Antibalas Brings the Afrobeat Funk Downtown

by delarue

Ordinarily, you’d expect a free show by Antibalas to create a line around the block. Last night at the World Financial Center, there was a good crowd, but fewer people than expected. But there was a catch: this was an anniversary show of sorts for WNYC host John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live, there was a (horrible) opening act and consequently the most popular and probably best of the second-wave Afrobeat bands got barely 40 minutes onstage. But it was a great 40 minutes.

The band name meanas “anti-bullets.” Like their inspiration Fela Kuti, their antiwar, antifascist politics are inseparable from their music. When the songs don’t have lyrics – which is a lot of the time – their passion still comes across in the grooves. Baritone saxophonist and bandleader Martin Perna has gone on record as saying that to be in Antibalas, you basically have to be a drummer, regardless of whether you’re playing drums or not – and the groove these eleven guys created was close to telepathic. Because Antibalas have always drawn on a rotating talent base, it was hard to tell exactly which one this was. All drummer Miles Arntzen (son of the great trumpeter Leif Arntzen) needed was a five-piece kit to generate a purist, hypnotic, psychedelic pulse and keep it swinging, locked in with Nikhil Yerawadekar’s fat, undulating bass riffs.

It’s amazing how interesting this band can make a one-chord jam. The horns looomed in, ominous and majestic, as keyboardist Victor Axelrod’s organ swirled with an In a Gadda Da Vida trippiness, punctuated by blasts that faded back just a bit into a hypnotic sway until trumpeter Jordan McLean took flight. Then they brought the creepy organ back. The next song began with hints of funky reggae, took a brief detour into salsa-style vocal call-and-response and wound up on a high note with a tense but exuberant, microtonally-fueled tenor sax solo from Stuart Bogie. Amayo, the band’s Nigerian-born percussionist/singer asked pointed questions and got the band, and the crowd, to serve as a chorus. Perna’s nonchalantly tropical lines contrasted with the ferocity of the rest of the horns, guitarist Luke O’Malley’s steady, funky clank holding everything tight with the rhythm section. With the vintage tones of the amps behind the persistent fire of the brass, it was easy to imagine that this was Fela’s Shrne in Lagos, circa 1978. Either way, the secret police were a moment away away in case anyone misbehaved.

Antibalas have a new album, their first in five years, due out soon from Daptone; the band will soon be off on a tour of Europe and then the west coast, with a return date on Dec 14 at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in Fort Greene on an excellent doublebill with Red Baraat.