Brooklynites need some downtime, too, because Martin Perna makes regular pilgrimages to the continent’s interior regions for some soul-searching or communion or whatever other benefits accrue from such directed travels and deliberate detours. Good for him! Every musician should be so grounded and reality-based and hungry for experience! As I like to say, “I don’t wander, I’m driven…” And so is Martin, though sometimes the bio-deisel beast breaks down, and you need some help. Necessity, not Frank Zappa, is the original mother of invention. In this case, while waiting for car repairs, a new musical entity was born, something not so funky, more psychedelic… almost like Peruvian ‘chicha’, a long-overlooked minor genre finally gaining some adherents and fans with the success of ‘Chicha Libre’, another Brooklyn-based group.
The coincidence may be more than coincidental. Latino music is always looking for new directions, just like its Anglo counterparts, and this is not a bad way to go. The ‘chicha’ (given its upper Amazon origins and psychedelic overtones, maybe it should be rechristened ‘yage’ or ‘ayahuasca’ music for a new generation?) influence is probably most notable on “Tu Fin Mi Comienzo” (Your End My Beginning), and on one hand confirms its emergence as a genre, and on the other hand fires a warning shot that competition is at hand. As with Antibalas, the instrumentals dominate ‘Coconut Rock’, though that’s maybe a shame, because there are some bizarrely compelling titles like “Revolt of the Cockroach People” and “El Diablo y el NauNau” (sorry, I’ve got no ‘enye’ on this keyboard), just not much in the way of lyrics to expound on the themes. One of the ones that does is arguably the album’s ‘hit’, a song called ‘Vampires’ (“red, white, and blue” ones), an indictment of runaway capitalism that leaves nothing but heartache- and higher rents (and presumably some infected converts, too)- in its wake.
But the song that steals the show for me is “Vendendo Saude E Fe” (Selling Health and Faith), a Brazilian song sung in Portuguese by guest vocalist Tita
Latin-Funk and Afro-Beat don’t need much lyrics or vocals to carry them- the music and the rhythm do. Slow that down and let it linger in your mind, and you’ve still got something good, something VERY good, but it may be best for a rainy day… or until the next new releases by the parent companies Antibalas and Grupo Fantasma. If you’re one of their fans, though, you’ll probably find a lot to like in ‘Coconut Rock.’ Listen and judge for yourself.