Spirit of Kuti
Afrobeat torchbearers Antibalas celebrate 20 years of music
With 10 to 14 members onstage at any given gig, Antibalas is more of a mini orchestra than a band. The long-running Brooklyn-based musical collective specializes in Afrobeat, a colorful mashup of American jazz and funk and elements of traditional West African music popularized by the legendary Fela Kuti, one of the group’s guiding influences.
Saxophonist Martín Perna founded Antibalas in 1998, assembling the original lineup with members of a funk and soul band he used to play with called The Dap-Kings. Though he remains the bandleader in some ways, the role has been democratized over the years. For example, Perna used to act as the conductor, but he passed those duties off to trombonists Aaron Johnson and Raymond Mason.
“They are not only better at it, but the trombone works as a giant baton, visible by all,” Perna said in a recent interview. “So, for a lot of songs or cues, the trombone will conduct.” Other times, the ensemble follows drummer Kevin Raczka.
While Perna composed most of Antibalas’ early work, Duke Amayo (known onstage simply as Amayo) transformed into the band’s primary songwriter and frontman after subbing in as a percussionist for a one-off gig in 1999. “He kept coming back and has made an amazing progression into a multi-instrumentalist and dynamic frontman,” Perna said. Amayo grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and frequented Kuti’s Shrine club.
Antibalas comes to the Sierra Nevada Big Room Wednesday (June 19) as part of its 20th anniversary tour. Perna admits that “20 years is a long time to do anything,” and that managing the group’s many iterations has been a rollercoaster. Taking so many musicians on the road makes it difficult for the operation to pencil out financially. As a result, some members have been poached by more commercially successful acts like Arcade Fire, Iron & Wine, Jovanotti and Mark Ronson.
“We all get offers,” he said.
When bandmates leave for those sorts of opportunities, he says he gets it: Making music is an end in itself, but it’s still important to pay the bills. And he also understands that creative differences are inevitable when you put a dozen musicians in a room together.
“I think that it can be stifling to work in the band if what you want to do is aesthetically different,” he said, “and a lot of guys have gone off to do really fun and interesting projects.”
Antibalas’ music is densely complex and colored with moments of free improvisation, emphasizing repetition, call-and-response and returning motifs. Most songs have a prelude section that introduces the melody, an instrumental solo, a vocal verse sung by Amayo, a chorus or refrain, and a restatement of the melody. Close listening is required to pick up on the structure, but that’s not really the point; it’s celebratory music meant to move listeners physically, and perhaps provide an evening’s escape from everyday stressors.
“We hope to recharge their emotional batteries and create a space for celebration, positive release and imagining better futures,” Perna said. “Love takes practice and these shows are a workout. I can’t pretend to know what’s going through everyone’s minds. For some people, it’s escapist. For other people, it’s engaging with reality in the deepest sense. Whatever is going on, I see smiles on people’s faces and bodies moving, so we must be doing something right.”