April 10, 2007
Antibalas has been around in some shape or form for the past ten years, its tunes carried by the hypnotic rhythms of Afrobeat, a style of Nigerian funk popularized in the 1970s by bandleader Fela Kuti. Its new album, “Security,” is a departure from the band’s past recordings, as it boasts a new label, ANTI, and the stylistic touches of a new producer, Chicago’s John McEntire. The result is an expansive musical experience that’s equally enjoyable on headphones or a packed dance floor.
The 17-member band spins out new sounds on “Security,” which resonates with a call for social justice and political responsibility. With song titles like “Filibuster XXX” and “War Hero,” Antibalas dares its audiences to take in more than the music, but the events that inspired them as well. Martin Perna, the band’s founding father, took time after the show in San Francisco to discuss some of the band’s ideas on music, politics and how the two come together on “Security.”
At the time of the interview, which took place backstage at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, band members were wandering in an out of the green room. When the topic of the Antibalas’ politics came up, saxophonist Stewart Bogey commented, thinking the discussion was about the band’s internal workings. “We fight all the time,” he said. “Some people want to do one thing, some people want to do another, and compromise is the only way to go.” Eventually, Perna clarified the group’s explicit international political views:
There have been people running the show with a mass amount of privilege taking us — really everybody — down. So as musicians we try to work these messages into our music. And just like gospel music is married to this idea of religious redemption and salvation and Rastafarian music has certain themes that come up, Afrobeat as our musical architecture is connected to political struggle. And we’re not just talking about political struggle in our context, as a multicultural, multiracial band from Brooklyn, New York. We have songs about patriarchy, about military myths, and we have songs about the need to really overhaul [our] representative democracy [due to its] corruption and the [fact that] the public has been betrayed by both parties.
Then we have some conceptual abstract songs that are a little more heady. [The] instrumental song “Beaten Metal” was a tune [the band wrote] when we were banging on metal. Our tenor sax player Stewart Bogey wrote it as a metaphor for how in Europe after World War II a lot of the armaments were melted down and the metal was [reused for] musical instruments.
WireTap: Is music a good medium for political expression?
People really connect with rhythm. And I think nowadays people have so much information coming at them from the Internet — there are a gazillion websites you can read, hundreds of magazines, newspapers — but because music enters from a different place, it penetrates our consciousness. It still has the potential to reach people, to incite them to think, to hopefully mobilize and get organized.
WireTap: How did your album come to have such a strong political message?
We just wanted to make a social commentary that is relevant.
WireTap: Why did you guys decide to switch to ANTI?
The label was able to offer us a level of support that we weren’t able to enjoy in the past. And as a really big band, two or three times or four times as big as a lot of other musical entities, we have to work two or three or four times as hard just to make the same amount of money and to make ends meet. ANTI distributing the record and getting it to press helps us when we go on to tour, because that’s how we sustain ourselves. We don’t really make money through record sales. We make money through the record getting to, you know, Lawrence, Kansas, and people [hearing it on college] radio and then coming out to see us live; that’s where we’re able to sustain ourselves and connect to people.
WireTap: How’s it working with an esteemed producer like John McEntire from Tortoise?
It was risky for us artistically, but I think to achieve anything, you have to take risks. Through his engineering techniques we were able to get sounds that we were hearing in our heads, but not able to necessarily achieve in the studio when we were making the records ourselves. Having a neutral person running the mechanics of it helped us relax a lot and get better performances.
WireTap: What do you guys hope to communicate with your music?
More than anything else, we want to stimulate people in the right way rather than make them numb … The trick is to get [listeners] to stop for a second and realize that they’ve got to put their hope and faith into it, and everybody else does too. Nobody can do everything themselves, but everybody can do something.
Rachel Holman is a senior at San Francisco State University and a writer for the school’s magazine, [X]press. A proud MUNI Fast Pass carrier, she rides the bus from class to her work as an academic mentor with at risk youth. Rachel plans to make a killing one day as an elementary school teacher and freelance journalist.