Among tall skyscrapers, basketball courts, and yellow cabs rushing through the streets of the Big Apple, there is a twelve-piece band that holds high the banner of afrobeat well outside the borders of West Africa. They are Antibalas (Spanish for bulletproof); the horn-driven, afrobeat supergroup from Brooklyn, NY, founded by saxophonist Martin Perna and led by British-born Nigerian singer – and kung fu master (yes, really) – Duke Amayo.
They were founded in 1998 and, having had two decades of rich activity, the band has collected quite a few achievements. They arranged and performed the score for the Broadway musical Fela! in 2008 and have collaborated with masters of the genre such as Tony Allen, as well as important names in pop music such as Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson.
Their sound is always captivating and uplifting and their lyrics often carry a political message; a feature prominent in the West African musical style. This is no less true in the energy and the message of their latest album Where the Gods Are in Peace (out on Daptone Records). The LP presents five long tracks – the final three basically compose a tripartite, fifteen-minute track – paying full respect to the afrobeat tradition in sound and form. Each is a story set in the historical American West; episodes set in the past that hold a lesson for our present and our future.
The first two tracks, Gold Rush and Hook & Crook, both explore stories from the American colonial past, whilst the back-and-forth between the horn sections and the chorus explodes on a groovy beat that will shake you to the bone. “I realized I must detach from crooked hooks,” says Duke Amayo at the beginning of Hook & Crook – a metaphor meaning that we have to act against the status quo, and the time to do it is right now. The track’s propelling force lays in its energetic arrangements in the horn section intertwining seamlessly with the solo saxophone and Amayo’s voice.
The last three tracks – Tombstown Pt. 1, Pt. 2 and Pt. 3 – are essentially three movements of one track, dedicated to a story of rebirth and the celebration of life. The first part – at first reminiscent of Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores, with echoing whistles and trombones – evolves to a grandeur that leads us to the second part of the track. Almost entirely instrumental, halfway through this section appears the soft voice of Belgian singer Zap Mama, invoking the powers of a goddess to help the reconstruction of the world, and in the final movement inviting you, together with Amayo, to elevate humans to a spiritual awareness and enter the gates of Zion.
Led by Amayo’s voice and charisma, and a supergroup of talented musicians, Antibalas’ music is truly engaging in multiple ways. It gives you energy from deep within – energy to stand up, speak up, rebel and shake up the system, all while dancing to their irresistible and cheerful grooves.