It’s a rainy December morning when the members of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra gather in a chic Manhattan apartment-come-photography studio to discuss Security, their first new studio album since George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election. With their shoes off, the members flip through magazines, check their e-mail, and catch up on life since returning home from their last group outing. Boasting an active lineup of 12 working musicians, who hail from such scattered locations as Austin, London, and most of New York’s boroughs, it has become increasingly difficult to roundup the entire troupe and, indeed, between rehearsals the best place to find the collective all in one place is onstage. Representing a number of different ethnic groups (Hispanic, African American, African, Jewish) and a wide spectrum of ages (the group boasts members born in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s), the musicians sitting together could be any random sampling of New Yorkers placed together like contestants on an episode of Survivor. But when herded into place for one final group shot, the dozen players snap together like pieces in a puzzle, a firm unit molded in the image of Fela Kuti.
One of world music’s most important voices, Fela Kuti and his drummer, Tony Allen, are responsible for creating Afrobeat, a blend of funk, jazz and traditional Yoruba/Nigerian music popularized in the 1960s and ’70S. Kuti combined the tight grooves of James Brown’s bands with extended, almost free jazz improvisation to create an upbeat, rhythmic dance music, over which he laid the strong political messages of his ferocious lyrics. More than a musician and bandleader, Kuti was an icon and folk hero, who became the voice of Nigeria’s common man and used his popularity as a vehicle for change. With a commanding stage presence and a brash horn artillery, Kuti inspired a generation of Nigerians with his anti-establishment message. He overcame physical violence from Nigeria’s military government and weathered political turmoil for much of his career – he was jailed an estimated 200 times and his back was criss-crossed with the scars of countless beatings. Undaunted, he declared the compound where he lived with his bandmembers and 27 backup dancers/wives a separate state, the Kalakuta Republic. He ultimately succumbed to AIDS in 1997.
Antibalas are Afrobeat’s next generation rather than pioneers, but the group’s message comes from the heart. The collective’s newest release, Security, uses Kuti’s trademark rhythmic hooks to draw in listeners, but channels its own voice to deliver a strong State Of The Union. The group has forged its own path both in the studio and onstage and has touched an international audience without the aid of the mainstream media. Despite (and perhaps because of) its anti-establishment bent, the group has drawn in rock fans, jam-happy hippies, hip-hop headz and avant-gardists alike with its infectious sound. One night, Columbia University’s psychedelic anti-frat Delta Phi even brought a group of pledges, high on acid, to see the group perform at New York’s school-turned-art hotspot.
Entering 2007 with a new disc, produced by Tortoise’s John McEntire, and a busy tour schedule, Antibalas is poised to capture its largest audience yet in the coming year. Still, the group’s message remains direct. “It is inevitable that people will hear the groove, but a lot of people don’t want to look in the mirror and stand up and be accountable,” saxophonist Martin Perna says. “For better or for worse, in the United States there are a lot of people of privilege. Some people have grown up in a place where there is so much fear or ignorance about the reality that the US is responsible for a lot of the bad stuff in the world. So, we try to speak in a language people will understand and let them know that it might not matter to them, but it matters to us.”
Antibalas’s story begins with Perna, a Hispanic-Ameri