We sat with a few of the members of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra on Jam Cruise. While they all shared enough of their answers to present them to you collectively as the band, one answer has to be shared and credited to the person who said it. When asked how they all felt about Austin, band member Martin responded: “It’s a secret fantasy of mine that everybody moves down there. That we escape the aggravation of New York and maybe can all own houses one day.” His secret fantasy has become a reality (at least in part) and we would like to personally welcome Martin into the Austin community The music that this band creates is nothing short of fantastic, creative, energy flow, soul sounds with a groove that cause dance.
AUSTIN DAZE: What is Afrobeat?
ANTIBALAS: Afrobeat is the music that we play. It is a fusion,- in the words of its creator, Fela Kuti,- of traditional music from Nigeria, West Africa and jazz. But to be a little bit more specific, or to talk about our version of it, almost all of us grew up in the United States or grew up with American music–funk, jazz, hip hop, rock and roll…and we specifically don’t try to mix all of those influences in us, but at the same time, when we are speaking the language of Afrobeat you might hear different accents of it.
We play traditional Afrobeat, but coming from where we are coming from, we speak it in our own particular accent.
When people ask me what is Afrobeat, I usually tell them we’re an Avant- African dance band. It’s the simplest terms I can think of.
AD: What is your connection to Fela Kuti?[fa:p:a=72157594270496732,id=235372523,j=r,s=s,l=p]AB: Well, even before the history of Antibalas, another project that a couple of the founding members were involved in, recorded with one of his drummers named, Jojo Kuo, and that was sort of the first, you want to call it, apprenticeship in Afrobeat that we did dating back to 1995. And then, over the years, we’ve gotten to play with almost a dozen members of his group from his sons Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, who have come and sit in with us, to the drummer Tony Allen, who basically created the rhythms behind Afrobeat. We catch up with him in Paris every time we are there. Most recently, back in November of this past year, the pianist Dele Sosimi. The trumpeter Babatunde Williams recently recorded on an upcoming release of ours. In Berlin we caught up with two other members of his original Africa 70 group, named Kolo bo and Nico Abi. His manager and long time friend came to two nights in a row to the jazz cafe in London when we were playing there three years ago. So all of those individuals know about us and have given us their blessings.
It’s been cool over the years being able to travel especially because a lot of the members of Fela’s entourage band and legacy are scattered. A lot of them aren’t in Nigeria anymore. They’re in London, Paris, Berlin, United States…so in our travels over the past eight years we’ve been able to meet up with people and in a lot of ways link up other members because they’ll be like, “oh you saw so and so in San Francisco? Do you have his number? I haven’t seen him for twenty years”. So that’s been a trip too. It’s been a real honor and sort of unexpected blessing to be able to meet, perform with, and receive the blessings of all of these original, generational, Afrobeat musicians and people connected to the Afrobeat movement. Because where it was coming from, it was a political movement, it was a political party, it was a newspaper–all sort of under the direction of Fela and his collaborators.
AD: Do you see your music and its political message as evolving from Fela Kuti and continuing on or is it a different message?
AB: Probably some similar themes. I mean ultimately we’ve got to speak about the problems we see living in Brooklyn, NY but following that motto of speaking truth to power–that’s at the core of Afrobeat. And at the same time doing it through a music that engages people in the physical sense so that they are physically engaged by dancing but then they are also mentally and spiritually engaged.
AD: What are the advantages and disadvantages of members of Antibalis having side projects?
AB: We all have different influences and the advantage is that it allows us to explore those. You can save some of your stuff for your other band. Maybe you have a heavy metal idea and maybe that’s not for Antibalas. You can save that for your side project–make that for something. If you want to do some soul love song type thing, you can save that for The Dap Kings. It allows other people to explore all the different sides of music to enjoy and that develops us more as a whole and allows us to be more focused when we come into what is Antibalas.
AD: What is the ultimate message you want people to take away from an Antibalas show?
AB: That we are alive and we make decisions with our own free will.
AD: Has being dubbed a political band helped you or hurt you?
AB: It’s only helped people to connect on another level. There isn’t anything negative about it being political in any way. We are all political to begin with whether or not you know it or care about it, you are it. It’s inherent. That aspect of human nature–of being alive.
In France, people definitely recognize us as a dissenting American band because almost all of the questions are about that. You know, what about Bush this, or how did he get into power? Especially overseas, people pay more attention to the fact that we are a political band from the US because of what they see through the media that’s going over there. It’s that Bush is still in power. Americans love Bush. And then here’s a band saying something different so that overseas, that does draw more interest than here in the states where there’s many, many bands, several on the ship, someone like Michael Franti, who is speaking truth to power.
It’s a very positive thing we’re doing because of even just the smallest part we are playing in international relations. Keeping at least people that come across our music cooled out, like ok, there are Americans who are not totally ignorant and aloof when it comes to these issues.
AD: Despite your message through your music, do you ever encounter anti-American sentiments?
AB: Yeah, we get some of those. Anybody that gets a little drunk and is mad at your country is going to tell you. And it’s like, I’m sorry about that but after awhile it’s like, all right buddy, listen, you guys invented Colonialism, you know what I mean? So shut the f**k up. No, but for the most part we meet a lot of people that are sympathetic and they realize when seeing us that our country is very concerned and divided about things and that it isn’t all or one.
AD: Tell us about your latest recordings.
AB: We just finished doing a bunch of recordings with a producer named John MacIntyre in Chicago, Illinois. He’s known for his work with Tortoise and Stereolab, the English group, and some other bands. It was the first time that we had a producer outside of the group and it was the first time that we recorded straight to Protools, the digital format that everybody has been recording on for like, the last ten years, or whatever. On the same note, working with MacIntyre, we used microphones that were from the 1940s and we used equipment that stands the whole history of recorded music. We were really able to dig into all these different facets of music that we’ve developed and get deeper into them. So there are some songs that sound less like Afrobeat or Fela music than anybody has ever heard from us and there are some that sound more like it than anybody has ever heard from us. And then there are songs that get so close to the core of what it is about, and then flip in just subtle ways that many people might not get. Like in terms of having parts change when they wouldn’t normally change–all kinds of subtle levels. We got into all of these subtle levels. We took at least a month to do it. All day all night we all camped out in Chicago and we worked with an outside producer, which for a group of twelve is a significant thing. If you’re like a kid in a family of twelve it’s hard to have a certain relationship with your siblings but when an outside person comes in, everything… it was really wonderful.
AD: What do you think of Austin?
AB: For someone who doesn’t live in a trailer on a farm in Austin because he loves it so much and knows every single independent business person in Austin, we will just say we love it. University of Texas at Austin has one of the most amazing bands, one of the most amazing music programs in the country. That place is totally great.
Martin: It’s a secret fantasy of mine that everybody moves down there. That we escape the aggravation of New York and maybe can all own houses one day.**