Twelve-piece Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas is bringing its activism-heavy grooves to Ferndale's Otus Supply this Sunday.
Since Anitbalas' 1998 inception following Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti's death the previous year, the Brooklyn-based band has carried the banner for Kuti's message of challenging corruption through music. They're widely revered for bringing afrobeat to a new generation of listeners while adding their own punk and free jazz influences to the mix.
Their new album, Where the Gods Are in Peace, was released on Daptone Records on Sept. 15. It begins by revisiting the devastation of America's indigenous people during the Gold Rush era, then zooms ahead to a fictitious, utopian island in the sky that provides solace and replenishment for those fighting American political opportunism and greed.
Honoring the traditional afrobeat structure, the tracks are up to 10 minutes in length and showcase a slow-burn layering of rhythms and grooves, a generous horn section, multiple percussionists, and West African-style bass and guitars. The album also features a guest spot by Afro-Pop singer Zap Mama.
Since its inception, Antibalas — Spanish for "bulletproof" — has pooled an incredible amount of talent. The approximately 40 past and present members have worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Patti Smith to Iron and Wine. Several members were part of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and their horn section can be heard alongside other Dap-Kings members on Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk."
Beginning in 2008, Antibalas arranged and performed the music in the off-Broadway and Broadway productions of Fela! They later served as the backing band for tribute shows at Carnegie Hall, including Music of Paul Simon, Music of David Byrne & Talking Heads, and Music of Aretha Franklin.
With its members involved in so many projects, it's no surprise that the lineup is in a somewhat constant evolution. Rotating too, is the member whose creative vision drives an album. This time lead vocalist Amayo was at the helm.
Metro Times spoke with Amayo about the years-long incubation period of Where the Gods Are in Peace, Kuti's enduring influence on the band, and the high vibrations required for garnering hope in dark times.
Metro Times: Would you like to be called Amayo or Duke Amayo? I've seen both used.
Amayo: Amayo's fine. It enhances the silent purpose in life. It's my family name. It means, "if you don't go, you'll never know." I believe names have a lot to do with what we end up becoming. So when I was realizing, you know, that I was just a vessel, I started to wake up to what I represent with my name. I started going by just Amayo, so I could be more focused on my purpose.
MT: You call this album an Afro-Western trilogy. That's interesting, because Westerns are a very American thing, and you guys are coming from the tradition of Fela Kuti, who sang a lot about government corruption in Nigeria. What was your thinking behind combining these two things?
Amayo: We're living in times where it's in all of our lives now. We're experiencing the wild wild West from the craziness going on. Also, what interested me as a kid coming to America was watching things like Roy Rogers and Rin Tin Tin. It gave me a picture to write around and tell a story.
MT: When did you write this album?
Amayo: The timeline is a little blurry, but "Tombstown," which is the bedrock of this album, began around 2010. One song that really had a lot of different stages was "Gold Rush." It was a climactic song that we'd always play at the end of a set that would get the audience screaming. And then when it came time to record it, it didn't translate well. I was able to tool a kind of conceptual link between "Tombstown" and "Gold Rush" that helped shape the ... direction. It became a kind of rewind. What happened before "Tombstown"? Let's go back to "Gold Rush."
MT: So, returning to this foundation of thievery and corruption.
Amayo: Sometimes it helps to be reminded, in anthemic form, "remember how it was? If you don't remember, how are you going to fix it?" And if we're going to start something now, maybe we can start with mindfulness. Have a full holistic change. Apply all this new knowledge that we have.
MT: When I was trying to wrap my head around what this album is describing, it first hit me as escapism. But then when I thought about it more, it came to be more about stepping away to replenish so you can keep resisting.
Amayo: Exactly. And that's the whole point of having these long compositions, it gives you the opportunity to think.
MT: Did any of the founding members have a relationship with Fela Kuti? Did anyone ever play with him?
Amayo: No, it was more of a musical and spiritual inspiration. Gabe Roth's work influenced the founding of Antibalas and shaped its beginnings, and then we sort of formed this collective. At one point it grew to 16 or 18 people with the nucleus of those six to eight guys. It took about a year and a half to get our instruments together, and then we hit the road, right after 9/11.
MT: Oh wow.
Amayo: Yeah. So that period fueled the band with this mission of trying to speak truth to power. Fela was the only person we could truly draw from, because he had the formula. There were no weapons, it was just music combined with a political message that help us stay focused and that we could draw from. That was always what our goal was.
MT: It's hard not to feel cynical about the state of things. But when you go to things like rallies, where there is music like this playing, you feel hope.
Amayo: Exactly. You dance with exhilaration and your ideas feel much more possible, because your vibration is much higher. That's the key thing. If you're on a low level vibration, there's a lot more uncertainty and it's hard to get things started.
MT: Right. And other people help you get there, too.
Antibalas performs on Sunday, Oct. 1 at Otus Supply, 345 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-291-6160; otussupply.com; Doors open at 7 p.m.; Tickets start at $20.