Features, Print March 1, 2018

Antibalas Is The Medicine Everyone Needs

by Kyle Eustice

Nigerian artist Amayo is forced to stand outside of Brooklyn Bowl as opening band Here Lies Man gets ready for its upcoming show that evening. The sound emanating from the space was too consuming to conduct a proper interview. Consequently, the unforgiving noise of New York City traffic momentarily replaces the sporadic clashes of cymbals and soaring guitars.

As the lead singer of Antibalas, Amayo is used to juggling the various demands that come along with being a working musician. Founded in 1998 by Martin Perna, the 11-piece outfit was inspired by Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who wove jazz, funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian highlife, rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms into one cohesive fabric.

Perna stumbled onto Amayo almost by accident. Amayo, who had relocated to New York City from Lagos, was focused on martial arts and running his clothing store at the time. Perna walked into his shop one day and told Amayo about his new Afrobeat band that he’d formed the year before.

“The band had no idea that I even knew how to play percussion,” he says. “They just saw my poster in the neighborhood, so they would come to my clothing store. One day they told me, ‘We have this Afrobeat band and we are playing later, so you should check us out,” he explains. “My best friend was there and he’s like, ‘Who are these guys? I’m not into these white boys playing Afrobeat [laughs]. I’m like, ‘You never know.’ I told my friend, ‘I’m going to check them out.’”

“So, I saw the band and thought they were alright,” he continues. “They didn’t have an Afrobeat drummer back then. They just had a funk drummer. It was exciting that someone was even doing it though. A light bulb went off in my head, but I did not act. Two weeks later, Martin called and said his percussionist was taking off.”

Amayo, who grew up going to Fela’s club Afrika Shrine in the ‘70s, ended up sitting in and quickly realized Antibalas had upped their game.

“Now, they had a real drummer,” he says. “They had a guy who used to play with Fela Kuti. I was like, this is serious now. That was the beginning.”

Over the past 20 years, Antibalas has delivered six full-length studio albums, culminating with 2017’s Where The Gods Are In Peace, which took only two days to make. The most complicated part was getting everyone together.

“It takes time, but it’s more of the logistics of it that is the complex part,” Amayo says. “To get schedules together is hard because someone always has something that comes up. Somehow people make themselves available. When it’s really important, people become available.”

Where The Gods Are In Peace only took two days — the material was already together,” he adds. “Most of the material I wrote a while ago, so we were able to pick back up quickly. Once you’ve been playing a certain genre for years you develop a feeling for what’s good, what’s right. Inspiration comes at different times.”

Antibalas plans to perform a selection of material from the aforementioned Where The Gods Are In Peace, an album that speaks to the politically divisive times we’re living in.

“We try not to only speak about but to also offer solutions, offer a different way of thinking, offer a different mindset,” he says. “That’s what our new album is about. Now that we have this power in place, why don’t we just transport ourselves to another place where the gods are in peace? Everybody’s in a real bad place. When we come back, we’ll be able to handle this better. Music is medicine for the soul.”

All 11 members of the group are making their way towards Colorado, where the culturally diverse group will play at Fort Collins’ newest venue — Washington’s — on March 29.

“We’re coming up on 20 years as a band,” he says. “I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. It’s because of this feeling I get from playing music, writing music and performing music, especially now that our live shows are more awesome. It was great before, now it’s just off the chain [laughs].”