The Afrobeat Sounds of Antibalas
● By Phil Reser
Language ArtsFebruary 2015
By Phil Reser
Before the Brooklyn-based band Antibalas appeared in the late 1990s, few people outside of West Africa were hip to Afrobeat, the funk-infused Nigerian party sound innovated by Fela Kuti in the ‘70s.
Despite Nigeria’s oil wealth, daily life has been a struggle for the average citizen. Necessities like clean water and electricity remain elusive to many, and the government consistently ranks among the most corrupt in surveys by international organizations.
Against this backdrop, the late revolutionary musical hero Kuti created Afrobeat, a powerful mixture of American funk and jazz, West African highlife and rebellious lyrics. He challenged the military rulers of Nigeria and portrayed the plight of his people in his songs, which he sang in the dialect of the streets.
Made in America, Antibalas, whose name means “bulletproof ” in Spanish, has played a big part in introducing Afrobeat to a wider global audience, influencing countless musicians and developing a legendary live show, after musical founder Martín Perna became a passionate follower of Kuti’s musical vision.
Says Perna, “Afrobeat is a musical language. When studying a language, you have to study the grammar at first. But when a language migrates, there will always be new turns of phrase, the way British English is different from Jamaican English. As we became fluent in this style of music, we developed our own accent. The intention was never to write songs imagining that Fela Kuti was writing them. But we write with reverence for him as an artist.”
For the first year, the group played strictly noncommercial spaces (block parties, community markets, parks, lofts, rooftops, basements) until it was offered a weekly gig at No Moore in Lower Manhattan in August 1999.
For 16 months, the band held a Friday night residency called Africalia, featuring three or four sets by Antibalas, as well as guests including Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Sugarman Three, The Mighty Imperials and members of Fela Kuti's Africa 70 and Egypt 80 bands.
After No Moore closed its doors, the group began touring nationally and internationally at premier jazz, world music and rock festivals and has since then performed 1,500-plus shows in more than 30 countries.
Recalls Perna, “About two years after Antibalas formed, we got to perform with Kuti’s drummer, Tony Allen (the creator of the beat in Afrobeat) and then spent a week with Dele Sosimi, who was part of the Egypt 80 band and later Femi Kuti’s Positive Force. We learned some of Dele’s amazing originals, and he chose some Fela songs for us to perform. It was a intense and fun collaboration and we got a lot deeper into the music. Since that time, we’ve had other meetings and jams with members of Fela’s Africa 70 and Egypt 80 bands, which has seasoned our music. Fela’s son Seun Kuti came to see us in London. He had been doing hip-hop, and within two years of him appearing as a special guest with us, he went back to Nigeria and put the Egypt 80 back together. I like to think Antibalas helped reinvigorate the energy of many of the people who were connected to Fela.”
Over the course of five studio albums and 14 years of touring, Antibalas has become the chief exponent of Afrobeat, alongside Kuti’s sons, Femi and Seun.’
Antibalas clearly knows what it wants to do, while still taking stock of its roots and what it has already done.
“Artists are the canaries in the coal mine in a lot of ways,” explains Perna. “When things happen, we’re the first to notice. We try to talk about things as they happen. One of our
songs on our latest release, “Dirty Money,” is all about that. It talks about corporate welfare, about all the capitalizing on disaster that happened around Katrina. A lot of money was thrown at New Orleans, and other people caught it. The assistance was barely enough to keep people afloat, and was never meant to pull them out of the water to begin with. It made us feel outraged, but you can’t live your life being angry, there has to be a celebratory release that we’re alive to witness all of it. Our music reflects both of those sides.”
Zap Mama with Antibalas
February 18 • Chico State's Laxson Auditorium
February 19 • Humboldt State's John Van Duzer Theatre