ANTIBALAS: Liberation Central

Weaving Jazz, Funk, Classical and Latin music to create their contemporary spin on Afrobeat, Antibalas continues to wage an anti-bullet war in a blighted world. Their goal? Global awareness and consciousness through music.

Words: Marjua Estevez

From collaborating with The Roots and Public Enemy to producing memorable (and timeless) albums like Government Magic and Who is this America?, multicultural band Antibalas continues to provoke thought about the world we live in through their infectious music. Educator, Artist, Baritone Saxophonist and co-founder of the group, Martin Perna, lends insight into the Antibalas point of view.

Antibalas. The name means “bulletproof” in Spanish. What does that name mean to you? Why was it important to call yourselves that?

Originally, the name was Conjunto Antibalas, but that was a mouthful for non-Spanish speakers. I liked the idea of the double meaning of Antibalas, meaning “bulletproof” but
also “anti-bullets” at the same time. Living in America with its imperial aspirations, it was a way to voice some kind of active, peaceful resistance to the idea of America trying to conquer the world.

You once stated in a New York Times article, that you want to show messages of peace and kindness, and to infuse your music with positivity. Why do you feel it’s your responsibility to be advocates of positive social change?

It’s everyone’s responsibility to be advocates of social change. The world is falling apart because too many people are selfish and materialistic and don’t think that they have any duty to anyone else but themselves.

Speaking of social change, how’s it like for a band, such as yourselves, one independent from the mainstream and charged by outspoken individuality, thriving in today’s fickle economy? Is income or revenue stable in the Antibalas household?

I wouldn’t say we’re thriving economically by any means, but we have managed to stay together for 13 years. There was a chunk of time when we did this full time and were on the road as much as we were home, but that wasn’t sustainable because the group was so big, and travel took a big toll on all of us in different ways. File sharing has definitely affected our record sales: we would go out on tour and at every show people would tell us that they got turned on to us because someone burned our CD for them. In many ways, Antibalas is a labor of love and we do it because we love the music, but it’s other gigs that actually pay our bills.

Antibalas unraveled in the concrete jungle. How has being from New York played a part in the creation of the kind of music you produce?

I don’t think it would be possible to have put the group together anywhere but NYC. The city is so diverse and has such a deep pool of musical talent, as well as a deep pool of everyday people who appreciate, understand and support culture.

Many people might not be familiar in knowing what to call your music. What would you say Afrobeat music is?

Afrobeat is an urban African hybrid music created by Fela Kuti in Nigeria in the early 1970s with elements of Funk, Modern Jazz, West African Highlife music and traditional Yoruba music.

How important is it for you to incorporate diversity into your music, to be culturally aware or infused?

I can’t imagine any other way of being. You see a lot of other musical groups out there from all types of styles who don’t do their homework and that is obvious in their music. We didn’t want to be one of those groups.

What is Rat Race/Se Chiflo? Describe to fans, old and new, what the content of your latest release brews?

The Rat Race/Se Chifló EP is a new short-form album we put out this summer. Our songs are anywhere from 6-19 minutes long so we’re experimenting with shorter releases rather than records with eight 15-minute songs. “Rat Race” is a totally rearranged version of the Bob Marley classic that came out of some sessions we were hired to do by Palm Pictures/Island Records. “Se Chifló” is a song about the financial crisis and the lack of accountability by the government for hustling the American public.

Collectively, you all have collaborated with heavy hitters like Nas, The Roots, Mark Ronson and the late Amy Winehouse, to name a few. Who are you dying to collaborate with and why?

I think you would probably get a different answer from everyone in the group. A few summers ago, we collaborated with The Roots and Public Enemy to perform the whole It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album at The Roots picnic. It was amazing, but it only happened once. I would love to do that again. We usually do 2-3 collabs a year with The Roots and it is always a lot of fun. They are great musicians and are fun to make music with.

From performing in the astounding Broadway concert sensation Fela, to being political activists and producing timeless music with icons like Medeski and Baaba Maal, what hasn’t Antibalas done yet?

We would like to make some more records! It’s been a few years since we’ve recorded a full-length album and it looks like we’ll be in the studio this fall at Daptone Studios (home of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings) recording a new album—so that wish may be coming through.

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