Music Interviews
11:03 pm
Sat January 5, 2013

Antibalas: Cooking Up Afrobeat In A Sweltering Kitchen

Originally published on Sun January 6, 2013 7:02 am

Years ago, without setting out to do so, the Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas jumped out ahead of the pop-culture curve in two ways. First, geography: The band was formed in Brooklyn in the 1990s, before the New York borough became the mecca of independent music that it is today. Second, the music itself: Afrobeat makes its way into lots of popular music today, but Antibalas was doing it before it had a mainstream foothold.

Antibalas contains 11 people, all hard at work in a complex musical machine. Rhythm tends to lead the way, with each song evolving over several minutes. The members have been busy with separate projects for the past five years, but with their latest album, simply titled Antibalas, they've reunited. The group's lead singer, Amayo, says time is an essential ingredient of the music he and his bandmates make.

"We've got a lot of tunes on our menu that we play over and over again. It takes, sometimes, a year or two before the song actually starts to make some sense," Amayo tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "That's the beauty of being in an orchestra of this size: You let the song marinate, as you would a fine meal or a fine wine. I think this record is, for me, a fine wine. It finally matured."

Martin Perna, Antibalas' founder and baritone sax player, says time isn't the only important variable: Temperature matters, too.

"We did a show a couple years ago in New York City, in December, in the street," Perna says. "We asked to have these big gas heaters on the side of the stage to just blow hot air at least on our part, because when it's cold, the wind instruments — the trumpets, saxophones, trombone — actually go down in pitch."

You can hear more of Rachel Martin's conversation with Antibalas by clicking the audio link on this page.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the 1970s, a new sound began to emerge from West Africa. Afrobeat - strains of traditional African call-and-response mixed with elements of funk and jazz, and a lot of energy. Fela Kuti was known as the father of Afrobeat, but he passed away more than a decade ago.

One Brooklyn-based band has spent years doing its part to push the genre forward. Their name is Antibalas.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ANTIBALAS: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Antibalas is a big group with a big sound, 11 musicians altogether. They started making music in New York in the late 1980s. For the past five years, the band members have been busy with separate projects, including the creation of an Afrobeat musical on Broadway. But with their latest album, simply called "Antibalas," they have reunited.

A while back, we sat down with two of those members: the band's founder and baritone sax player, Martin Perna, and the lead singer, Amayo. They say this is the album, where after years of tinkering and toiling away at individual songs, everything fell perfectly into place.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ANTIBALAS: (Singing) When you catch two rat, hundred go come. When you catch one hundred, ten thousand go follow. (Singing in foreign language)

AMAYO: You know, we've got a lot of tunes and like we play over and over again. And it takes, sometimes, a year or two, before the song actually starts to make some sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ANTIBALAS: (Singing in foreign language)

AMAYO: That's the beauty of being in an orchestra of this size. You know, you let the song kind of marinate, as you would like a fine meal, you know, or a fine wine. So I think this record is, for me, a fine wine. You know, it finally matured.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: What is it about this music - Afrobeat - that lends itself to a group that size? I mean, do you need a lot of people playing a lot of different instruments...

AMAYO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...to bring this to life?

AMAYO: Absolutely, it's like a network. Each piece has its own role. You know? And because of the size of the band it also dictates that it needs to be played for a longer period of time. 'Cause you can't play this style of music, like, five or six minutes and really get the effect of it. You have to go at least half an hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN PERNA: It's definitely some types of music are transactional. And when this music is done right in the right context, it's transformational. That has so much to do with the ambient temperature of the room. So this being a tropical music, sometimes you come to the stage all fired up and it's an outdoor show - 55 degrees out - so the best we can do is...

MARTIN: Which doesn't work for you.

PERNA: No. Well...

(LAUGHTER)

PERNA: Well, the best we can do is turn up the AC. A lot of times...

MARTIN: You do?

AMAYO: Yeah.

PERNA: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of times we're powerless though. For an example, we did a show a couple years ago in New York City, in December, in the street. Like, it was a, you know, a proper stage and everything - Mayor Bloomberg came. And we asked to have these big gas heaters on the side of the stage to just blow hot air; at least on our part, because when it's cold, the wind instruments - the trumpets, saxophones, trombone - actually go down in pitch.

So, if you're playing in cold weather, it's this whole struggle, like you're walking on a balance beam to just keep your horn in pitch, and constantly adjusting. And when you're having that struggle, there's no way in you can really groove or connect with the rest of the band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: At this stage in your band's evolution, you've kind of come into your own - you've all grown up individually, your music has evolved. Does this mean that Antibalas is going to be your number one priority moving forward? I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...each of you and all the band members have all these different projects going. Are you at a new place?

PERNA: It's really hard to say. So much of that, that the music industry at it's worst point ever for a band like us - 11, 12 musicians who are making original music. Eleven people sounds like a lot. But in the early days, we were taking 13, 14 people on the road. And so, this 11 is like a skeleton crew. And even then, it's every day, our manager is: Well, how can we save money here? Can you guys do one meal a day for the next three weeks?

(LAUGHTER)

PERNA: 'Cause if you could, you know, you'd be able to pay your phone bill the next month.

(LAUGHTER)

PERNA: Like, that's a little bit extreme but it's tough. Artistically, things are going better than they've ever been. But financially, it's going to be a crisis and it's hard, 'cause I think most of us want to be doing this as much as we can.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "HIM BELLY NO GO SWEET")

ANTIBALAS: (Singing) She makes some go up and down. Him belly go, de sweet....

MARTIN: The album is called "Antibalas." Martin Perna and Amayo of the band Antibalas joined us in our Washington studios.

Thanks to both of you.

PERNA: Thank you.

AMAYO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "HIM BELLY NO GO SWEET")

ANTIBALAS: (Singing) Go down. Go down. Go up. Go up. Go down. Go down. Go up. Go down...

MARTIN: And you can hear a few tracks from Antibalas' new album at nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "HIM BELLY NO GO SWEET")

ANTIBALAS: (Singing) Go down. Go up. Go down. Go up. Go down. Go up. Go down... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.