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Ocote Soul Sounds: Modern Latin Folklore

Sometimes bad luck can turn out to be a good thing.

In late 2004, Brooklyn-based musician Martin Perna set out on a biofueled trip to Mexico. But the founder of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra didn't quite get there; his car broke down in Austin, Tex.

Luckily, he was far from stranded. Adrian Quesada, a member of Austin's Grupo Fantasma, took Perna in. Jam sessions over the next few weeks resulted in inspiration for a new album — and a new group — under the name Ocote Soul Sounds.

The chemistry between Quesada and Perna worked so well that the duo has returned with a new album, this one called The Alchemist Manifesto. Perna spoke to Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa about the new project.

It's one of many hats Perna wears. He's an in-demand session musician who has recorded with TV on the Radio, Celebration and Scarlett Johansson. With Antibalas, he makes a brassy, raucous, big-band sort of music. But Ocote Soul Sounds is yet another identity: a downtempo blend of relaxed Latin grooves.

The word Ocote, taken from the Aztec language Nahuatl, refers to a Mexican pine tree. It's key to how Perna views the project.

"One of the things that's magical about the ocote is that, as you're probably familiar, you can go to a market and buy little bundles of it," Perna says. "And that's the kind of wood that you use to get the fire started. ... And the ocote can even be used to get wet logs, or logs that don't want to burn — it can get those logs to burn. So there's this idea of nature, the hardwood of this pine tree getting the fire started."

The Nahuatl reference takes on a special significance. Perna says that he and Quesada are trying to draw from both Mexican roots and their current environments in an authentic way.

"So a lot of the songs we make are border sounds," Perna says. "They're in between the space between the modern world, the folkloric world; technology and roots sounds. And we're just trying to make sense of it. So each record that we make is us reconciling this moment in the present."

Take the song "El Pescador," which combines a Yoruba chant with hip-hop drums.

"The beat underlying it is that — you know, just because we're in a modern era where hip-hop is dominating the airwaves, and just these big beats underneath, that we can't sever our connection with the old songs of the past, and the Orishas," Perna says. "I think different people in this day and age are successfully linking those traditions, and we're a part of it in that way."

The well-traveled Perna also spoke his mind on the future of Latino unity in the U.S.

"Before, I think, Latinos can really move forward in the United States to a degree of true success, true happiness, we have a lot of baggage and politics to work out amongst ourselves," he says. "And to realize that we're bound by a history of colonialism, of slavery, of conquest, but we're united by things that are even more transcendental."

Copyright 2008 KUT 90.5

Latino USA