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Published: 2004/10/30
by Mike Greenhaus

Antibalas: Spreading Afrobeat in the Political Heat

Individually, the members of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra represent a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and flesh-tone hues. Yet, as a collective, the 13-piece ensemble has grown to symbolize a certain borough in a specific city, incorporating jazz, funk and world-beat experiments into a decisively Brooklyn-sound. Coming together in the wake of Fela Kuti's 1997 passing, Antibalas has grown into Afrobeat's most jam-friendly ambassadors, cutting their chops at the Wetlands, signing to Ropeadope records, and earning an opening spot on Trey Anastasio's 2002 tour. Having shared the stage with everyone from James Brown to No Doubt, Antibalas still exists on the fringes of jam-nation, one of the few collectives invited to play both Bonnaroo and Coachella (as well as Riker's Prison). Longtime denizens of Manhattan's Downtown district, Antibalas has also befriended Medeski, Martin, and Wood, adopting the acid-jazz scene's mixture of post-hippie activism and hipster-approved urban style. After jamming at the Ropeadope New Music Seminar, Billy Martin invited the Antibalas Horn Section to augment MMW during their annual Halloween spook-fest. This year, Antibalas will once again join MMW on fright night, appearing before the trio at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom.

Shortly before this century's most closely contended political race came to a head, Jambands.com caught up with Antibalas' MartPerna during the group's Who is this America tour. And, as the Nigerian singer's comments prove, the members of Antibalas consider themselves both performers and political activists.

MG- Does the title of your latest disc, Who is this America, directly question the Bush Administration?

MP- I wouldn't necessarily say that. The title was part of a wave of things that were happening to us, some political, some individual. Each person [in the band] has their own political alignment and has certain ideas they feel more strongly about. But I think, in general, just being in the Afrobeat genre makes us very political. From the very beginning, since the band came together, we were all very passionate about politics. But, especially since 9/11, we've been hit pretty hard. We lost some venues we used to play at, so it may have indirectly led to where we are today and also the album's title.

MG- Since your music is largely instrumental, do you rely on song titles to relay your political message?

MP- Who is this America is our third album. If you look back on our last two albums, our songs had less lyrics and their titles were, mostly, a little less heavy. But, on this record, and even the next album, which we are already working on, we are going to have more lyrics and more direct titles.

MG- Some of your most recent compositions also seem to question our current administration’s actions.

MP- One song which directly questions [the Bush Administration] is "Security." It's basic common sense: if you steal something you can't expect to have security from the things you stole. Often times live we'll borrow Fela's songs, and I'll address some of the "so called leaders" we have today. On the current record, "Indictment" is the most direct number. It's a juxtaposition of ourselves as a public court. It's probably the most direct attack I've written.

MG- Depending on the outcome of the impending election, do you worry that some of your songs will sound outdated on November 3?

MP- I don't think so. That's actually one of the things we try to do—talk about the system, not the individual. We talk about Bush, but also our current political system, which is overseen by executives with a lot of money. Our government is run by corporations. They are the ones who actually control the country and the whole world. I'm from a Third World country, which is directly affected by whatever goes on here.

MG- What is your most vivid memory of seeing Fela Kuti perform live?

MP- One memory I have is seeing Fela perform in Lagos when I was 12 years old. They actually performed upside down. It was amazing. All sorts of musicians from America came to this festival as well—-Bootsy Collins and James Brown. That period was a heavy time politically and Fela performed at his club while the festival was taking place.

MG- It seems Afrobeat has become more popular following Fela Kuti’s passing.

MP- Its popularity began to rise around the time of Fela's passing, which also coincided with the 1997 elections in the Nigeria. That's about the time Antibalas started as well. It's the result of a series of coincidences, but I think his passion had a lot to do with it. A lot of musicians, especially his son Femi, went on major tours after his passing, spreading his music around the world. There were tributes on radio stations everywhere, which helped bring his music to an international audience.

MG- Would Antibalas exist if Fela Kuti was still alive?

MP- I wouldn't have joined the band if Fela was alive, and probably wouldn't be playing his music. I would probably still be trying to figure out how to make a living [laughs]. I was doing clothing before, though we had music at our fashion shows and at the parties I would throw. But I don't think the music would have reached this far if Fela hadn't passed. But, then again, he might have made some other musical breakthrough if he had lived. It's inevitable that we are all going to die. But he was heading in that direction fast—-I am impressed with how long he lasted. Nigeria is a military regime and he was speaking out against the general. Most of his songs prophesized, "wait till I reach where I am going." So, he knew what is happening today was going to be.

MG- Since the jamband movement is largely apolitical, does it surprise you that jam-nation has so openly embraced your music?

MP- I'm not surprised at anyone who comes to an Afrobeat event and enjoys it. But some of those heavyweight jamband musicians have been listening to Fela for years. Fela was one of the first hippies' around. So the Jamband scene' has been aware of him for so long that it's a natural extension. There is something about Afrobeat which is compelling to anyone. So, it doesn't feel weird to play in that party atmosphere because that is what Afrobeat is all about. The political element is just another layer. The groove and all those melodies and hypnotics are what prepares you to hear that message. ThejJambands are also delivering a message of caution, love, and preparation.

MG- Talk a bit about playing Rikers prison a few years back.

MP- Our headquarters is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which has a heavy Puerto Rican and Polish neighborhood. There are a lot of activist groups there as well, and we were part of an after school program, during which all sorts of cats would come through. Through that program, we hooked up with the guy who actually curates the hip-hop groups who play Rikers. We were a bit apprehensive about how the prisoners would respond to us. They brought us in beforehand and prepped us before we played. But once we started to play, it went great. We played this one song called "Yes You Can" by Tito Puente. We did this call-and-response section which was worked out by Fela. It's about affirmation. We sing a line and they sing back, "we will" or "I see." But the prisoners just changed their response to "Oh Shit" in the moment.

MG- For eighteen months you participated in AFRICALIA!, a celebration of Afrobeat and other African music . What led to the demise of this weekly party?

MP- That venue [NoMoore] was in Tribeca, a part of New York where residents live in the top part of the building. When we were playing there, the club was under renovations, so there wasn't as much soundproofing on the walls. So, technically, the parties were shut down because of a fire escape or something. There was a very wealthy group of residents who had lived there for years. They had a little clout and would make some phone calls to the commissioners if people were making too much noise. New York was also going through a tough time with Giuliani.

MG- To what extent will your forthcoming record be a response to Who is this America?

MP- I think the next record will showcase a couple of our longer songs. One of the reasons they didn't make the second record is that they were longer than everything else we had at this time. But on Who is this America, the last track, "Sister" was over nineteen minutes. When we bring a song into the studio, we try to figure out a new way to present it. So this record is going to be tailored to showcase a lot of longer songs, redone in the studio.

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