It’s been more than seven years since the death of the late, great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who succumbed to AIDS-related complications on August 3, 1997. Yet Afrobeat, the funky, politically charged music that he pioneered in Nigeria in the ’70s and ’80s, is still going strong today. Thanks to offshoots of the original franchise (e.g., Fela’s son Femi, and former Africa 70 drummer and music director Tony Allen) and a cadre of new, younger bands that have sprung up since Fela’s death, the music has mutated, matured and reproduced itself like a rump-shaking Yoruba virus. And if there’s one group that stands out as the hardest-working Afrobeat torchbearer, almost single-handedly igniting the Afrobeat revival in North America, it’s Brooklyn’s own Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.
Founded by baritone saxman Martin Perna in 1998, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra—usually just called Antibalas—grew out of the now-legendary Daktaris project, which produced a one-off album called Soul Explosion for the Brooklyn-based Daptone label. While exploring the connections between Afrobeat, James Brown and vintage 1970s Ethiopian grooves, Perna and the nascent Antibalas crew developed a taste for the music, and not long after the band was born.
“This isn’t music you can just ‘get’ from records,” explains Perna, when we caught up with him on the road outside of Baltimore. “You need to hear it and play it live. That’s part of why we got together, to learn this music and pass it on. It takes a long time for musicians to absorb Afrobeat, and we’re still evolving. It’s a high art and we treat it as such.”
Antibalas (whose name means both “bulletproof” and “anti-bullets” in Spanish) established itself as a collective from the beginning, with no hierarchies and fully democratic decision-making that fit their politically progressive outlook. They even went so far as to pool their resources to procure a Brooklyn brownstone, which they refer to simply as the Headquarters, as a rehearsal and alternative arts space. “It took a long time to get into a collective headspace,” recalls Perna. “Here in the U.S., collectives just aren’t seen as an American thing. We’re used to hierarchies. But when everyone is able to weigh in and feel ownership that gets reflected in the music.”
They soon found themselves the main attraction at New York’s long-running weekly Africalia party and hipsters, Afrobeat aficionados and the merely curious were lured by the prospect of catching the music that many had assumed would die with Fela. Word quickly spread throughout the city’s cognoscenti that there was a real, live Afrobeat band playing Fela’s music right here in New York City every weekend—and they were good, too!
By the time that the NYPD closed down the Africalia party in 2001, news of Antibalas had spread well beyond the five boroughs and the band was already putting in long hours on the road. 2001 also saw the release of the group’s first album, Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1, on the British label Ninja Tune. It was an auspicious debut: loose and funky in all the right places, but tight where it counted. The album introduced fans to Antibalas’ Latin-tinged Afrobeat sound on such tracks as “Si, Se Puede,” “Dirt And Blood” and “El Machete,” and made critics sit up and take notice. That album was followed closely by 2002’s Talkatif (Ninjatune), a second, more fully-realized blast of classic Afrobeat that invited the band’s fans to shake their collective nyash. In 2002 Antibalas was also invited to participate in the Red Hot + Riot project, joining an all-star lineup of Afrobeat greats and conscious hip-hop and neo-soul artists in celebrating Fela’s legacy and raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
Since then, the band has been busy expanding its fan base with a near-con