"Afrobeat Is Rocket Science"
Afrobeat. Fela Kuti. The Shrine. Egypt 80.
Chances are, these days, that at least one of those names is familiar to you. Before Antibalas appeared on the scene in the late ‘90s, however, few people outside of West Africa were hip to afrobeat, the funk-infused Nigerian party sound innovated by Fela Kuti in the 1970s. Just 14 years after Antibalas’ first show at a hole-in-the-wall bar in New York, afrobeat bands have popped up everywhere from Tokyo to São Paulo, and Fela’s story has been transformed into Broadway musical hit (Fela!), with backing money from A-listers like Will Smith and Jay-Z.
Antibalas can’t take all the credit for the global afrobeat renaissance going on, but they certainly have something to do with it. The band grew out of the Brooklyn soul revival scene that began to bubble up in the late ‘90s, forming after founder Martín Perna’s mind was blown by some some classic Fela records. Over the course of five studio albums and countless tours, Antibalas spread the afrobeat gospel far and wide. To this day they are the chief exponents of the sound worldwide, alongside Fela’s own sons Femi and Seun Kuti.
The band took a bit of a hiatus over the last few years as its members pursued other projects (including, for several members, performing daily in the pit for the Fela musical). This summer, they’ve returned with a shiny new self-titled studio album, Antibalas, out on Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, and it’s packed with the tight grooves and face-melting horn lines we’ve come to expect from the afrobeat orchestra. MTV Iggy got on the phone with founding member Martín Perna to talk about the new album and the group’s legacy.
Hi Martín – so tell me, what’s the story behind this new album? It’s been five years since the last Antibalas release, what’s taken so long?
Most of the material on the album has been marinating for a couple of years. It was really difficult to schedule a recording and get everybody who no longer lives in New York into one place. So it was a kind of eclipse where everything was in alignment. A lot of it is made up of things we’ve been working on and tweaking for the last five years. It’s cool, because we have a relationship with Daptone and we don’t have to worry about who will put out the next record. It was really smooth working with them.
From what I understand, Gabriel Roth, the guy who runs Daptone Records is a former member of the band, no?
I’d hesitate to say “former” because Gabe never leaves Antibalas actually. He’s always been an essential part of our family, from day one. The founding of this group was through musical experiences that I had through him, which gave me the confidence and musical background to start Antibalas. I had been playing for six years with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and that was my musical formation.
I’ve read that members of Antibalas, the Dap-Kings, and TV on the Radio all lived in the same loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn back in the ’90s – is that true?
It’s true. In the early days, we were around lots of creative people who were struggling in the same ways, and there was a lot of camaraderie and inspiration and cross-pollination of ideas, some of which the public sees and some of which they don’t. Everybody who came out of that space is now doing really exiting and compelling things and influencing the culture.
So this is a question I imagine you get a lot, but when you guys first started, afrobeat and Fela were extremely little-known outside of West Africa. Now there are Afrobeat bands in every city on the planet, the Fela! musical is on Broadway – there’s really been a global Afrobeat revival.. How do you feel about that? Do you feel responsible for the spread of this music?
I see ourselves as craftsmen. We’re not doing something that’s all about novelty. Afrobeat is a form that’s already perfect, and our challenge is to create new things in that form and execute that form properly. Afrobeat has grown a lot but it’s never going to be global pop the way hip-hop or reggae is, because the songs are too long. They are really meditations. It can’t be done in 3 minutes to fit nicely on the radio. And Afrobeat is about speaking truth to power.
So I think the mainstream doesn’t yet understand it, not really. We’ve done 1000 shows in 40 countries, and people still don’t really understand it. It’s something exotic still. Maybe in another generation or two people will have a grip of it. But we’re about to hit the road for four months to tour the record, so we’ll see how much the reception has changed.
So you don’t feel like, “Fela made it to Broadway, mission accomplished, we’re no longer needed here”?
[Laughs] Not exactly, no.
How did you come across Fela’s music to begin with, and what about it spoke to you?
I first heard afrobeat in 1991, in a Fela sample that was used in a track by the hip-hop group X-Clan (“Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It?”). So I got into Afrobeat the same way I got into funk, by reading the liner notes of hip-hop albums. Then when I moved to New York in ‘94 I was living with Gabe (from Daptone), and he had a bunch of Fela records, and this other musician I knew from France had almost the whole catalog.
The model of afrobeat, it’s really full, it’s really perfect in so many ways. In ranges in tempo from slow to fast, major to minor, 4/4 and 6/7 – there’s so many things that fit within it. So around that time, I got really into it and I began to round up some players to create Antibalas. It was hard because a lot of musicians didn’t understand the music. We had great guitar players, but they weren’t the right fit – the guitar is a rhythm instrument in afrobeat, they really don’t solo. But we evolved and the lineup we have now has been pretty intact for 10 years.
In a way, Antibalas is bigger than just one band. It’s almost a brand. There’s been so many spin-off projects from the group’s members, from your Ocote Soul Sounds, to Marcos Garcia’s Chico Mann and Stuart Bogie’s Superhuman Happiness.
Totally. And playing with Antibalas haa made a permanent imprint on all of our musical DNA. I might hear Stuart playing as a sideman with Iron & Wine, and what he’s playing will come from an afrobeat place – the rhythms, or how he phrases the melody. And with Chico Mann, it’s this deep electronic sound, but those guitar lines are pure afrobeat. I think Ocote Soul Sounds is closer to what Antibalas would have sounded like if we had decided not to focus entirely on afrobeat, and include the influences of groups like Mandrill or Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive. But our attitude was that we had to do it 100 percent. Afrobeat is rocket science, and we wanted to respect it fully rather than just dabble in it, you know?
You guys have been known for playing Afrobeat in a traditional way, but there is definitely a unique Antibalas flavor in your music. On the first track of the new album, “Dirty Money,” I hear some other influences – maybe even some indie rock — in the guitar parts.
Afrobeat is a musical language. When studying a language, you have to study the grammar at first. But when a language migrates, there will always be new turns of phrase – the way British English is different from Jamaican English. As we became fluent in Afrobeat, inevitably we’d develop our own accent. The intention was never to write songs imagining that Fela was writing them. But we write with reverence for him as an artist.
I imagine that along the way, you’ve made a lot of contact with the original creators of the music as well, right?
Our touring have put us in the presence of most of the people that are alive that were really formative in Afrobeat, from his mentor in London to drummer Tony Allen, who created the beat behind afrobeat. We’ve played with Tony a number of times. And Fela’s son Seun Kuti came to see us in London. He had been doing hip-hop, and within two years of him appearing as a special guest with us, he went back to Nigeria and put the Egypt 80 (Fela’s band) back together. I like to think we helped re-invigorate the energy of many of the people who were connected to Fela.
How is this record different from previous Antibalas releases?
Well one thing is that on this record, we tried to focus on an economy of the songs. We made arrangements that are shorter and much leaner, and we’ll see how that works. The songs are elastic, they can grow or shrink, so listeners will hear a very different version if they see us live, because the live thing is a whole other energy.
From the beginning, Antibalas has had a big political side. Since your last album, we’ve entered particularly tumultuous times – especially the financial crash and the rise of Occupy Wall Street. How does has the new album reacted to those things?
We talk about things that have affected us directly. We lost our homes ten years ago when gentrification happened in Williamsburg, back when all ten of us were in walking distance of each other and we could afford to have a recording and rehearsal space and play affordable shows. Then in a really fast amount of time in 2001, we lost a lot of that. Artists are the canaries in the coal mine in a lot of ways, when things happen, we’re the first to notice. Often we’re the first to be displaced.
But we have the same perspective as always – we’re trying to talk about things as they happen. “Dirty Money” is all about that. You can talk about corporate welfare, about all the capitalizing on disaster that happened around Katrina. A lot of money was thrown at New Orleans, and other people caught it. The assistance was barely enough to keep people afloat, and was never meant to pull them out of the water to begin with. So we’re outraged. There’s a sense of outrage in our music. But you can’t live your life being angry, there has to be a celebratory release that we’re alive to witness all of it, and the album reflects both those sides.
So after all these years, why did you decide to make name fifth studio album Antibalas (self-titled)?
I think that on this album, we all feel like it’s the best we’ve ever done. There are a lot of perfectionists in the group, and this is the first album where everybody in the band felt like we’re at our best. It’s also one of the only titles we could agree on as a group, so it’s a triumph just for us to all agree on something and finish it. [Laughs]
You guys are about to tour the record. I’m wondering – for many people, Antibalas was the introduction to afrobeat. Did you come across the problem where people would come to an Antibalas show, get turned on to afrobeat, and then buy Fela records instead of yours?
I think it’s great if they do that. Understanding Fela’s music will help you understand our music more. Hopefully they can be critical listeners and see how it’s different too. There are ways the sounds are the same and ways they are different. This is music you need to spend time with and sink your teeth into. It’s been twenty years after I first heard Fela’s “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” and I’m still hearing new things everything I listen to it.