It's often a hard pill to swallow when celebrities get all political on us. It can be heavy-handed, disingenuous, and, frankly, annoying. But the 15-plus members of the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat collective Antibalas aren't celebrities, nor do they have any aspiration to be. In a time when few musicians are using their medium to change the world, Antibalas espouse their political views by rocking the house.
While virtually unknown to mainstream listeners, Antibalas have long been a spin-off favorite of hardcore "underground" hip-hop fans of Dead Prez, the Roots, Reflection Eternal and Mos Def, who himself has turned up at an Antibalas show or two.
Before we go on, it must be said that the band owes its very existence to Fela Kuti, the inventor of Afrobeat music. Without him, the group would not have a blueprint to incorporate their political commentary into upbeat, life-affirming music. Antibalas, however, is in no way a Fela cover band or tribute band.
"It's just about us loving Afrobeat music as created by Fela Kuti and wanting to use that as a medium for expressing our own situation," band founder Martin Perna said. "We use Afrobeat to talk about what's going on in our lives in New York and in the world as we see it."
Antibalas means bulletproof; it translates literally from Spanish as "anti-bullets." "Pacifism is at the foundation of our music," Perna explained. "So every time someone says 'Antibalas,' 'against bullets,' they're repeating that idea."
While the group may espouse pacifism, it is in no way passive. They speak out against injustice through their music as well as offer ways to heal the world. And they get butts shaking in the process. If you've ever been to one of their shows, you know that it is impossible to sit still during their set.
"We're just creating a vibe where you just come to get together to dance, hang out, have a good time, listen, learn, maybe bring something back, offer something," Perna said. "But that's the nature of African music. Music that's truly based in Africa is a participatory music. Everybody's part of the experience: singing, clapping, dancing, performing. We're trying to dissolve the notion that we're the stars and you're the fans that are supposed to line up at our dressing room after the show."
That part sounds great, but do they have to bring us down with their grim outlook on world affairs?
"The whole thing with Afrobeat music is that it's a music rooted in struggle. It would be like trying to do reggae music completely absent of Rastafarianism, or gospel music completely absent of Jesus, or punk rock completely absent of beer," Perna said. "Those are the roots of it, so it's not really a choice, it's not like, 'OK, we're going to be "a political band" now.' It just is."
Antibalas' new album, Talkatif, hit shelves on March 19. Talkatif doesn't stray from the format found on their debut, Liberation Afrobeat Volume 1. There are at least 15 musicians on the LP: the band's core makeup of two saxophones, a trumpet, a trombone, a flugelhorn, two guitars, a bass, congas, drums, shekeres, sticks and an organ. Usually, extended family and guest musicians jam with the band as well, bringing the number of players on stage at any given time to the mid-20s.
The title track is about "getting your sh-- together," Perna said. "Everybody knows what an ideal world looks like and they talk about it sometimes, but their actions don't match up to it. It's all about getting everybody to judge themselves."
Another Talkatif song, "World Without Fear," is an instrumental that Perna said is based on politicians who trade in fear rather than in love. "All these blind politicians are moving us so far toward fear under the guise of security."
This song, like all of the tracks on the album, was written well before September 11 and has taken on a new resonance since then. "World War IV" appeared on Antibalas' first album, yet it deals directly with the current war that is going on. "Not to be prophetic, and we're not the only ones singing about it you can go look at records from years ago and there are artists from all over the place talking very clearly about what's happening right now but we're like the canary in the mine," Perna explained.
"Yansh," a word that means "ass" in Nigerian slang, is a song about "breaking the inertia that keeps us from doing the things we should, things we need to do in our personal life and things we need to do on a greater scale. A lot of our apathy," Perna said, "is because we're stationary. But once you start moving, it's hard to stop."
It's all pretty heavy subject matter and belies the actual upbeat vibe of the disc. "It's not like we're some enlightened band, but at the same time, there are things that we're conscious of that we focus on." But Perna reassured, "there's a couple of just straight-up party jams too."
The group may not claim to be enlightened, but there is a definite United Colors of Benetton undertone to their whole presentation. That may, in part, because of how earnest they are in their effort to end world-suffering, but it also has to do with their conspicuously multi-cultural makeup: male and female, "Latinos, whites, Afro-Americans, Africans, and Asian-Americans."
"This is the secret," Perna said, "that we're actually put together by Benetton. We all live in a chalet outside of Florence and drive matching Lamborghinis. No," he said with a laugh. "It's just a reflection of New York. It wasn't like, 'All right, we need another Puerto Rican member of the group.' We were all friends before this, so it just reflects who we are and where we're going, too.
"New York, as cosmopolitan as it is, is very cliquish at the same time. The cool thing about Antibalas is it brings people together, but not in a corny way. It's not like, 'Oh, let's hold hands and pretend everything's OK.' It's like, 'Let's get together in the face of everything that's f---ed up and have a good time."
Antibalas tour dates, according to the band's Web site:
- 3/28 - Milwaukee, WI @ Onopa Brewing Company
- 3/29 - Chicago, IL @ Double Door
- 3/30 - Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
- 3/31 - Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom & Tavern
- 4/1 - Buffalo, NY @ The Tralf Music Hall
- 4/3 - Winooski, VT @ Higher Ground
- 4/4 - Montreal, QC @ Cabaret Music Hall
- 4/5 - Ottawa, ON @ Barrymore's
- 4/6 - Toronto, ON @ Lee's Palace