New music that heads out into uncharted waters which is both politically charged and danceable? You’ll be meaning Antibalas then says Mark Edmundson
Antibalas are the battle-charged frontier-men of Afrobeat, a politicised and sprawling, multi-ethnic orchestra blasting a horn-led meld of black music old and new from pulpits the world over and using the dancefloor as a call to arms. Odd then that baritone sax and sometime spokesman Martín Perna is such a softly spoken chap.
‘If you come to our show you can be satisfied in a lot of different ways. If you’re coming for some political commentary or to see that there are people out there who give a shit, you can get that. If you come to dance your ass off you can get that. Or if you come to see some really serious music happening, that’s not just the same thing from night to night, something new and fresh that’s happening on stage, you can get that too.’
Born of a late 90s Brooklyn, Antibalas found themselves the intersection for the borough’s resurgent Afro-centric scene. They toured over 20 countries, played with forebears like Femi Kuti and Tony Allen, released albums on Ninja Tune and amassed a quiet, cult following to support their critical acclaim. For new album Security, the group upped sticks for Chicago to work with Tortoise and Stereolab veteran John McEntire, pushing that envelope a smidgen further. Having notably produced for Brazilian sensation Tom Ze, McEntire ‘encouraged us to take these risks,’ explains Perna. ‘Sometimes someone with an outside perspective on things can really ask the questions. We’ve come up with the answers, but out of it we’ve grown a lot more.’
Having an outside engineer also allowed the band to step out of the control room and concentrate on making the music happen, affording a sharper focus and producing a crisper sound uncharacteristic of the genre. Of course the unit’s tightness is testament to lengthy tour of duty but the musical output itself has lost none of its vitality and continues to develop apace.
‘Within the label Afrobeat there is a whole universe that hasn’t really been explored too much’ he says. ‘We have so many ideas that are pulling us in different directions, so a lot of it is really just trying to find the common ground between 11 or 12 opinions on what sounds best, because we’re not always on the same page. As far as new directions, that’s not the problem at all, it’s more about ensuring everyone feels like they’re represented and having the time of their life on stage.’
There is no question that Antibalas (the name itself translating from Spanish as ‘bullet-proof’) have something of an agenda for their music but then activism takes many forms.
‘As well as our politics and the message, I think dancing can be very healing and therapeutic in ways that people don’t really understand until they do it,’ is Perna’s first thought on what the outfit bring to the live arena, namely fuel for the fight ahead.
‘It’s medicine. It shakes everything up inside and flushes a lot of toxins and frustration out, and at the end of it puts the dancer in a better position to actually deal with whatever problems are in their life. So it’s not so much a distraction rather than like stretching, it gives you energy rather than taking energy away.’
The Arches, Glasgow, Fri 8 Jun; Liquid Room, Edinburgh, Sat 9 Jun. Security is out now on Anti.