“I think in many ways our mission is not to try to re-create the Afrika 70, but to see where Fela was right and where Fela was wrong,” says Martín Perna, the 25-year-old founder, baritone saxophonist and conductor of Antibalas, on the phone from the snowed-in Brooklyn apartment he shares with two other members of the 15-piece Afrobeat orchestra.
It’s a surprising comment, given that Antibalas’ full-length Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 (released last year on Afrosound Records) was a note- and beat-perfect tribute to the ecstatic, incendiary ’70s Afrobeat records of the late Nigerian bandleader and political provocateur Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his Afrika 70 group. Between sips of damiana herbal tea, Perna explains himself.
“Fela is one of the biggest inspirations for me, but he was specifically speaking to Africans about their situation. But there’s a lot of people other than black Africans that have the same problems. My dad’s family is from Mexico, and I was just down there — it’s the same shit that Fela talked about! Army roadblocks everywhere. Power outages. Foreigners owning the whole country. The people in control are the grandchildren of the colonial powers. It’s the same in Southeast Asia. The only logical step for Antibalas has been to spread the message to everybody — that there are people controlling us, and that we need to identify who they are and figure out how to organize ourselves so that we can live with dignity.”
Perna first encountered Fela in 1991 as a 15-year-old in Philadelphia, peering at the credit sheet for an X-Clan album. (Part of Fela’s ’77 classic “Sorrow Tears and Blood” had been sampled on the New York hip-hop Afrocentrists’ track “Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It?”) But Fela records were hard to find — and it wasn’t until much later, after a hookup with Desco Records co-founder Phillipe Lehman via Perna’s work in a ska group, that he was able to dive into Fela’s massive back catalog, savoring the epic 15-minute songs in full: blazing horns, complex polyrhythms, layers of guitars, and Pidgin English lyrics that heaped ridicule on those in positions of power. After playing on Soul Explosion, an album credited to “the Daktaris” and presented by Desco as a long-lost Afro-funk collection, Perna decided to form an Afrobeatesque band that, unlike the one-time-only Daktaris, would perform and record regularly. Antibalas — Spanish for “bulletproof” — was born.
“The whole prospect of doing pure Afrobeat was really daunting, because I knew I needed more people than the seven who’d agreed to be in the band at that time,” says Perna. “So we played a couple of original Afrobeat songs, a couple of Ethiopian funk covers and a couple of boogaloo tunes.”
Since their May ’98 formation, Antibalas have grown in size, musical range and political ambition. Now, like some tribe that’s wandered into the real world off the pages of Daniel Quinn’s 1999 tract Beyond Civilization, they’re able to function simultaneously as artists, activist cell and genuine collective. That’s a rare accomplishment.
“For anything to reach the state of a collective is really exciting,” agrees Perna, “because everything these days is about hierarchy, managers and employees. Antibalas is about the opposite! It’s a model, in many senses, for America. You can’t just pretend that Latinos or Asians or whites or blacks don’t exist, and that they have nothing to offer you that could enrich your life. Antibalas is, like, ‘Fuck the boundaries.’ At a time when most popular groups are two guys sitting around in a studio making beats, we’re getting bigger. People from all different continents are represented. They’ve been drawn by the music into this brotherhood of ours.”
In New York, Antibalas regularly play benefits, free outdoor gigs, and shows at a local hardcore anarchist-activist center, as well as operating and performing at Africalia, a successful, 18-month-old Friday-night friendly at a Tribeca club. Playing two to four times a week means that Antibalas have gotten extremely tight — and played to audiences that range from squatters, to Afrobeat enthusiasts, to schoolchildren, to Tribeca yuppies. Antibalas make dance music, but with a much more complicated beat than most other types of popular dance music. How does the band fare with audiences raised on the 4/4?
“Some people just aren’t dancers, and that’s a shame,” laughs Perna, “but people who like to dance have gotten it. You can shake, or you can grind, or you can dance salsa to some of the tunes, or merengue to some of the faster ones. If you come in the door, if you hear just a little bit, you’ll get it.”
Antibalas plays at the Rootdown at Gabah, 4658 Melrose Ave., on Thursday, February 15, and at Temple Bar on Friday, February 16. For Web site/direct ordering: www.antibalas.com.