Fela. Fela Fela Fela Fela. Okay, we said it. Now can we talk about the best live band in the United States?
The Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra's music is so furious, its live shows so sweaty and surprising, that in its short time as a unit on Earth -- five years -- it's inspired more than its share of unfortunate myths.
Time to debunk some of them, and explain a few others.
1. Antibalas sounds just like Fela Kuti.
Well, first off, the songs on Antibalas' records are wa-a-ay shorter. And unlike Afrobeat kingpin Fela Anikulapo Kuti's dictatorial Africa 70 and Egypt 80 groups, Antibalas is run as a collective, which you can hear in the band's polyethnic sound and labyrinthine arrangements.
"In the spring of 2001, I officially collectivized the group," says baritone saxophonist Martin Perna, who came up with the idea for Antibalas in a Mexico City hotel room in 1997. "So I don't call any of the shots anymore. I write songs, do interviews, set up some of the extracurricular/social projects for the group, and some other stuff, but it's not like I'm in the driver's seat." The actual Antibalas cooperative comprises nineteen musicians, with musical skills ranging from Balinese gamelan to ska, jazz improv to Spanish guitar, drum 'n' bass to vodun drumming, and everything in between.
As the band has gotten more democratically organized, the sound has loosened from the straight-no-chaser Afrobeat of 2001's Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 into a fat, ravenous musical hydra that can chew up and spit out the most jaded music snob. Last year's Talkatif amped up the jazz, dub, and samba, and the recent "Che-Che Colé" single features the band backing vocalist Mayra Vega on four pointed versions of salsa legend Willie Colón's signature dancefloor hit.
While there is no doubt that Antibalas found its initial inspiration in the music of Fela, what Fela did was invent Afrobeat -- Antibalas is bringing Afrobeat to the next generation, since the late Chief Priest cannot. Very few purveyors of the style (which hitches African-American funk and R&B to brighter, bouncier West African highlife) have been able to pull off the jaw-dropping stage spectacle that was a Fela Kuti performance. In fact, since Fela's show was more visual (dancers, the star himself prancing about in teeny briefs, etc.), the crowd was often too distracted to dance.
Not so with Antibalas.
2. Antibalas is hippie music.
Perhaps there's a hippie element to this, considering "hippies" is pretty much the only term of journalistic convenience you can apply to people who enjoy dancing to live music for two or three hours straight. And maybe, just maybe, Antibalas can bring out the hippie in anyone.
But the reason the band's audience is so varied -- the reason it doesn't share a crowd, person for person, with other danceable, marathon-set outfits like the String Cheese Incident -- lies in Antibalas' world-weary cynicism. The musicians are not just noodling up there; they're invoking Fela's spirit, lionizing a revolutionary figure who fought colonial rule in his native Nigeria, sustained numerous beatings, and kept coming back tougher and wilder right up to his tragic death. The Antibalas crew lives and works in Brooklyn, gets stoned onstage, decries US policy in concert, and generally exudes an air of dangerous mystery.
"I think people are attracted first and foremost to the texture of the music," Perna says. "There are so many musical colors, from the congas to the horns to the steady beat of the drums. A lot of people also come out because in addition to the musical, they can hear some sort of relevant political discourse and be around people with the same leanings, and these spaces are very rare these days."
3. Antibalas is a bunch of white guys playing Afrobeat.
Wrong. Vocalist Duke Amayo is Nigerian, and bassist Del Stribling is African American. Perna's roots are in Mexico, conguero Ernesto Abreu is of Cuban and Dominican descent, and guitarist Marcos Garcia is Cuban and Guatemalan, born in the United States. The phenomenal keyboardist Victor Axelrod is Brooklyn-born of Japanese and Jewish parents. Trumpeter Ricardo Cox is Afro-Panamanian. And that's just the folks in the current, regular rotation.
4. If all of the members of Antibalas were married, the whole band still wouldn't have as many wives as Fela did on his own.
This one's true. Fela Kuti had at least 27 wives, and polygamy is illegal in New York State, so the Antibalas boys can't cheat. Fela was a symbol of masculine, patriarchal might - he often performed in the aforementioned itsy-bitsy briefs, which was popularly noted in his obituaries when he died of AIDS-related illness the same year Martin Perna dreamed up Antibalas.
Perhaps Antibalas could distance themselves from their idol by instituting some sort of active affirmative-action policy in its recruitment. As it stands, there's a solid row of women dancing in front of the stage at a typical Antibalas concert. And even though they are usually the best dancers, it would behoove the band to break down that barrier a little more than their forefather did.
Although there are no women members in the band's present incarnation, Perna insists this is "for the same reason there are no Bulgarians in the group. Nobody who was deep into the music has approached us about playing with the group. We had an outstanding trumpeter named Anda Szilagyi for two years, and she left to pursue teaching in NYC. We have started working with two female dancers in the past month and are integrating them into the group."
Of course, any social indignation brewing within you will dissolve once you've witnessed these guys live.
5. Once you've seen one Antibalas show, you've seen them all.
Not even close. First off, watching a band of this scope stretch out its songs live, playing off one another and off the crowd, insures that you're never going to see the same thing twice. Second, "It depends on when and where we play," Perna explains. "The Brooklyn Museum show we did last week had a cross-section of Brooklyn, which is in many senses a cross-section of the world. The nightclub shows are a different vibe -- jazz festivals, hippie festivals, etc. It all depends."
Furthermore, you could always use some of what Antibalas has: a little "Up with People" sentiment, a little "Shake Your Booty" joyousness, and a whole lotta love.
Oh, and confidence. A big mess of confidence. "The band," Perna says, "in many ways has exceeded anything that I could have dreamed of when we were first getting together, but at the same time that never surprised me, because I've always been good at what I choose to do, and I surround myself with sincere, talented people."
They're so talented they don't even need the briefs.
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