“When a gig is more like a party!”
That’s how I described seeing Penya live recently, so good was both the performance, and reaction of the crowd. We first featured this London based 4-piece Afro/Latin collective late last year, where they won a 2016 Award, as well as to be in the Best of 2016 Mixtape, due to their vibrant percussion driven electronic sound. Ahead of their live show on Nov 18th, and their debut LP, Super Liminal, coming out in January via On The Corner Records, we catch up with Magnus Mehta, Lilli Elina, Jim le Messurier, and Viva Msimang, to find out more about the band, their journey, influences, and, er, Chewbacca!
~ How did the names ‘Penya’ and ‘Penya Investigates’ come about?
LILLI: “Penya” is a word that has several meanings. In Spanish, depending on where you’re from, it can mean party, jam session, group of people, even supporters club for a football team. Whichever meaning you choose to go by, they all evoke this sentiment of people coming together to have a good time, which I think describes the band and what we try to do with our live show, quite well.
Penya Investigates is actually the Twitter/Instagram handle for Penya, it’s a kind of nod to the Penya Investigations release, which was initially released as an experimental sister project to Penya under the artist name “Magnus P.I”
Jim and I were also part of “Penya Investigations” and the creative process was so rewarding that what was intended to be a parallel project to Penya actually merged together with the band, and influenced the music in a massive way.
~ Given all the varied instruments and influences in your music, how does a new track usually evolve?
MAGNUS: For me, the impetus to write comes from an emotional idea or feeling, and the easiest way for me to translate that into music is via my percussion instruments. As I combine rhythmic ideas on layered percussion, this eventually calls in a melody, and then the thing starts coming to life. Sometimes I can get a lyric going, but often it will be Lilli that comes up with this. If both of us can get a fix on what the song is about, then things can get interesting quickly.
I also write on electric guitar but use it like a percussion instrument, or I send it thorough effects and go ambient – often the electronic side comes in last, and the sound used is ambient yet groove oriented. Perhaps I like working with ambient sounds because I spend time playing in symphony orchestras and I often hear sheets of sound like string sections for example – but try to translate that into an electronic sound somehow – I hope to continue investigating this idea.
For our live show, combining drum machines and sequencers with live percussion is fun, and something I’d like to do more with Penya in future.
Whilst we use alot of percussion from different geographical regions, I try hard not to get too hung up on that and make an effort to combine the different influences in an intuitive way – I think that is possibly the most important aspect of how we make the Penya percussion sound,
Often I will present an idea like this to the band to develop. Other times ideas grow out of jam sessions, tour bus conversations, or somewhere else entirely – as we grow as a band, our writing style evolves.
LILLI: When we work together on tracks, it’s really important for me to know where Magnus’s initial inspiration came from. Sometimes I get ideas for lyrics or melody lines, just from the sounds of the percussion, and other times the inspiration comes from talking more deeply about the meaning behind the rhythms, instrument choices, themes, etc. I am also a percussionist, and I kind of stumbled onto the gig of a vocalist, so as a singer, I react first and foremost to the rhythm and to the groove. As Magnus said about using the electric guitar as a percussion instrument, I think many times the voice can be used similarly, in fact all instruments can be, and I often make a conscious effort to consider this, whether I’m singing or playing the piano, bass, mbira, or any other instrument.
When it comes to writing lyrics, I’ve been very much influenced by the ‘Iceberg Theory’. In secondary school I had a literature teacher who loved Ernest Hemingway, and who talked to us with passion about the kind of minimalist writing style, where the bulk of the story is ‘underwater’ so to speak, and what is said is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of the vocal lines I have written for Penya are very short and concise, but have a lot of meaning to me, and carry with them a long backstory.
~ Where on your travels has had the most impact on your music?
MAGNUS: I went to Cuba in 2004 and stayed for 6 months spending the whole time learning about Cuban music. This was my first major diversion from being a classically trained musician and was a huge release. The impact of this trip was significant as I started to understand how vast yet interconnected the world of percussion is, and this experience inspired further trips – to Morocco, Turkey, India and most recently Tanzania.
I like to try and find the threads that connect seemingly disparate sounds.
~ Where and when did you get caught up in The UK’s Afro Latin scene, and which musicians first caught your ear?
LILLI: I grew up in a musical family in Finland, and I have always been lucky enough to be surrounded by music from many corners of the world. My stepfather organised some of the first reggae clubs in Finland, and as a young kid, that was what I loved and listened to the most. My mother loved music sung in Spanish, French, Greek, & Italian, and I remember singing along to the songs without understanding the lyrics at all. An important part of the musical mix was also Cuban son and Latin jazz, which we listened to a lot. I was playing the piano, violin, a bit later on I started taking bass guitar and drum kit lessons as well as singing lessons, and was lucky enough to be studying in an amazing music school, that allowed me to follow my musical passions even from an early age, so I remember learning to play many different styles on all the instruments, and being given opportunities to perform in concerts several times a year.
I came to London to study music at SOAS, University of London, and started taking lessons in Cuban piano and percussion. As soon as I started learning, something clicked in my head and I thought ‘this is what I want to do with my life’. All the things I was drawn to as a musician and as a listener seemed to come together in this style of music, and it’s as if I just knew that I had found what I had been looking for. I started getting to know other musicians and playing with them, first at jam sessions and then professionally in groups. So it felt like a very natural transition from a student to a musician. Since then I have played percussion, piano and bass in different bands and projects. I also met Viva, Jim, and Magnus through the London Latin scene. I feel very lucky to have worked with some amazing musicians in London, and to have been able to learn with musicians with not only great talent and skill, but also discipline and a mentality towards the music, which is truly inspiring.
Answering the question about the first musicians that caught my ear is a difficult one, since I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t listen to at least some Cuban music. When I started getting really into Latin music, as a musician, I was first drawn to New York salsa, especially Eddie Palmieri, Ruben Blades and Hector Lavoe. Other bands that I loved listening to at that time are Orquesta Ritmo Oriental, Irakere, Batacumbele, and early Los Van Van. Since then my musical tastes have broadened and I like a variety of styles from traditional son to reggaeton.
~ VIVA: When did you start playing the trombone, and why was that the instrument you chose?
I started playing the trombone when I was ten years old, after my mum asked me if I’d like to take up an instrument. I’d been in Regent’s Park the weekend before and had watched a brass band play on the band stand. I remember watching the jolly-looking old men huffing and puffing away at these otherworldly contraptions; seeing the slides going in and out… I was utterly entranced. I think even at that age I had some notion I was being vaguely subversive by choosing an instrument so often remarked on as ‘unusual for a girl’ in faintly suspicious tones. I took some pleasure in that! Fortunately for me, my parents were never anything but proud. I was raised by a feminist mother who supported me in making my own choices about who I wanted to be. It was only after a couple of years of playing that I realised that my favourite solo in Eddie Palmieri’s Un Dia Bonito was actually performed on trombone. It was all meant to be.
Since then I’ve dabbled in a few more instruments, most notably since joining Penya last year. I play the bendir (a North African frame drum) in our live show, as well as the shekere (West African gourd shaker) and caxixi (shakers), and I sing. It’s been a completely refreshing process of learning, under the guidance of my 3 seasoned percussionist band mates – I very quickly moved on to performing live! The exhilaration of playing ‘in the pocket’ is really addictive and I see this as the start of something. In the privacy of my own bedroom I also take on a kind of Phoebe attempts Violeta Parra persona, singing and playing the Charango (Andean lute). I’ve been in love with the sound of this instrument for as long as I can remember, and my father brought one back from Chile for me a couple of years ago, to my sheer delight. A work in progress.
I should also add that since joining Penya, I’ve adopted a small collection of pedals – analog delay, harmoniser and looping pedal. These are my new toys and pretty much instruments in their own rights!
~ Whose hair would you like to have for just one day?
MAGNUS: Definitely not Brian May. Possibly Chewbacca.
~ If you had a time machine with just one return ticket, which musical decade would you love to travel back to?
LILLI: I have always, always, dreamt of being able to travel to 1970s New York. Salsa, punk, disco, rock, jazz, hip hop – it is like a musical dream come true. Music is an expression of society and culture, and it fascinates me that a single city could have had such an amazingly rich, varied and creative musical scene happening at that time. Societies worldwide were also going through massive changes, whether it was in the form of global economic crises, continuing anti-war movements, movements for social, racial, and gender equality – music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and part of the reaction and reflection to all those struggles was meaningful and creative music. Another reason why I find the 70s fascinating, is the emerging technology of portable synths, stage pianos with the sounds we recognise as iconic today, guitar pedals, drum machines… the soundscape of modern music was going through a massive shift, which still affects how we both listen to and make music today.
~ JIM: Where did your musical life begin, and where has that journey (musically and geographically) taken you?
My musical life began where I was born and grew up, the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. My family, on my mother’s side, was very musical. I was in a really good choir at school that used to go to France a lot to perform, and one one trip there I saw a drum kit close up for the first time, in a youth club where we were singing. I was 13, and already interested in the drums. One of the other kids in the choir who was already a proficient drummer jumped on the set and started playing it without permission. He got a massive, bilingual bollocking for that. But later, when we were in the sixth-form, he and I formed a band – he actually preferred the guitar – with me on drums, and he taught me some stuff. We gigged around the island, playing the rock and pop hits of the day. It was a great time. Then I started getting interested in jazz, and the limited amount of Latin Music I had been exposed to. Nobody I knew at that time was really into that kind of music, so I began investigating. I bought ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane and it blew me away. A couple of years later this interest in jazz took me to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass, USA, where I stayed for 3 years. While there I got properly exposed to Latin Music and that was the beginning of it all for me.
London has been my base since then but I have been able to spend quite a lot of time studying and playing in Peru and Cuba, and with hundreds of excellent musicians from all over Latin America and beyond. I speak Spanish fluently. During my trips to Cuba I became initiated into the Afro-Cuban religion called Santería, in which drumming is a central part. I have also been sworn in as a ritual drummer for the ceremonies – called ‘Omo Aña’, or ‘Son of the Drum’ – which means I am permitted to play the consecrated drums at ceremonies. It’s a privilege I bear proudly.
~ Who were your musical heroes when you were growing up?
JIM: As a little kid in the 60’s, you couldn’t really not have the Beatles as heroes. They were ‘heroic’ on so many levels, to this kid at least. Later on, as a teenager, the Allman Brothers Band became heroes. The fact that they had two drummers at the same time, a la James Brown, was definitely part of it. They were real players, who could jam – like jazzers – but their sound was kind of ‘deep’, or spiritual, if you like. A bit later on it was Tito Puente, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Manny Oquendo, Giovanni Hidalgo for the instrumental sound they made, but there are other musicians such as Brian Eno and David Bowie who I look up to for their artistic vision which transcends any particular genre of ‘music’. Once you are into your thirties it becomes less about heroes and more about people you admire.
~ Are there any other new bands or musicians in London that you recommend we check out?
MAGNUS: The new Four Tet record “New Energy” – speaking of ambient, groove based sounds, I have been enjoying this record. I also think Four Tet has a wonderful sense of melody. The whole album is great, but check out SW9 9SL.
The new Hello Skinny record “Watermelon Sun” out on Brownswood. Hello Skinny is Tom Skinner (who drums for Kanu, Mulatu Astatke, Sons of Kemet and many others), and I met Tom whilst touring with Melt Yourself Down. He’s one of my favourite drummers and an excellent music producer – Viva and I love “Mr P.Z.” off his new album, as it exhibits the kind of Trombone club / dub atmosphere we envisage as a cool direction for Penya.
Ibeyi – Ash — recently released on XL Records. We’ve long been fans of Ibeyi and have been watching their rise with interest. They have a rich heritage in Afro-Cuban music, yet have managed to process these influences in a modern and original way. The title track references a well known Afro-Cuban melody but places it in an entirely new context – we’ve tried this kind of idea, but in a slightly different way in some of our tracks such as “Search It Out” and “Beat Your Demon”.
~ JIM: What would you tell your teenage self?
Don’t be afraid. Or rather, be afraid, but don’t let it stop you. Don’t let the gremlins of resistance trick you into not taking a bold path forward or into not taking full responsibility for everything you do, or don’t do. The gremlins are always there and they never shut up. Be a warrior and face them. Like our Penya song says, ‘Beat your demon down’.
~ If you could play live at any venue in the UK, where would it be?
VIVA: This is a toughie. I’ve been blessed to play so many incredible independent live music venues across the UK, some of which, such as Passing Clouds have sadly been and gone, due to the aggressive drive of property development and the financialisation of everything. On the other hand, grassroots venues like Total Refreshment centre still exist and are doing an amazing job of supporting a huge range of top quality new music and creating community – if more of these could spring up, they’d be my first choice. If we’re talking big boys though, the day I play Brixton Academy I’ll feel like I’ve ‘made it’ because this is where I saw my first proper gig as a teenager, Bloc Party on their first UK tour. Muso friends in the know inform me that Koko’s the one for legit sound, and it’s in my native North London, so hello Koko! It’s also got to be said that some of the most exciting live music experiences in the UK are our incredible music festivals. Glastonbury 2019, let’s do this!
~ Aside from music, do any of you have any other creative skills? (or obscure talents!)
VIVA: Crushing cans between my shoulder blades. Bigup!