Before he traveled to the United States in 1969, Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti composed largely within the confines of “highlife,” a dance band format with ties to Africa's colonial past. But after being exposed to America's black power movement and the separatist free-jazz acts that grew out of it, Fela was inspired to make his own, distinctly African contribution to music. Soon after, Fela created “Afrobeat,” an ambitious reinterpretation of highlife, American jazz, James Brown funk, and Afro-Cuban dance music.
With the new sound, Fela began a cultural loop between the African motherland and the West — with African-born musicians embellishing ideas put forth by U.S. artists, and vice versa — that is still humming 30 years after James Brown first checked out Fela's Nigeria 70 band in Lagos. Since Fela's death in 1997, his son Femi Kuti and former bandmate Tony Allen have kept the Afrobeat torch burning in Nigeria. Surprisingly, until now there has been little direct response to the music on these shores save a few ideas of Fela's used in house music tracks.
Brooklyn's Antibalas (“bulletproof,” or literally “anti-bullets”) has put a raucous end to that silence. About 14 players strong, America's first visible Afrobeat orchestra pays tribute to the “Black President” in every detail, from his half-hour-plus compositions to his politically charged album covers. (Antibalas' recent Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1 features a sketch of former President Clinton clenching a fist as military helicopters mobilize behind him.) The ensemble even recorded a few tracks with Jojo Quo, occasional drummer with Fela's Egypt 80 lineup.
“What's so fascinating about Antibalas is that it's such a synthesis of these strands of the African Diaspora tradition,” drummer Phil Ballman says. “And it's gone back and forth — it's gone to America and come back so many times that, to me, it's a totally valid thing for us to be doing. I don't think of our music as imitative; I think of it as generative.”
For some of the band members, Antibalas is not their first experience refurbishing vintage sounds in a painstaking manner. Gabriel Roth, who plays second guitar and handles engineering for the group, was co-founder of Desco, a label that re-created classic funk so faithfully that collectors thought it was reissuing long-lost 45s. Antibalas' recordings follow his “shitty is pretty” production motto so religiously that the records sound like they were made before Fela's early work, which dates to the late '60s.
Roth, Martin C-Perna (conductor, baritone sax, lyrics), Fernando Velez (first conga), Mike Wagner (trombone, “tenor” guitar — a signature of Fela's instrumentation), and Frank Stribling (bass) played together in the Desco bands Daktaris and Soul Providers. When the label founders went their separate ways, the musicians wanted to continue playing together — but with the added vision of Fela's well-manned, tightly synced orchestra. So they filled the empty positions with players from scenes as diverse as experimental jazz, reggae, and samba.
Organized as a collective, Antibalas allows each member to have a distinct role musically and administratively — whether that's T-shirt or CD manufacturing, Web site designing (www.antibalas.com), booking, or promotion. The nonhierarchical structure is integral both to the anarchist-leaning commentary given by C-Perna during shows and to the intricately woven arrangements, in which each player provides a small piece of the larger mosaic.
“It's the relationship between instruments and the shifting roles they play that defines the sound,” Ballman explains. “Every instrument is always contributing both rhythmic and melodic elements. … There's room for everyone, and everyone is voicing a different accent or rhythmic gesture, so even though you have 14 people playing, the sound is (hopefully) crisp and tight.”
The music rests on the heartbeat rhythm asserted by the sticks player, which remains constant and gives Afrobeat its organic, pulsating feel. The shekere (a gourd shaker) elaborates on that foundation, and Antibalas' three congas, as Ballman puts it, are meant to “sing” on top of it. The horn section (baritone and alto saxes, trumpet, and trombone) provides the main melody, which is always a punchy, ascending line walloped out in unison. Since the sticks and shekere supplant the bass guitar's traditional role in Western pop music, Antibalas' bassist usually plucks out a submelody that supports the horn line. The two electric guitars are hocketed, meaning each plays a simple part that meshes into a more complex whole, and the Hammond organ alternates between brief soloing and adding percussive fills. This complex conversation among the instruments frees the drummer to skip around as a sort of transition between the percussion and horn sections.
When these interlocking elements are repeated over the course of a 20-minute song, they can induce trancelike sensations similar to those sought by African Yoruba spiritualists. Fela's kaleidoscopic arrangements and multiple rhythmic points of reference had strong roots in Yoruba language and culture, as well as in voodoo and its Latin American cousin, Santería. “The power that so many people hear in drumming from current-day Nigeria is [because] Yoruba is a tone language, and the tones of the drums replicate the language,” says Ballman, who has studied traditional vodun drumming in Haiti. “So when people say “talking' drums, they really are talking. You are carrying on a dialogue with the ancestors in a very real way, because these forms came into use over a very long period of time and every generation of players had an impact of shaping those rhythms, and since they're utilizing vocal tones, you can say you're talking to the ancestors when you play those rhythms. It's like science fiction, man, like moving backward in time.”
According to Michael E. Veal's biographical study, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, Fela took the Yoruba spiritual practice of communicating with the ancestors and politicized it. After his performances at his Afrika Shrine club in Lagos, he would pay homage to an altar erected to his “political spirits” — Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Ghanaian Premier Kwame Nkruman. The Afrika Shrine served as a temporarily autonomous zone in a city under martial law, a sanctuary for discontents, dope smokers, students, transients, and even curious Nigerian elites.
There's no doubt the Black President would have endorsed an Afrobeat insurrection in New York City (or, for that matter, in San Francisco, where Antibalas plays two shows this weekend) — especially given NY Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's prolonged assault on so-called “quality of life” offenses. At some clubs in New York, Antibalas has had to ask audiences to stop dancing or run the risk of breaking archaic cabaret laws that the city suddenly began enforcing when the mayor assumed office in 1993.
“When people come down on dancing, you realize what it really means to dance,” C-Perna observes. Indeed, as George Clinton and Attorney General John Ashcroft might agree, putting asses into motion can have dangerous political consequences — freed minds and deviant behavior among them. C-Perna, whose interest in Yoruba deities and revolutionary dance music dates to his mid-'90s involvement in the Santería-inspired, Latin-ska band King Chango, uses Antibalas' weekly “Africalia” party to mobilize bodies, both kinetically and politically.
“The club's in Lower Manhattan, in a kind of yuppie area, so people who don't normally hang out in that area go down on Friday to see us,” he says. “It's a weird vibe because there's always a handful of businessmen who stay past the happy hour, and I'll be talking about how everyone needs to divest from the stock market, and how every dollar you spend is more powerful than a vote because companies are more powerful than politicians now. And there'll be people who probably work for Xerox and Coke in the audience, as well as anarchists and activists.”
Unlike Fela's bands, which he hypocritically ruled with an iron fist, Antibalas is a horizontally organized kibbutz, with C-Perna acting as conductor but not bandleader.
“I'd been in Mexico for the last month, and when I got back, the group had taken on a life of its own in my absence, which is really what I had hoped would happen,” he says. “I had been the organizer of a lot of things, but with me being away, members had been a lot more active in getting things done. I was overjoyed because that's what a collective is. You can't just say, “All right, we're a collective.' People have to learn it themselves because it's been deprogrammed out of us. We're taught that everything's a hierarchy, wait for instructions from the boss, only do what's expected of you and nothing more.
“It just surprises me now when I'm up on stage, like, “How did this get started?'” he muses. “Why do I feel like I'm playing inside my favorite record with my all-time favorite band?”