Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra heads to Jazz Fest

By Heath McLeod

We’re going back in time, folks. Hacking through the jungles of bad hair in the eighties and strutting past disco in the seventies, we end our journey in the anti-war music of the sixties. Listening to the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in North America, Bob Marley in Jamaica, and the Beatles worldwide, we’re in the midst of revolutionary music. Meanwhile in Nigeria, the radical Fela Kuti is planting the seeds of “Afro-beat;” a mixture of traditional African music and jazz.

We skip ahead thirty years into Martin Perna’s Mexican hotel room. Inspiration strikes him with the idea of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.

"We had the idea of getting together a big band with everyone coming from different points on the spectrum, but all somehow related when viewed through the prism of Afro-beat," says Phil Ballman, one the group’s six percussionists.

With a name meaning "against bullets" (en espaƱol), Antibalas slip ideas into their performance that venture beyond the wars, brutality, and political jargon of Afro-beat. The music is more important than the message, for without the music, there could be no message.

"The group was born out of enthusiasm for the music, it certainly wasn’t the result of a strategic planning meeting where we discussed how to get across a political message," explains Ballman. "We feel that the music we’re dealing with inevitably involves a certain activist standpoint, and we’d only be touching the surface if we ignored the fact that Fela’s music, Afro-beat, was born out of struggle and conflict."

The group captures their audiences with strong percussive tracks, and tries to encourage thought, rather than listeners blindly following their ideals.

"Even if people disagree with us, that’s cool," continues Ballman. "The shows are all about coming together by a united love of music, movement, and a celebration of life."

The impressive unity of the band is rather strange for such a large group, with everything leading back to the inspiration of Fela and a desire to extend Afro-beat. With everyone contributing to the songwriting, no egos flare to take control of the flow of the band. Their dedication to the music seems predetermined.

"We want to evolve with the arrangements and performances, trying to have as much fun as possible with the music, and each other."

The pool of twenty musicians play together in all possible combinations, in any setting, from a crowded living room party to huge outdoor festivals. Even the occasional substitution in their lineup can’t restrain the chemistry displayed onstage or in the studio.

"We’re like a baseball team," says Ballman. "In every game there may not be all the same players, but it’s still the same team; some people just get more playing time."

Though Antibalas is a traditional Afro-beat band, they reach more than just funk and world audiences with the help of their label, Ninjatune, known for the electronic styles of artists such as Coldcut, DJ Food, and Kid Koala.

"They took a risk on us. We’re not their regular kind of music–they definitely have another aesthetic that they’re known for. But they related to what we’re doing and they support what we do."

Music is foremost in their minds, the band members treat the music with such reverence that it takes on mythical proportions. Fela’s influence has transformed these men and women from artists into enthusiasts of humanity, who infect audiences with every performance.

"Listening to our record is like watching a great program on a TV with bad reception. The picture flickers and the contrast, brightness and colour are all out of wack." Ballman continues. "Our live shows are completely different. Same program, but in surround sound, on a massive screen with incredible resolution where the picture just blows you away."

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