The Afrobeat Architecture of Antibalas
Antibalas is known for its politically charged themes and messages. What were some of the topics you explored on the new album?
In the song “The Ratcatcher,” we talked about this war on security in general—the patriot act and surveillance. It’s stuff that’s been going on in the United States for way longer than we’ve been alive. If you were Japanese 70 years ago you’d be living in a concentration camp in Utah or something.
The United States constantly whips itself into these episodes of fear, and, all of sudden, citizens who are living here with no intention to destroy the country or harm anyone around them are victimized and portrayed as the aggressors. Meanwhile, underneath the flag, the United States is annihilating other countries and that’s been going on for quite a while.
What’s so scary now with this convergence of technology and fear, is that more micro-aspects of our lives are being controlled and the metaphor of the song is that this guy was trying to catch all of these rats, but eventually he has to build a bigger and bigger cage because he imagines more rats, and finds himself in a cage at the end.
That’s really the road we’re headed in now in the States and the rest of the industrialized world, where they use security in that way. Instead of thinking about social justice and thinking about everybody having what they need and not getting messed with for what they believe in, that’s how we achieve security. The insecurity is created by people not having what they need.
Is it a coincidence that the album came out not long before the US Presidential election?
Yes, it’s just when the label was able to put it out. But things happen for different reasons. In that sense I think it is kind of serendipitous, but it wasn’t calculated.
Do you feel that the majority of your fans are aware of these politically charged themes and are in tune with their messages?
I’d like to think so. But there are so many people who are creating culture that are dumbing things down enough that I don’t feel like we don’t need to that. So, it definitely challenges the listeners because the songs are longer, so they have to build up their attention span; they might not all be in English, so they have to get out of their comfort zone a little bit.
It’s hard to know what’s going on in everyone’s head, but we find critical masses of people around the world who get it. I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, both what we’re trying to do musically and what we’re trying to express through the music. It’s not a waste of time to think deeper, it’s really rewarding both for us and for the people who spend the time to really decipher what we’re doing and all the things that are going on.
How have you managed to remain true to the foundations of Afrobeat over the years while still modernizing certain aspects of the genre?
Afrobeat in a lot of ways is a form, like an arch is a form for an architect. You can build with that and the craft is the execution of it and creating it with balance. You don’t need to fix the design of the arch, it’s perfect already—it’s perfectly in harmony with gravity, it looks great, it was great 1000 years ago and it will be great 1000 years from now.
There are certain forms like son, the rhythmic form that salsa was based on, and there’s a musician named Arsenio Rodriguez, who was the godfather of son. He was, to the New York salsa movement in the 50s, what Fela is to us in creating Afrobeat. All of the salsa that happened in the 50s and 60s was based on Arsenio Rodriguez’s music in the same way that Afrobeat is based on Fela. But, the difference between us and the salsa musicians is that they picked a different name to brand it, whereas we are explicitly giving credit to where it came from.
If you put on a Fela record you hear a lot of the same patterns and approaches, but it’s a different voice. Most of [the members of Antibalas] grew up on different things—we grew up on jazz and hip hop—whereas the soloists that were playing on a 1976 Fela album had a different set of musical influences. The compositions and the ways and the ways that the melodies are written are representative of our musical accent.
I don’t think there’s that much pressure for us to do something novel. There’s a lot of new stuff right now and most of it is completely disposable. It will only last like a $6 t-shirt—you wear it a couple of times and it might look great but then it falls apart. I feel like there’s a lot of new music that’s occupying that space where it’s like, “wow, they’re doing something totally new.” We could do new stuff all day long, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to last. We’re more interested in doing something that’s going to last than doing something just for novelty’s sake.
In a way, that ties back into what you said about architecture. Buildings that are built for novelty’s sake often wind up looking out of place when that period of novelty passes.
Yeah, it’s like all of the old buildings in New York—the flatiron district, the churches and stuff that was built pre-war. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a newer building…maybe the Guggenheim is an exception, but not every building can look like the Guggenheim.