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Escape Velocity

Energy Of Unity: An Interview With Family Atlantica
Stewart Smith , August 23rd, 2016 08:29

The globe-spanning collective's percussionist Jack Yglesias tells Stewart Smith how their second album is shaped by their cosmic vision, the legacy of slavery and collaborating with Marshall Allen and Orlando Julius

"We met amongst the drums," says Jack Yglesias, recalling the birth of Family Atlantica amid the East London warehouse and squat scene of the mid-'00s. On their glorious second album, Cosmic Unity, the multi-limbed groove collective continue to trace the diaspora of African rhythms across the Atlantic region, taking in cosmic jazz, funked-up Ethiopiques, Venezuelan calypso and psychedelic highlife.

Family Atlantica centres on London-born percussionist Yglesias, Venezuelan singer and poet Luzmira Zerpa and Nigerian-Ghanaian percussionist Kwame Crentsil. Yglesias is also a member of psychedelic funkateers The Heliocentrics and has played with both the Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke and The Quantic Soul Orchestra. Born into a drum cult on the side of a volcano, Zerpa is a magical presence, while Kwame is the son of Daniel Crentsil, percussionist with Fela Kuti and Sonny Okosun.

Disparate as the members' backgrounds may be, Yglesias's vision for the project is very much one of a unified whole, a family (in some ways, very literally, with his and Zerpa's son Jaia appearing both on record and on stage: "We were on tour in India at the start of the year and he actually started to play for the first time… Everybody around the town was stopping him and asking for an autograph").

"It's not that we've just been thrown together in a studio and told to make an album," says Yglesias, explaining this record's progression from their last, 2013's self-titled debut. "It's been very much a product of living together, having children together. [With] the second album it was really like, 'Where do we want to go with this?' By that time we'd formed a family of musicians from around the world."

How did Family Atlantica meet?

Jack Yglesias: When I first met Luzmira, I was part of a group of drummers in this crazy big industrial complex called Project 142 that had been squatted by a bunch of artists from all around the world who'd turned it into a performance space. I was standing in the middle of a big circle of drummers and she walked into the middle of the circle, her hands held up high, singing this Celia Cruz song, one of my favourite songs, so I started singing the harmony part and that's how we met.

We became a couple and then we met with Kwame the same way. Walking through a festival, we heard the sound of the drums and we both started running towards it. We got there and Kwame was playing a load of drums and we started playing until this big crowd was gathered around us. People started to ask, "Hey, what's the name of your band?" And we'd only just met. It was very much the music, the rhythm that connected us together. And it's still like that; the DNA of everything is the African rhythm that's spread out through slavery across the whole region.

Luzmira and Kwame are really my two favourite people in life, and that's why I wanted to make a band with them. I was born in London and I've spent the last 20 years immersed in immigrant communities, much more than with English people, and of all the people that I've met, those are the people that I've really wanted to create something with, because they're super deep. Kwame comes from the real royalty of West African percussion. And Luzmira, she's grown up immersed in a very deep Afro-Latin musical culture. She was born on the side of a volcano in the middle of the countryside, in a drum cult called Tamunangue. This is an Afro-Venezuelan musical drumming ritual. It lasts all night, playing for the saints and the orisha. She's a very shamanic person and she channels that energy on stage. Live, she's very much this high priestess and it's a very ritual atmosphere that we're trying to bring to the band, because it's not just about us, we're trying to create this energy of unity and project that out into the audience. It's a blessing to be with them, for sure.

While Cosmic Unity combines many different styles, it sounds organic.

JY: For me as the main composer and arranger, I feel like I've got this vast palette of different colours and there is a sense of, "Oh, I wonder what this would feel like with that." The thing about sub-Saharan African rhythm is that it's one contiguous family. All the rhythms make sense to each other, you know?

But yeah, there were certain things I wanted to try out. We've done a lot of travelling around that region: Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Ghana. There are a lot of interesting Afro-Venezuelan rhythms that are hidden away from the world view. We travelled to remote villages, studying, trying to live the experiences we could take back out into the world. So it's been very organic in that way.

'Okoroba' starts with the kalimba, so it's very West African, but then it takes on quite a Latin feel.

JY: I wanted to explore psychedelic highlife, so I'm drawing on the rhythms of Ghanaian highlife and mixing that with the Latin thing. Luzmira came with vocal ideas and we tied them together. Most of what we do is trying to not just be African or Latin, but our own sound we create by bringing things together. That's where new styles are going to flower. The kalimba was the beginning of that track: I was thinking about salsa originally but I started to veer between that and highlife and it just began to take on a life of its own. That's often what happens when you're composing. It also has some Afro-Venezuelan influence in the vocal chants.

'Neti Neti' is based on a Venezuelan calypso song. That's a tradition many people won't be familiar with, I imagine.

JY: Venezuela is really a profound musical country. They have this one area right in the Amazon jungle. One hundred years ago, maybe longer even, they discovered gold there, so they started to mine it. They brought down a lot of indentured labourers from Trinidad and so they ended up with this town in the jungle that's got a really strong calypso tradition. That's the culture that Luzmira's grown up with. 'Neti Neti' is a song that she's been playing since she was a child. The vocal is traditional, but instead of using traditional calypso rhythms we're using West African kpanlogo rhythms. They fit beautifully together.

Nigerian Afrobeat originator Orlando Julius contributes saxophone to 'Efik'. How did that collaboration come about?

JY: The Heliocentrics were making an album with Orlando Julius [2014's fantastic Jaiyede Afro]. He was living with me and Luzmira, because by then we had our own place in Dalston. He really liked the Family Atlantica project because of the Nigerian connections, so he said, "How about I guest on one of the tracks?" And I said, "Sure!"

Orlando is a very, very special spirit. You feel like you're standing next to a big tree whose roots go right back down to the very bedrock of the West African musical tradition. He can tell you stories about everybody, you know, from James Brown to Sly Stone to Louis Armstrong, to everybody in West Africa. He was there, man. His influence on Fela was enormous and obviously that led to all kinds of things. He's done so much. It's just great to be familiar with someone like that. Playing with him, sometimes I feel like I've been transported back in time back to early '70s Nigeria.

And, of course, you have Marshall Allen on the album too.

JY: He was coming to Dalston to play Cafe OTO, so I got to know him through that. I just told him about the project. I said to him we were trying to tune the ancestral dissonance that was left over from the years of slavery in the region, and he kind of got on a level with me. He's a very deep spirit. The music of Sun Ra and the Arkestra has been a massive influence on us in terms of composition and in the spiritual ethos. Marshall seems to embody that whole philosophy. He's 92 now and he's still going strong. And talking to me, he will very gently reveal these huge pearls of wisdom about music and life and I think from what he says it's clear that it's the music that's keeping him going. The music is what's speeding his life force, may even be his life force. He also has this sense of always wanting to try something different and that's been a big influence on me.

Do you feel Family Atlantica's music could only come from London?

JY: It is definitely a contemporary London sound. I think there's a historical thing there. This is the old seat of the Empire and all the riches from the abuses of slavery and imperial times have flowed back to this capital. That process of enrichment, I guess they didn't perceive it as such at the time, but it had an echo that was a tidal draw on people immigrating to London, seeking a better life. I think that gives us straight away the historical and political aspects of the band and we want to reflect that. There's a little segue on the album called 'Visa' where Luzmira's embodying a South American shamanic goddess character. She's got all this power, but at the same time she can't speed up her own visa application.

Slavery and immigration seem to be key themes of the album.

JY: Absolutely. Living in London, I've had so many friends deported, I've been through so many difficult visa applications with other people. It's such a dreary, terrible weight on people's lives, having to crawl their way up through this immigration visa system. It's so dark and twisted and most people who live in the UK, if you don't have friends who go through that, you don't really realise that it's really a terrible thing. And it's very ironic when you put it in the context of slavery and imperialism, because of course people are going to come here following that process that I've just described. We get this hysteria in the media about immigration and we never get the historical context that explains why people might want to come to this country. It's a very one-sided, blinkered view of things and we definitely have to shed some more light on that.

And now you've had Brexit.

JY: Yeah, all the more reason to be speaking truths. It's a crazy time we're living in, but I think that for me, it's something of a decadent empire, it's the end of imperial days, things are falling apart a little bit. I'm not that surprised, really.

So you could say Cosmic Unity represents a way of transcending all that?

JY: Exactly. With Family Atlantica, there's been a sense, as I explained to Marshall Allen, there's this huge trauma that goes back to the past, with the whole process of slavery and colonisation, and with Family Atlantica we want to represent a different vision of unity. Coming together with different cultures to write our own history, our own future history, if you like. With Family Atlantica it's very much about creating unity through music. That begins here and we project it out into the cosmos.

Cosmic Unity is out now on Soundway. Family Atlantica play the Battersea Arts Centre on September 14 as part of the Borderless series; for full details and tickets, head here

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