The Antibalas Orchestra (along with the rest of the Daptone family) are cultural gems. At a time when music is cheaply produced, and is consumed and discarded quickly, Antibalas provide an antidote and a throwback to a bygone musical era. The music of Antibalas follows the architecture and beat structure set forth by Fela Kuti and his band, but it also incorporates elements of jazz, funk, and Latin soul. Antibalas are responsible for paying tribute to Fela Kuti and for shining a light on African protest music from decades ago. Throught their time as a band the members have influenced many popular musicians and have re-invigorated the big band soul genre.
Q – Congratulations on the success of your new album. Can you tell us a bit about how the album came together? What was the process like?
We went to Daptone Studios in Bushwick which many of us had a hand in building back in 2003 and made the first full album there (Who Is This America?”) which came out in 2004. Since then we had a long hiatus. We made the album after that during Chicago, and everybody got really busy for a long time. It took a lot of planning to line everything up but we made it happen.
There were twelve of us from the band, plus some additional horns, percussion, and vocals. It’s not a big studio so it was very close quarters with all of us in two rooms–rhythm section in one room and horns in another separated by a sliding glass door. We pretty much recorded the entire album together live, with the exception of the vocals and additional percussion that were overdubbed in the big live room.
Q – I’ve read in interviews that you guys record in a way that is true to the 60’s/70’s analog aesthetic. Can you tell us a bit about this?
We’ve done all but our 4th album onto tape and it in general we have found it to be a much more rewarding process than digital multitracking in that it demands more attention and focus from the musicians. Because everyone is playing to each other and a mutual time and clock, it breathes more naturally than if we were playing to a digital metronome.
Once the tracking process is done, there is little to no editing on the back end since everything was played correctly. If there’s a mistake, we have to decide whether we can live with it or do the take again. With good musicians, this is not that hard.
Q – You guys (along with Daptone records) are widely respected for bringing attention to Afrobeat and Afro-Caribbean soul music. Your respect and tribute to Fela Kuti has shown modern day music fans what Afro freedom music was about. Can you tell us a bit about how the connection to Fela Kuti was formed? Was this something the Antibalas Orchestra was formed around or did it come later?
The two biggest influences in the early days were Eddie Palmieri, specifically his Harlem River Drive band, and Fela. Both of them were using sophisticated, politically charged themes to make big band dance music and were breaking with a lot of modern conventions of what had been done in music that that point, rhythmically, harmonically, and with combinations of instruments. To me that had all the inspiration I needed. The music was so complete, so holistic.
Prior to Antibalas, some of the founding members of Antibalas had played and recorded with a Cameroonian drummer named Jojo Quo who was part of Fela’s Egypt 80 band for a few stints and had also played for Manu Dibango and other African superstars. He had relocated to New York and we had some heavy musical times.
About two years after Antibalas formed, we got to perform with Tony Allen (the creator of the beat in Afrobeat) and then spent a week with Dele Sosimi who was part of the Egypt 80 band and later Femi Kuti’s Positive Force. We learned some of Dele’s amazing originals, and he chose some Fela songs for us to perform including Authority Stealing, Colonial Mentality, Stalemate, Palm Wine Sound, Trouble Sleep (Palaver) and Gentleman. It was a really intense and fun week of show in New York with him and we got a lot deeper into the music. Over the years we’ve had other meetings and jams with members of Fela’s Africa 70 and Egypt 80 bands and they each share some pieces of the musical puzzle and season our music with their experience.
Q – One of my favourite aspects of Soul music, and of Antibalas stuff, is the use of the horns section. The Baritone Sax, along with the rest of the brass instruments, bring such passion to the music that I am often left wondering why those sounds aren’t employed more in popular music. What’s your take on this?
More than anything, money. Everyone is looking to make a buck off of music and as a result people cut lots of corners, either using MIDI horns, samples, or using live horns on the album but not in the live show. It’s a drag. Fortunately I’ve been doing it a long time and have built relationships up with musicians who I respect who happen to have gotten successful so I stay fairly busy.
Q – What’s it like working with living legends like Sharon Jones, and Lee Fields?
It has been a privilege working with Sharon and Lee. When I started (around 96 or 97) with them, we had no idea where things were going to go. We believed in them and we believed in the music. There were good songs, and dedicated, persistent musicians and things began to develop momentum. It’s really exciting to see them, and in addition, other older vocalists like Charles Bradley and Naomi Shelton get their time to shine. They have seen so much and have so much to say. It makes a lot more sense to me to work with them to tell their story than to listen to someone a lot younger who has barely lived.
Q – How do you manage to create, and travel with 11-15 people?
Teamwork. We’ve been doing it for so long now (about 14 years of solid touring) that people self-organize pretty well. It’s hard to imagine when we started nobody had a cell phone and not everyone used email.
Q – What are you personally listening to lately?
I just moved so I’m unpacking my record boxes record by record, digging in with my eyes closed and listening to whatever comes out. Most recently: Donald Byrd “Black Byrd”, Fela “Power Show / Perambulator” and a record by Yayo El Indio called “El Nuevo Yayo.” I don’t keep too much music on my phone, but the Johnny Pacheco “El Maestro” anthology has been on repeat all summer.
Q – What do you have planned for the rest of the year, musically speaking?
With Antibalas we’re performing the music of John Lurie in NYC on September 25. That should be a lot of fun and very interesting to recreate that in our own way. We may be doing some studio collaborations in October, and then a lot of writing of new material both for an album and a tour in 2015 with Zap Mama, which will be a collaborative performance.
Thanks so much, Martin!