Antibalas plays Afrikadey!

By Karoline Czerski

Bellowing horns, signature bass, eclectic beats and lots of love. This is the stuff derived from six years of the growing and ongoing success of Antibalas Afro-beat orchestra, a roughly thirteen-member predominantly male band out of New York City. Trombone player and band conductor Aaron Johnson for a behind the scenes peek at the ensemble headlining Afrikadey! at Prince’s Island Park. From his home in Brooklyn–home base for the Antibalas (“anti-bullet”, or bulletproof in Spanish) crew–Johnson tells of the band’s sound, the familia, the new album, its promotion, and pending autumn tour.

“It’s is a lot better, a lot more cohesive,” Johnson says of the band’s third album, Who is this America, released in June 2004. Incidentally, it’s the time spent on the road rather than in the confines of the studio, which has caused the music to grow.

“The touring band is actually shrinking,” Aaron explains, comparing the road-crew to the home ensemble of up to 17 people. “For financial reasons–when we travel, it is likely 11 or 12 of us.”

Scaling back their crew while traveling may have yielded new progress in recording, Antibalas’ sound has always been distinctly alive, the on-stage energy of the ensemble a signature trait of their awakening international success.

“It’s a special thing, we all have a blast,” explains Aaron of their performance charisma. “There’s a lot of drama. When we’re up on stage, the crowd really digs that we’re all friends. We look at each other and smile the whole time.”

The music is energetic and powerful, but also politically charged. Antibalas has been a strong vocal supporter of AIDS Africa benefit shows and helps other causes the best they can. In return, charities work to promote Antibalas’ ideas and shows during the tour and have set up grassroots lists encouraging fans to spread the Antibalas word.

But touring, promoting and performing with a family of a dozen can be an exhausting lifestyle, taking more than stamina and a large fan base to keep the pace.

“It’s kind of a miracle,” Johnson reflects on the cohesion of the band on the road. “There is a lot of turn-over, but a lot of love.”

The group has been well received in all parts of the world, touching audiences in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. English, Spanish and Yoruba lyrics are the voice behind a sound which has grown organically since its conception by Martin Perna in 1998, adhering tightly to the Afro-beat first conceptualized in the 1960s by the late Fela Kuti, Nigerian music legend and activist.

“We stick to a very strict framework,” notes Johnson of the Afro-beat sound. What is a fusion of American funk with traditional African rhythms has become a world-wide phenomenon, leaving Antibalas with a mighty busy schedule.

“Paris, Montreal, Vancouver–most shows are outside of the U.S.,” says Johnson of their touring schedule. Memories of a small, sweaty pub at the Istanbul Jazz Fest fill the trombone player’s mind, while gigs in New York are becoming something of a rarity.

Getting ready for this autumn’s album tour and summer festivals has meant a deserving month off for most of the band members, so expect Calgary’s Afrikadey! show at Prince’s Island Park to be fresh, charged and energetic–nothing less than the best of Antibalas in nothing less than a perfect outdoor setting.

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