By Ashley Zimmerman
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By Sayre Berman
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If you're going to say something, make sure you have something worth saying. More to the point, decrees the title track of Talkatif, the latest release from the politically minded Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, is "Diarrhea mouth/Constipation brain/No more talking." The big band, whose members wield instruments like weapons of peace, follows closely in the tradition of late legendary Nigerian Afrobeatist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Comprised of Latinos, whites, blacks from America and Africa, and Asian-Americans, Antibalas is based in Brooklyn.
"This fourteen-plus piece band hits hard with the left and the right," states the Antibalas website, "monstrous horns and bass layered over funky polyrhythmic beats and breaks coupled with furious lyrics challenging and attacking the dehumanizing capitalist system and inciting insurrection in English, Yoruba, and Spanish." For a protest album, Talkatif contains remarkably few lyrics. In fact, with titles like "War Is a Crime" and "N.E.S.T.A. 75" ("Never Ever Submit to Authority"), most songs have no lyrics at all, which begs the question: How does an entirely instrumental song make a political statement in English, Yoruba, or Spanish?
The answer is placement. Antibalas places its high-energy albums in the hands of the politically inclined and lets the music send those hands into yangalala -- a traditionally African show of ecstasy with hands high and fingers spread. When the Antibalas website asks its grassroots supporters to share the sound, it has a good idea where they should go: "We'll need you to distribute flyers in record shops, bookstores, coffee houses, other venues, community centers, colleges, wherever it seems appropriate."
Martin Perna organized Antibalas in 1998 when he was only 22. During a phone conversation, his voice is gentle and brotherly. From the beginning of the conversation, he is clear on words he'd prefer not to use: "world music" or "ethnic music."
Q:Why don't you like those terms?
A: The term "world music" reflects a very American-centric bias toward music, like there's American music, and then there's music that happens in the rest of the world. But if I'm gonna talk about rhythms from another part of the world, I'm going to say, "Yoruba rhythms" or "Nigerian rhythms." And "ethnic music" is like the term "ethnic food." Every food is ethnic.
Q: Why did you name the band "Antibalas"?
A: Like a lot of words in the Spanish language, it has a double meaning. "Anti" means "against." "Balas" means "bullets." So it literally means "against bullets." It has the meaning of being pacifist, against violence as a solution. ["Antibalas"] also means "bulletproof" -- there's a resistance, an impermeable shield. There's a hardness to it, which describes the music.
Q: Tell me more about Fela.
A: Imagine the politics of Malcolm X meets the music of James Brown. Fela started to play Afrobeat in West Africa in the early '70s. He was coming from a Nigerian popular music background, and he came to the U.S. in 1969 and read about Malcolm X. He and his group were stranded in L.A. for six months, and they were playing to eat and to get money for plane tickets. They discovered funk and started playing something new. Those are the origins of Afrobeat.
Q:What do you think about the current trend of remixing Afrobeat for electronica and hip-hop tracks?
A: It hasn't worked out all that well for us, because whoever's going to be manipulating it, I almost feel like they need to be an Afrobeat musician themselves. You have to be able to play it to know what you can mess with -- you have to know the function of the horn, the shakere, the drums. If you don't know the functions of those instruments and you take them out, the song might stop running. Just because [Afrobeat] doesn't come out of an academy, people think [the rhythms] are unsophisticated, but these rhythms are thousands of years old. They've been passed down for generations.
Q:What do you think is the biggest difference between traditional jazz and Afro-Cuban jazz?
A: Popular, bebop jazz goes from chord change to chord change in every measure. We don't have that in Afrobeat. In Afrobeat, it's how well you know the rhythm. Everybody has to be the drummer.
Q:What about the clave?
A: Even if you don't hear someone tapping it out, it's there in every song. I think that's really what sets it apart. If it's not the sticks, it's the horns or the guitar. Every type of African music has a different clave; it's like knowing which side of the road to drive on. There's always that demarcation, so you don't crash.
Q:That's one of the biggest differences between Afro-Cuban jazz and bebop, right? Popular jazz depends mostly on kit drummers, and even though kit drummers can be amazing, there are some things you just can't do on a kit.
A: There are things that are much more sophisticated about kit drumming -- trying to do all these different beats at once. It's like someone who's talking on the phone, vacuuming, and cooking. There's an efficiency to it, because you're covering all these parts, but it can lack a richness. The minute you have more than one person, it adds something, and that's the whole magic of Antibalas but also the magic of anything that's done with the collective spirit. When multiple people speak with one voice, that's something really powerful.