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Published: 2012/12/13
by Sam Davis

The Afrobeat Architecture of Antibalas

In August, Antibalas —the kings of New York’s burgeoning Afrobeat scene—released their first new album in five years. After reuniting with producer/engineer and former guitarist Gabriel Roth (who was at the helm for their first three albums), the group piled into two rooms at Daptone’s now-legendary House of Soul Studios in Bushwick, Brooklyn and recorded their strongest offering yet.

Credited with introducing afrobeat to a wider global audience and influencing countless musicians in their path, Antibalas remains indebted to the foundations and forms laid out by their Afrobeat predecessor Fela Kuti. In recent years, the group has been featured in the Broadway music in Fela!, for which they arranged and performed the show’s score of music originally performed by Kuti. The horn-driven outfit has performed in over 35 countries and throughout their native New York City, from Carnegie Hall to Central Park Summerstage to the Rikers Island prison facility.

But perhaps Antibalas’ greatest feat has been establishing Afrobeat as a viable and growing art form that exists beyond the confines of 1970s Nigeria. And, as the de facto torchbearers of the Afrobeat genre, Antibalas has spawned a growing offspring that includes both traditional interpreters like Zongo Junction as well as more progressive examples like Rubblebucket and Superhuman Happiness. In the following conversation, we chat with Antibalas founder Martín Perna about group’s new album, the politically charged messages it contains and the preservation of the Afrobeat art form.

Why was it finally time to make the self-titled Antibalas album?

We just wanted the focus to be on the band and not on a title. This record epitomized the band playing under the best possible circumstances and with a label that liked us. That’s why. It’s hard to agree on anything, but we agreed on this. It’s like, we already agreed on the name of the band, so why not use it again as a title? [Laughs].

What were some of the key elements that allowed the band to operate on such a high level?

Well, that everyone was available. We could have made this record probably three or four years ago. But people were really busy, so we didn’t. We hadn’t had time to sit down with Daptone [Records] and work things out as far as having a label that would be committed to putting the record out, and figuring out where we wanted to record it. Some of the guys were tied up with another show or one of their solo projects, so it’s kind of like an eclipse—these massive bodies of things being in alignment and not having that happen every day. Planetary bodies in alignment, that’s what it was.

We have all these crazy schedules and as much as we love the music, it’s not like it pays us so much that we can afford to drop all this other stuff. It’s really a labor of love, and that’s why it takes so many people to make it happen. That’s why it was so great this time, because it wasn’t missing any people.

We did it with Daptone which was fun, but we also helped build that place. We watched it go from nothing to this factory of music that’s changed big parts of the American musical landscape. We recorded the first record that was ever done there and helped build it, wire it and paint it and, now, going back and making a record there was wonderful.

Do you feel the diverse array of projects that the members are involved in wind up influencing the sound of Antibalas?

I think Antibalas informs the other bands more than the other bands inform Antibalas. There’s a form that we follow in Antibalas that’s more like a script with rules, which has particular steps or particular grammar to it. So, I think you can hear the imprint of Antibalas in all of the other stuff that we do, rather than vise versa, in that way.

A lot of these groups have a lot of members of Antibalas in them, so we’re constantly working on these different musical relationships and I think that’s what you hear when we all come back to Antibalas. The fact that our drummer, bass player, tenor sax player, guitar player, and some other satellite members of the group like Eric Biondo, rehearse and play in [Superhuman Happiness]…the intimacy and those relationships definitely translate back to Antibalas as far as us being connected. In this musicality, that’s what we’re bringing back from all these other projects. It’s the spirit of exploration that’s brought back in and applied to our aesthetic.

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