Like Bob Marley, to whom he is frequently compared, Kuti became an icon of that struggle, and as his influence spread, so did the attempts to stifle him, which included a stint as a political prisoner that only ended with help from Amnesty International. Upon his death due to complications of AIDS in 1997, Kuti left his son, Femi (a great performer in his own right), and a legacy.
That legacy, Fela's musical gift to the world, is Afrobeat, a style that has influenced a diverse array of artists from David Byrne to James Brown. (There is still a great historical debate as to who took from whom when discussing the latter.) Afrobeat's truest current practitioners, an organic Brooklyn collective known as Antibalas, are headed our way.
"We've been on the 'hurricane avoidance route,'" says Martin Perna, the founder and baritone sax player for Antibalas (which, it seems obligatory to note, means "antibullet" in Spanish). Their tour routing, which was to take them through mid-southern Coastal cities like Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans, had to be altered in a northerly direction last week so as to take them out of Ivan's path.
The touring unit, which consists of 11 players this time out, is typically smaller than the whole "collective," as Perna describes it. "There are (more than) 20 players who are a part of Antibalas, that play regularly with the band, but for touring, we have to winnow it down to a core. As it is, the expenses can be difficult to manage--two vans, extra hotel rooms, and food. But Antibalas is a labor of love. If you were to figure out the number of hours everyone puts in versus, you know, the money they get out of it, you'd probably make more working at Starbucks."
Clearly erudite regarding his beloved Afrobeat, Perna came to Fela Kuti's music via the great recycling engine of African culture--hip hop. "Some samples (I heard) were my first taste of Afrobeat, and then (I just got into) vinyl, out-of-print records and stuff." Perna's vinyl leaping-off point led him to actual members of Fela's band who were now based in New York. "We're (now) the center, the hub for all these old Afrobeat musicians to keep in touch with each other," he says, noting that in his mind, there is no greater privilege.
The quintessential elements of Afrobeat as performed and recorded by Antibalas are manifold: "(Everyone) looks at their instrument like it was a drum, a rhythmic instrument," says Perna, "whether it's a horn or has strings or (it's) an actual drum." This seems to be Rule No. 1, which clearly has a lot in common with the James Brown/Maceo Parker approach to funk (again, Kuti and Brown were heavy influences on one another, and Kuti was a heavy influence on just about every American funk performer of the early '70s); Rule No. 2 must be that Afrobeat is, at its essence, dance music. "People get into a different headspace when they're using their bodies to move with the music. I think it makes people more receptive to what we are saying politically," Perna says, thereby alluding to Rule No. 3: This is music borne of a desire to make a change. Antibalas have a transparent political agenda: They want people to think more about what they do.
"The big sort of (societal) metaphor, for the way the group is ordered, is that everyone in the group is equally important, from the singer to the person who's behind the drums," explains Perna. "We see a lot of political parallels with the way we're organized both musically and as a business unit, with how we'd like to see society functioning." Score one for egalitarianism. "But right now more than ever, (we'd like people to) question authority. There's so many things being done in the name of the 'American public' that are really endangering all of us."
Perna goes on to describe the cloistered, sheltered existence led by a large majority of Americans that is too insular to give a good perspective on the meaning of "America" and the significance of our actions and how they affect the rest of the world. "We have to really take control of the situation for ourselves from the bottom up. Because the people at the top have their own agenda to get rich and stay rich."
On the road in support of a new album, Who Is This America?, the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra are seeking to free both your mind and your ass simultaneously. While the "expansion of consciousness" is a worthwhile-enough goal, it's the compelling music the group makes that recommends them best. Wake up, if not to a different worldview, then at least to a criminally neglected fountainhead of music.