Interview by Mike Aylward
True, some bands are simply meant to lead, and Brooklyn’s Antibalas--as tough and diverse as the city that birthed them nearly a decade ago--has continued to do just that. The group, whose name means “bulletproof” in Spanish, has indeed proved they possess the mettle to not only survive but also thrive by employing a musical arsenal that has become known worldwide. Initially using the revolutionary blueprint of afrobeat as a launching pad, the dozen-strong members of Antibalas weave a rich tapestry of latin, jazz, classical, funk and soul into their horn-driven mix. Words fail in trying to describe the result: simultaneously polyrhythmic and political, independent and contagious, and the reason why many have credited the band for introducing afrobeat’s framework to a new generation.
Always looking to push their unique sound further, however, Antibalas recently entered the studio to record their fourth album with much-heralded musician/producer John McEntire (Tortoise, Stereolab, Tom Ze). Holed up for a month in McEntire’s Chicago lair, the band explored and unleashed sonic sides of them not previously tapped. The resulting gem is guaranteed to shock and dazzle new and old fans alike, and will be forthcoming from ANTI- Records (no, not just because they share half a name), known for distinguished releases over the years from such artists as Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, the Refugee All-Stars and Blackalicious. The new album and record deal illustrate Antibalas’ penchant for taking chances, building upon a history of previous fiery album releases and recent, stunning collaborations with diverse heavyweights such as Medeski, Martin and Wood, TV on the Radio, Baaba Maal and Gomez.
As distinguished as their recordings may be though, Antibalas has truly become renowned via their relentless live show. And though it’s certainly no easy task to keep (and feed) such a vast ensemble on the road, the band has managed to average over 100 concerts a year, incessantly traversing the U.S, Canada and Europe in venues large and small be they the sweaty clubs of Brooklyn or in front of hordes of festival goers in places like Bonnaroo, Bumbershoot, Montreux and Roskilde. 2004 also bore witness to the group’s first-ever tour to Japan, as well as debuts at the Glastonbury and Coachella music festivals. It’s not by chance the Village Voice exclaimed “their music is right on time,” while the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone Magazine and a slew of others have taken serious notice. Make no mistake, as XLR8R exclaims, Antibalas are indeed “the baddest on the block.”
How and when did Antibalas form?
Martin Perna assembled the first formation of Antibalas with seven people for a performance at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem on May 26, 1998 performing original material and one Ethiopian funk tune. Over the next year, the membership evolved and grew to 13 people, including Gabriel Roth, Don Bonus, Fernando Velez and other musicians from the now-defunct Desco Records stable, and musicians from the Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood. The group boycotts commercial venues, performing exclusively noncommercial spaces like lofts, benefits, block parties, museums, and community markets before entering the nightclubs of downtown Manhattan in mid 1999.
What is afrobeat music?
Afrobeat is a hybrid form of jazz and Yoruba/Nigerian traditional music popularized and developed in the late 1960s in Lagos by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Afrobeat incorporates other elements of African diasporic musics such as highlife, palmwine, apala, Afrocuban, and Afro-American funk and soul music.
How did Antibalas begin playing afrobeat?
Each of the musicians came to know afrobeat in a different way. Vocalist Amayo grew up in the same Lagos neighborhood as Fela Kuti’s Shrine nightclub, the mecca of Afrobeat music since the early 1970s. Martîn Perna first heard afrobeat in 1991 in a hip hop sample in 1991, and began digging for rare, out-of-print records. Victor Axelrod’s father bought him a copy of Fela’s “Original Sufferhead” album in New York City in the late 80s. Antibalas’ first repertoire consisted of both original funk, latin funk, and afrobeat tunes, and due to musical pressures within and personnel the group at the time, we decided early on to focus on afrobeat and afrobeat-influenced funk music. Former Egypt 80 drummer Jojo Kuo, living in New York was a formative musical influence and guide on Antibalas in the early days of the group as well.
How many people are in Antibalas?
Antibalas tour with eleven to fourteen musicians who are drawn from an active roster of seventeen. While the core group has remained stable since 1999, nearly thirty musicians have passed through Antibalas since 1998, plus dozens of distinguished guests and musical elders including Femi Kuti, Tony Allen, Seun Kuti, Jojo Kuo, Ola Jagun, Tunde Williams, Udoh Essiet, Oghene Kologbo and Nicholas Addey of Fela’s Africa 70 and Egypt 80 bands.
Is Antibalas a “tribute band” to Fela Kuti?
No. Our goal is to expand afrobeat as a musical language and to make our own original contributions to its legacy. When we perform Fela’s material, we may incorporate one or two lesser-known Fela originals into our set of ten or twelve songs.
How does Antibalas write its material?
The songwriting for the group is open to everyone. Certain members will bring in a tune, completely notated for all instruments. Other songs come to the group as fragments or themes and are completed in rehearsals, either by the composer, or with input in arrangement or co-composition by the rest of the group. Martin Perna, Gabriel Roth, Victor Axelrod, Amayo, Del Stribling, Jordan McLean, and Stuart Bogie have all brought songs to the group for recording and performing.
Does Antibalas “jam”?
No. The group performs composed, orchestrated music which is conducted onstage primarily by saxophonist Stuart Bogie. There are distinct sections in each of the songs that call for a horn or keyboard improvisation, or a drum break. Certain songs always feature solos from the same instrument while other songs have rotating soloists, depending on the decisions of the musicians.
What has Antibalas recorded?
Uprising 45 single (1999, Afrosound)
Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1 (2000, Afrosound, reissued by Ninja Tune in 2001)
Tour EP (2002 Afrosound)
Talkatif (2002 Ninja Tune)
Che Che Cole 12” (2003 Daptone)
Who Is this America (2004 Ropeadope)
Government Magic EP (2005, Afrosound)
Security (2007, Anti)
In addition to Antibalas’ studio recordings, the group has appeared internationally on over a dozen afrobeat and funk compilations since 2000:
Afrobeat . . . NO GO DIE (2000, Shanachie Records)
Africafunk Vol. 2 (2000, Harmless Records)
Ouelele (2002& 2006, Comet Records)
Red Hot & Riot (2002, MCA)
Afrobeat (2002, Blow Records)
Turntables on the Hudson Vol. 2 (2002, Musicrama)
African Xpress (2003, Narada Records)
Turntables on the Hudson Vol. 4 (2003, Caroline)
Rewind 3 (2003, Ubiquity Records)
“Badassss” Soundtrack (2004, Bbe Records)
Afrobeat Sessions (2004, Sessions)
Genocide in Sudan (2004, Reincarnate)
ASAP – Afrobeat Sudan Aid Project (2004, Modiba Productions)
Essential Afrobeat (2005, UMVD Import)
Impeach the Precedent (2005, Kicksnare Hat / Kajmere Sound)
Gilles Peterson in Africa (2005, Ether Records)
Where has the group performed?
Since 1998 Antibalas has performed over 500 shows in seventeen countries: USA, Canada, England, Ireland, France, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, Turkey, Germany, and Japan
How does the group make decisions as such a large group?
The group functions as a collective where decisions are mostly made by a consensus of whichever members are around to weigh in on the issue. In the operations of the group, members assume roles which correspond to their particular interests, talent, and experience. Antibalas has both a manager and booking agent who represent the group for business and booking matters.
Winter, 1997 - Saxophonist Martín Perna conceives an orchestra called Conjunto Antibalas drawing from the 70s radical big band traditions including Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 band and Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra.
May 26, 1998 - The seven-member strong Conjunto Antibalas debut at a poetry event St. Nick's Pub in Harlem, New York. Over the summer, the group plays at benefits, community markets, lofts and other non-traditional spaces in New York for groups like Paper Tiger TV, More Gardens, and NY Zapatistas.
Winter 1998-99 - Incorporating more musicians from Sharon Jones and the Soul Providers (now the Dap-Kings) Antibalas grows to 11 musicians and a repertoire of original material songs is expanded. Antibalas has its first recording session at the now-defunct Desco studios at 440 W. 41st Street NYC, recording “Dirt and Blood”, “World War IV,” “Machete,” “Uprising” engineered by Gabriel Roth and featuring Egypt 80 drummer Jojo Kuo.
September, 1999 - Antibalas initiates the first of seventy consecutive Friday night AFRICALIA! parties at NoMoore in Lower Manhattan. This party, dedicated to celebrating afrobeat and other musics of the African diaspora, will last until April 2001, when the club is abruptly closed by police and fire officials.
October, 1999 - The band embarks on a fly-by-night tour of England. They arrive in London, with no place to stay, selling 45 rpm vinyl records on Portobello Road to raise money for hotels and transport. Through the kindness of friends at Big Daddy Magazine, Antibalas performs raucous shows in Nottingham, London’s Jazz Café, and Ascot, where they sleep on the floor of the dressing room. Returning to New York, Amayo begins to compose vocals for some of the instrumental songs.
Winter 1999-2000 - Antibalas, along with Gabe Roth and his Desco/Daptone Records moves its headquarters to Amayo’s Afro-Spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, they record “NESTA,” “Si, Se Puede,” and “Battle of the Species.” The first edition of “Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1” is released independently soon afterward.
Spring 2000 - Antibalas returns to England for a more comprehensive tour, including a performance to 1200 people at the Africa Roots and Shoots festival at the Barbican Center, and consecutive sold out shows at London's Jazz Café. Weeks later, the group performs alongside afrobeat drum legend Tony Allen, at New York's Knitting Factory. Antibalas begins construction of a recording studio/ performance space at Amayo’s Afro-Spot.
Summer 2000 - Antibalas continues the AFRICALIA party and performs at several outdoor festivals and events throughout New York, including Celebrate Brooklyn, and PS1 Museum of Contemporary Art in Queens. During the sweaty PS1 show, members of the legendary psychedelic anti-frat Delta Phi at Columbia University bring their acid-drenched pledges where they are greeted and encouraged to keep seeking the “red helix.”
Fall 2000 - Antibalas’ begins touring in North America performing in Canada and the Midwest, debuting at the Chicago World Music Festival, and appearing at the Lotus Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. The group returns to Brooklyn to begin recording “Talkatif” at the Afro Spot studios.
Late Winter 2000 - Antibalas start of the year with a performance at Brooklyn Museum of Art. Shortly thereafter, they embark on a series of tours, bringing them to California, Quebec, Ontario, Vermont, Michigan, and Illinois. They sign a recording contract with London-based record label Ninja Tune. George Bush steals the presidency. Antibalas responds by reviving the Fela classic “Authority Stealing” and performs it nightly throughout their spring tour.
Spring 2001 - "Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1" is released on Ninja Tune Records. Aboard a rickety unlicensed tourist bus, Antibalas completes a 12-day tour of England and Ireland with several sold-out shows. They stop every 50 km to pull over so that the driver can drop a raw egg into the radiator to stop up leaks. The band is treated to a full strip-search at the Canadian border on their way to perform on the grounds of Parliament for the Canadian Tulip Festival.
Summer 2001 - Antibalas share the stage with Femi Kuti in an afrobeat summit at the Montreal Jazz Festival and continue on to the European continent in festivals in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Later, they record “Trouble Sleep” with Baaba Maal, Kaouding Cissoko, and Taj Mahal for MCA/Universal’s “Red Hot and Riot” AIDS fundraiser compilation.
Fall 2001 - The band finishes "Talkatif" record in their studio space at Amayo's Afro Spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Winter 2002 - Packed into a Green Tortoise sleeper bus, Antibalas tours the West Coast, from Seattle to San Diego. In Los Angeles they are joined by Tito Puente timbale protégé and latin jazz great Bobby Matos and later meet Fela collaborator and “Upside Down” singer Sandra Iszadore.
Winter/Spring 2002 - Antibalas plays a sold-out Bowery Ballroom, to celebrate the release of “Talkatif,” their second release with the Ninja Tune label. Antibalas, along with Daptone Records and Amayo are forced to vacate their studios at the AfroSpot as gentrification drives up neighborhood rents.
Summer – Fall 2002 - A comprehensive European tour takes Antibalas to new destinations and major music festivals such as Roskilde, Istanbul Jazz, Montreux Jazz, among others. Later that summer, they perform at the Newport Jazz Festival, closing the day with Herbie Hancock and Isaac Hayes.
Spring 2003 - Antibalas releases Che Che Cole 12” featuring Mayra Vega on Daptone Records. The song becomes an international dancefloor killer and later appears in the soundtrack to Van Peeble’s “Baadass” and several other compilations. The band completes another Canada tour and visits Deep South and Florida for the first time. They find a new home and headquarters in Bushwick, Brooklyn NY, sharing space with the Daptone Records, the Dap-Kings and Sugarman Three. “Dub Side of the Moon,” produced by Antibalas’ Victor Axelrod, is released on Easy Star records.
Summer 2003 - Antibalas opens for James Brown at a free concert to thousands at New York’s Battery Park. Later that summer, Antibalas performs two steamy shows at the Bonaroo Festival, while the horn section guests with Medeski, Martin and Wood and Cyro Baptista’s Beat the Donkey Ensemble. A week later, they revisit the Canadian jazz festival circuit. Returning from tour, they record “Who is this America” at the newly constructed the Daptone Studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. That summer New Yorkers are treated to several outdoor shows including Battery Park (mentioned above), Turntables on the Hudson in Harlem, Fort Greene Park, and the “Revolution 127th St. Block Party” with artist Brett Cook-Dizney, DJ Rich Medina, and friends.
Fall 2003 - Antibalas makes a big splash at the WOMEX World Music Expo in Sevilla, as the first US-based band chosen to perform. They tour the West Coast and Deep South. Antibalas returns to Brooklyn Museum of Art for a special performance with choreographed dancers.
Spring 2004 - Antibalas continues a full time touring schedule that includes tours of Northeast USA, Eastern Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Other appearances include the Coachella Festival, the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), Mass MOCA, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Summer 2004 - “Who is This America?” the third studio record, is released on Ropeadope/Artemis records, followed by heavy European and US touring including performances at Glastonbury and Eurockennes Festivals, and New York’s Central Park. In between tours, Antibalas records 10 songs at Excello Studios, Brooklyn for future release. At the Yerba Buena Art Center, San Francisco, the band meets and collaborates with Babatunde Williams, lead trumpet/soloist for the Afrika 70 Band. In August, during a weeklong residency at the Heimatklange Festival in Berlin, the group collaborates with more Afrika 70 legends, Oghene Kologbo and Nicholas Addey over five nights.
Fall 2004 - Antibalas performs over 60 shows in North America supporting “Who is this America?” and registering hundreds of voters along the way partnering with Music for America. The tour concludes with a fully costumed Halloween show with Medeski, Martin, and Wood at the Hammerstein Ballroom (NYC), followed by a lecture/presentation on afrobeat music at Yale University.
Winter – Spring 2004-2005 - The group begins writing new material and prepares for release the summer 2004 Excello recording sessions. Antibalas make their Japanese debut at Tokyo’s O-East nightclub. Returning to New York, the band sets up for a five week residency at Tonic on the Lower East Side. Antibalas horns are featured with TV on the Radio opening for Parliament-Funkadelic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Summer – Fall 2005 - In early May Antibalas embark on a 30 date US/Canada tour to favorite cities as well as debut shows in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. They cap off the US tour with sold out shows at the Toronto Jazz Festival and a packed Celebrate Brooklyn! show with Soulive in Prospect Park. Antibalas release the “Government Magic” EP and make three trips to Europe in March, July and October for jazz and world music festival touring. In Paris, they perform two special concerts with guest appearances from afrobeat drumming legend Tony Allen and Chief Udoh Essiet. Martin Perna organizes “Let Rhythm Provide” compilation for New Orleans hurricane victims featuring tracks donated from Antibalas member side projects including Fu Arkistra, Speakerphonic, Fire of Space, Ocote Soul Sounds, Beyondo, Roots Combination, Volney Litmus, and Small and Medium. Antibalas horns perform at Madison Square Garden Theater as part of an allstar band with Burning Spear, Sinead O’Connor, and the rhythm section of Medeski, Martin, and Wood as part of the Jammys Awards. In Chicago, Antibalas record the upcoming “Security” album at Soma Studios produced by John McEntire (Tortoise, Stereolab, Tom Zé).
2006 starts with new friendships and collaborations with Gomez and Michael Franti on Jamcruise. Antibalas slows down their steady touring schedule performing only 30 shows that include appearances in New England, Lyon - France, the Langerado Festival in Florida, a suprise set with Baaba Maal in Brooklyn, plus top billing appearances at Central Park Summer Stage, Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, Northeast Kingdom Festival in Vermont, and the Evolve Festival in Nova Scotia. They visit Europe, where they tour extensively in Germany and France, and make debut appearances in Portugal and Austria. TV on the Radio invites Antibalas horns and percussion to join the band during their July “Celebrate Brooklyn” performance. Their album “Return to Cookie Mountain” is released in September on Interscope, featuring Antibalas members Martin Perna (flutes, saxophones) and Stuart Bogie (saxophone, bass harmonica, clarinet).
In September, Antibalas sign to ANTI records for a spring 2007 release of “Security.” Members of Antibalas, as part of the El Michels Affair, play selected shows backing up the Wu Tang Clan across the US. Others pursue their own projects plus tour and/or record with groups such as TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Angelique Kidjo, Gomez, and Celebration, among others.