Hey Drum: Penya Talk
Who likes drums? We do. Who likes percussion? We do. Who likes to dance? We do. You see where this is going don't you? However, Penya embrace a kindred passion for such things in a manner more dedicated and explorative than most. This is the name assigned to the four piece percussion driven electronic quartet led by producer and multi-instrumentalist Magnus PI.
Penya’s percussive wanderings in Cuba, Turkey, Morocco, Peru, Tanzania and India have resulted in an alternative, dance floor take focussed approach towards Afro-Latin rhythms.
Hailing from London and flying the flag far and wide they have imagined a sound which transcends tradition, blending musical worlds in a mish mash of colour and style. It's far removed from the cold, wet weather we find ourselves amidst in Peckham on a miserable February afternoon. However, despite all, Penya are full of optimism so we managed to fire a few questions their way on the lead up to their next gig at Paper Dress Vintage on the 3rd of March.
Could you introduce yourselves, what is your role is in the band?
Magnus: Percussionist by trade but have found myself way out of my comfort zone in Penya! In our live show, I run our electronics via an Abelton rig, I play a Nord drum, an Arturia Microbrute , plus a Telecaster through effects, plus I sing backing vocals … with our album Superliminal , I took up the mantle of recording the band and producing the tracks with input from the band. I also send all the emails and settle band disputes.
Jim: I play Bata drums in the band. They are drums of Nigerian origin -via Cuba – where they were adapted to suit the local conditions, during the colonial period, and are still used in Cuba and beyond for religious ceremonies. It’s a fascinating story that these drums have. The ones I play are adapted for our purposes in Penya. They are made all of wood – no animal skins on them – which gives them a dry sound like a Cajon, and they also have electronic triggers inside, which means that I can make them sound like any drum or instrument, or effect, that I like. In The band I also use my voice as a backing vocalist, and also sing a few vocal ad-libs now and then.
Lilli: I sing and play the bass and percussion. I kind of stumbled upon this role, as I mostly play keys and percussion outside of this band, and like Magnus, have found myself slightly out of my comfort zone, but I love every minute of it!
Viva: Trombone is my first instrument but Penya has seen me pick up the Bendir, Shekere and Caxixi. I also sing backing vocals in the band. The trombone played through analogue effects has become a feature of our sound and bit by bit I'm building up my pedal board. The scope of potential sounds is incredible… I’ve loved exploring improvised soundscapes together recently.
Where and when did Penya start?
Magnus: Hard to say! I remember when I returned from a 6 month stay in Cuba in 2009 I felt a strong compulsion to do something with the energy I’d received there, but it wasn’t until we found this quartet line up in the last year or so that it started to feel like a real band that had an interesting statement to make. But we’ve been hanging out together for years!
Jim: My memory indicates a marquee in a muddy field somewhere in Norfolk, a wedding gig. But I may be wrong.
Viva: I think our current evolution was born a year and a bit ago. Not long after I joined!
Lilli: I started in the band when it had already been established. By that point I had known Jim for years and worked alongside him in other projects, so I had no doubt that we would have a great time playing together. I remember meeting Magnus and being really impressed by his determination when it came to music and the band. Ever since I got involved with working with Jim and Magnus, there's always been this strong sense of wanting to make music that sounds like us, and a strong bond both personally and musically. Viva joined the band after me, already being one of my best friends, and having worked together for a number of years, so being in this band with her, and making music together is really great, it just feels natural.
What pulled you together?
Jim: A shared interest – verging on obsession – for Cuban music and Latin music in general. We have gone to many other places in our music and will continue to do so, but that is what pulled us together, in all honesty.
Viva: What Jim said plus friendship and a desire to create something fresh and unique.
How do you think that musical energy and the vibrancy of Cuba will be affected with the recent political shift to the acceptance of American culture?
Magnus: That’s a hugely complicated (and great) question and it’s very hard to predict what might happen to the music scenes – in a way it could be incredibly interesting as Cuban musicians tend to be so wildly creative, so as more of them are opened up to different music markets, who knows what kind of wonderful fusions will start to appear? Cuba is a wonderful and exciting Island to visit but for many Cuban musicians (at least the ones I had direct contact with) the reality is perhaps far from utopia, and many of them wanted to get out! Of course, there are many different reasons for this. Whatever happens, I hope the quality and standard of living for Cubans in general can improve.
Jim: I think that closer economic ties with the US will probably result in Cuban music being more widely accepted outside of the island, and allow Cuban musicians more access to those markets. As a musician I would view that as a win. But as the system there becomes closer to the one in the US – or here – it will affect musicians in that it will impose more economic pressures upon them which they didn't have under the old system, which took more of a nurturing attitude to music and musicians, and actively encouraged musical education. But I don’t see Cuban musical energy or vibrancy going away. Instead, musicians will adapt to the new environment – as they tend to do.
Lilli: Culture is something that is constantly changing and evolving, and music is a reflection of the society. I think Cuba is a really interesting case in that it has been relatively closed compared to other countries. In Cuba there is also a sort of national interest in promoting its music and culture, and the country has excellent music education starting from a very young age. I personally don't see acceptance of other cultures as being a good or bad thing in itself, as shutting oneself off from influences would lead to living in a sort of museum culture, where works of art would be untouchable and only allowed to be admired from afar. Where I think Cuba, as any other culture, might be affected is if a political and/or economical shift would lead to the commodifying of music and other art forms. I mean, don't get me wrong, there is a profitable music business in Cuba, but I hope that the appreciation for things like high-quality, free, music education for children and young people will continue.
Viva: Post-revolution, the Cuban system has afforded musicians not only with a free, world-class musical education, but also the time to hone their craft. I've heard many stories of long, relaxed daily rehearsals, where creativity has the time to flow and bands can really learn how to play together, free from many of the pressures we face here in the neoliberal world. I'd say this has certainly contributed to Cuba's prolific output of exceptional musicians and bands. Many Cuban musicians I've worked with in London have lamented the impossibility of this over here, where it seems that the closer we get economically and culturally to the US, the more of a hustler's game it all becomes…
Where did you cut your teeth musically?
Magnus: I was lucky to go to a school that had an excellent music department, so was turned onto the idea of being a musician at an early age. But even before that I was brought up on a diet of records played by my parents home – I remember the Beatles, Beethoven Symphonies, Oscar Peterson, and Scott Joplin being the firm favourites of my very early life. I think I was actually in the last year to benefit from free university education, and moved to Glasgow to study orchestral timpani and percussion. This led to freelance work with orchestras like the Scottish Chamber orchestra and BBC Scottish symphony orchestra. To be honest, I became tired of this scene after a few years and started travelling more through a random gig on a cruise ship, which led me to a 6 month stay on the island of Cuba around 2007/8. After this I continued travelling and learning percussion and to date have learnt from many percussionists in Cuba, Morocco, Turkey, India and Tanzania. This feels like it is becoming a life’s work of sorts, and has somehow tangled itself into Penyas writing and production process.
Jim: I would say that I cut my musical teeth on the London Latin scene in the 90’s and to the present, as a percussionist – mainly as (but not only) a timbales player, but also as an arranger and composer. That scene was one in which most of what you learnt was from the player sitting next to you, and in those bands there was usually 3 percussionists. In most other popular music there’s usually just one percussionist, in the form of a drummer. So I got the chance to groove with many, many other percussionists and other musicians. All of us in Penya have benefited from this particular scene, to varying, but significant degrees. But as a musician more generally I would say that, wherever it is that I currently am – and certainly my involvement in Penya – is also due to all the music I have ever been exposed to. That's the really interesting thing.
Lilli: My first love was the piano. I started taking lessons at the age of 7 I think, but really I can't remember a time when I didn't love sitting down at the piano and playing. Later on in my teens I learned violin, bass guitar and drum kit, but I never dreamt of being a professional musician until I came to London to study. I studied music at SOAS, and the atmosphere was creative and supportive and warm, and I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. I did both my BA and Masters in Latin Piano and Percussion, and have never looked back! SOAS was also a great place to meet interesting people, and I was invited to play in different salsa and Latin projects, mainly covers. It was several years of playing with musicians way better than myself, who, I think anyway, saw in me a desire to learn and get better and who helped me improve my playing and musical knowledge, and wouldn't let me get away with not doing my best. You can ask Jim, he was definitely one of those musicians! Those years were hard work, but really rewarding, as I needed to challenge myself in a big way. When I joined Penya it was a breath of fresh air, as it gave me a bit more freedom and confidence to see myself in a more creative role. An important point for me came in the spring of 2016, when Magnus asked me to do some vocals for his Magnus P.I EP. Magnus, Jim and I worked together on a track, that was something completely fresh-sounding and new. I had no idea what I was doing, and for the first time in my musical life I had to just go by feeling and couldn't really rely on my classical training or university education. I remember being in Cuba a couple of months later, and going to a hotel to get access to internet, and finding out that 'Search It Out' had been played on the radio several times. It was the first track I had ever recorded lead vocals on, and the first time I had put myself out there creatively, and it was amazing to find out that people were responding to it with genuine interest.
Viva: Music has been my sustenance on so many levels for a long time now. I grew up in a household where loud music was encouraged – my mum raised me on a strict diet of gangster rap, 1970s salsa, reggae mix tapes, Erykah Badu and Al Green, and growing up in London I was lucky to hear all kinds of music on a daily basis, so there was no shortage of inspiration. Like Magnus, I went to a school that was big on music and was very fortunate to be involved in the music school there, where I was taught by a number of incredibly talented and inspired teachers. Although I'm pretty sure I had childhood fantasies of taking to the stage, it wasn't until I got to university at SOAS, first joining the Cuban Big Band and then playing professionally on the Latin scene, that it dawned on me that I could really pursue a career in music. Since then I've been lucky to play in a huge range of genre-spanning projects from reggae to salsa to gogo to garage rock, various electronic projects and a decent helping of experimental and generally genre-less music…
How did you choose the tracks for the mix?
Magnus: We are lucky to have "On the corner records" as our label, and I can attest to the boss man Pete Buckenham being a most supportive and loyal friend of the band for a good 18 months now. I was in the studio recording with Collocutor, Pete suggested, during a coffee break, that I pursue a percussion based sound "as it might work nicely" – these experiments were initially released on cassette, but ultimately became the blue print for the Penya sound exhibited on "Superliminal" – big up Pete!! I wanted to feature music from our label as I love it and feel the sound of the label represents a lot of what we are trying to do as a band.
There is a prominent use of the electronic sound in your work. It gets used harmoniously next to the organic sounds of percussion, drums and brass instruments creating a building tension through out the tracks. Tell us a bit about this choice of sound?
Magnus: I’ve always liked the notion of having an electronic band but never knew how to do it! But one thing we do have as a band is ALOT of percussion, and knowledge about the kind of melodies that tend to emanate from the percussion – this + the vocal ideas provided a raw bedrock of material that felt danceable – the electronics for this record came last and sometimes were as simple as switching a synth on and fiddling around until it sounded half decent! Viva’s trombone sound packs a heavy punch though and through improvisations the live sound is becoming more explosive.
Jim: I don’t think any of us were particularly into electronic music per se. We are all ‘acoustic instrument’ players but we are open-minded and all see the palette available once we open ourselves up to electronic sounds. I think this began to gather pace around the time we were working with Leon Brichard, who produced our debut single ‘Acelere’ and co-produced Ibibio Sound Machine. Magnus jumped into the electronic domain in a big way and I guess we followed him – in my case by electrifying my Bata drums, Lilli by electrifying her Mbira and Viva by using effects to put her trombone through.
Viva: My tastes are quite eclectic and in the last few years I’ve been listening to more electronic music – producers such as Clap! Clap! Daphni, Midland, Pangae, Romare… The beautiful thing in Penya has been how naturally the sound came together with the elements you mention. As soon as I heard Magnus’ electronic sounds I was excited at what we'd create together as a group. Coming from a background in dub and reggae as well as salsa, the souped-up horns on old dubplates have definitely inspired me. I'd always wanted to use effects on the trombone but it was the musically open and experimental vibe in Penya gave me the push I needed.
You have come through grass roots venues such as the Total Refreshment Centre, Paper Dress Vintage and the newly opened Ghost Notes. Creating strong platforms, in interesting and dynamic spaces. Perfect for local artist to get their work out there. What’s your opinion on the importance of platforms likes these?
Magnus: These sorts of places are the beating heart of any music scene and without supportive venues and promoters a music scene will struggle. Young bands cannot develop without an audience to play to. They provide a vital resource to the industry and work under considerable pressure from many different perspectives.The ones you mention get the basics right by developing devoted followings over a long period. By programming wisely, they actually support the bands. They are also prepared to do some heavy lifting with the promotion and provide decent sound systems etc. Respect to these venues and promoters!
Jim: These are the venues where the bands who are in a process of ‘becoming’ can experiment. These venues are essential for new ideas to come together in a musical form. And, crucially, the clientele at these venues seek out these kind of artists and from this artist/audience interaction is born a ‘scene’. There has to be a ‘scene’ for a band like Penya to flourish and fortunately we have one!
You were recently placed number 4 on the “6 acts Giles Peterson is buzzing about right now” chart, how does that feel?
Magnus: It filled us with optimism and excitement as to what we can achieve in our lifetime as a band. From my perspective, Superliminal is the first album I have recorded and produced without any external input , and pretty much the whole thing was recorded on 1 microphone, in a untreated room using a cheap as chips recording interface – so I honestly had no idea how it might be received . I think this whole process was an example of how placing limitations on a project can be extremely beneficial. We decided to record in my flat, rather than in an expensive studio – whist this was a sacrifice in terms of the audio quality of the recordings, it meant we were never "on the clock", so we could spend much more time tinkering with different aspects of the writing, and overall sound. We could completely "re-cut" a whole track if we were unhappy with it, all at no extra cost.
So, many of the tracks on Superliminal appear on earlier cassette releases – notably "Search it out – reboot" and "Rootless Part 2 " started life on the "Penya Investigations" cassette. A spirit of discovery was entered into, and I think when open musicians are put into those situations, there is a good chance they will respond with their most interesting work. For example, Lilli had never worked as a lead singer before being in Penya, so a lot of what you hear on Superliminal are actually her first responses as a vocalist. Also on "tribes" the multi-tracked trombone texture you hear at the start was Viva's first response to playing through a simple analogue delay pedal – we simply plugged it in, ran the track, and pressed record… and that's what you hear on the record. You could say it's a very honest record, and I'm proud of this, for better or worse! As a band I guess we took a few risks and approached things in a slightly unorthodox way, so, to realise the music might have a broad appeal is wonderful – now to take it to the next level
We’re grateful to Gilles, and we’ve had a lot of help from the extended Penya family – Pete on the corner records, Sam Jones’ mix, Mandy Parnell’s mastering , and outstanding artwork contributions from Victoria Topping – we give thanks , and feel team work is the way forward !
Jim: Gilles is a don. We’re unbelievably chuffed.
On the subject of Giles Peterson you have your World Wide Leysin gig, excited?
Jim: Yes, madly. Gilles is a legend and we’re over the moon to be taking part.
Magnus: Very – again, big up PETE BUCKENHAM and on the corner for getting us on the bill – this will be our first European show – what an amazing opportunity.
Lilli: I'm really looking forward to going to Leysin. It looks absolutely amazing! I might even put my skis on and see if I can still hold my own on the slopes. But obviously the main thing is the music – we're really honoured to be a part of the line-up, there are going to be some great artists and DJs there, can't wait!
Viva: Thrilled! In that setting with that line up, it's going to spectacular. We're so happy to be a part of it!
Jim: In the summer, ceviche and some cold lagers. In the winter, fish and chips and tepid stout. Oh, and a big flask of tea so strong you can trot a mouse on it.
Viva: Phwoar Jim, that sounds great. I played a gig in Newcastle recently, where there was a record player and vinyl collection in the dressing room. Venues everywhere, take note! I'll add Supermalt, club mate and maybe a cheeky bottle of aguardiente… plus jerk chicken, jollof rice, and a round of smoked salmon bagels, booja booja ice cream… Getting pretty hungry now!
What are you working on at the moment and can you tell us a little bit about current projects?
There's quite a lot going on the band hard drive currently – from Berlin, to Peru to East Africa and back we are currently working on about 10 tracks we are excited about, and I think we can realistically complete these fairly swiftly. We are also grabbing opportunities to start new original tracks whenever opportunity presents – it's fun, and being on tour is only going to help us continue our development in this respect.
Lilli: We're currently working on a few collaborations with some really interesting artists, and we've also started working on some new material of our own. It's been really interesting to get a glimpse into other people's way of working, and their creative process, and I think it's been good for us too as a band. When you're collaborating, but you're not all in the same room, as is the case often these days, it makes you approach the tracks in a different way, and find meaning in the music, the sounds, choices of effects etc.
What can we expect from you on the 3rd March?
Jim: You can expect that we’ll show up. And you’ve every right to expect that.
Viva: 2018 has been such an exciting year for Penya already. We're buzzing and we're going to beam some of that good energy into the crowd.
What does the future hold for Penya?
More recording, and touring – we are currently putting together some regional.
UK shows and then obviously summer festival season beckons – anyone who's interested in booking us should head to our website and email our agent!
You can catch Penya playing at the next General Public party on Saturday 3rd. More details HERE. Photos courtesy of Liam Jackson.