In musical circles, it’s very rare for one person to be credited with being solely responsible for inventing a new genre. When Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti debuted the music he dubbed “Afrobeat” in 1968, it was a blend of African jazz with Cuban and Latin influences that had been previously known as “highlife.” But Kuti was adding things to the music that changed it drastically, experimenting with harmonics and harmonies. After his first tour of the States in ’69, Kuti’s music underwent another drastic change. The band spent six months in L.A. soaking up the radical culture and music of the times, picking up on the funk of James Brown and Parliament as well as Sly and the Family Stone. By the time he returned to Nigeria in 1970, his music was truly revolutionary. He formed a huge ensemble band that had a core of 30 members and was highly political, featuring lyrics that were critical of the Nigerian government. Kuti was harassed constantly by the government for his and his activist mother’s political viewpoints, and spent five years in prison on a trumped up charge.
Kuti died in ’97, but his music and his political activism live on in a 14-piece ensemble from Brooklyn. Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra upholds the Afrobeat tradition so strongly that the group has been called a Fela tribute band. But Antibalas drummer Phillip Ballman says that’s only true up to a point. “I would say that we’re more than that, definitely. I think of the music that he created as sort of the foundation that we build upon.”
Although the group has been together since ’98, they had only a cult following until an appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered in 2001 thrust them into the public eye.
Ballman says that once people hear the music, there’s nothing not to like. “The groove is unstoppable–it’s very funky, it’s propulsive, there’s hooks aplenty, and the melodies are catchy and beautiful. There’s a palpable feeling of freedom and excitement happening in the music. It’s not indulgent, it’s very disciplined and very focused music.”
And when you have a group that can swell to as many as 20 musicians in performance situations, the key to keeping band members from stepping on each other’s toes is instrumental discipline. “Each instrument has to occupy a certain niche that’s very clearly defined,” Ballman explains. “With that many people, there’s a lot of pressure on all of us to keep it tight. We’ve been performing together long enough now, we’ve done enough shows together that we’ve developed a sixth sense and the parameters of what we’re allowed to do and what works and what doesn’t work.”
That discipline comes in handy when Antibalas is invited to share a stage with a jam band or one of its jammers, as Antibalas did recently with Phish’s Trey Anastasio. Whether or not to accept those types of invitations are an ongoing problem for the group. The Afrobeaters like that audience because it’s made of up of young people who like groove based music and who are open to musical improvisation. “On the other hand, we don’t want to be considered a band who just noodles, or makes stuff up off the top of our heads while onstage,” Ballman explains. “We really spend a lot of time working on arrangements and finding the best way to have each tune have the necessary impact or drama or mood. There’s a lot of work that goes into making sure that things are real tight. So in that sense we don’t want to be lumped into a jam band, because that’s not really the way we work. It’s a little bit of a misrepresentation of us.”
Although the band has been called a global party unit because of the uplifting nature of the music and the infectious grooves, Antibalas (Spanish for “anti-bullets,” or “bulletproof”), still has a political statement to make through their music. “Afrobeat is a music that was born in struggle,” Ballman says. “We do feel if you side-step that, there’s a danger of getting the form but not the soul of the music down, and we feel as if that might come off as sounding a little empty. So we definitely have a political point of view.”
But the very size of the group creates another problem. In Kuti’s band, it was obvious he was in charge and that the musical and political ideas were his. “Antibalas is such a big group, and we are not the direct result of one person’s idea,” Ballman says. “It is really 14 or 15 people who are having an equal say. So it’s hard to formulate out exactly what our message is.”
The message may be difficult to articulate, but Ballman and the band are clear on the results they want. “To inspire people to be critical, to come out and just call a spade a spade. If you see intolerance, or corruption or abuse of power, to not shy away from that, to be able to confront it head-on. To inspire people to use their own intelligence to question things.”
In the end it all comes back to the music–the politics and the message is the music itself. “We play long tunes, some of ’em don’t have words, it’s a big band, it’s heavily arranged music, we’re not trying to sweeten it or make it easy for anybody. The fact that we have audiences who are excited about that and are willing to go along with us, the fact that we choose to play that kind of music is in its own way a political statement,” Ballman says with the fervor of an incumbent seeking re-election. “It’s not like we’re trying to make something that’s easy to consume and sweet and doesn’t offend anybody. We’re just doing what we do, and we’re happy that we’re finding the reception that we got and the level of success we’ve been getting.”