Interview with Antibalas: Twilight Concert Series, August 3

By Sophie Silverstone
Photo Credit: Michael Davis

If there were ever a more crucial time to dodge the bullets of troubling news from Washington and around the world, one would only pray the 12-piece funky Afrobeat band, Antibalas, meaning anti-bullets, or bulletproof in Spanish, is still around to musically shield us from losing our sense of hope.

Twilight Concert Series, in its 30th year celebration, takes a turn for the jazzy this week as soprano saxophonist Kamasi Washington and Antibalas take the stage at Pioneer Park. Local opener DJ Ebenflow will get it started at 6:15pm, Antibalas will follow at 7:00pm, and at 8:45pm Kamasi Washington will close out the night.

Bring your dancing shoes, arrive early, and be prepared: Antibalas, the band known for their intersection between funk, Afrobeat, and Latin jazz music is planning to take you on a cosmic voyage to their newest album: Where the Gods Are In Peace, to be released September 15, 2017.

To understand Antibalas is to understand a slice of history in Brooklyn’s musical and cultural melting pot of the 90’s. Members of Antibalas, TV on the Radio, and the Dap-Kings all lived in the same Williamsburg apartment building.

Antibalas, which was conceived of in Mexico City in 1998, by Martín Perna, baritone saxophonist, and later formed in Brooklyn with others (Gabriel Roth, Michael Wagner, Del Stribling aka Binky Griptite, Victor Axelrod, Fernando Bugaloo Velez, Anda Szilagyi) from the Dap-Kings band, known at the time as the Soul Providers. Soon after the band formed, Martín Perna and Gabriel Roth recruited Duke Amayo, a vocalist and percussionist who was immersed in the musical influence of Nigerian Afrobeat great, Fela Kuti. Amayo is now the band’s frontman.

“A lot of people looked at Antibalas as pioneers in this second wave of Afrobeat that kind of blossomed around the world. There are great Afrobeat bands now in Brazil, in Chicago, in England, in a lot of places, and I think a lot of those bands looked to Antibalas, alongside Fela, as one of their real inspirations,” says Roth, who is also the co-founder of Daptone Records.

For many years, Antibalas’ trombonist, Aaron Johnson and trumpeter, Jordan McLean directed the music for the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Fela! celebrating the life and music of Fela Kuti. They’ve performed as a band in the studio and on stage with such artists as Medeski Martin & Wood, The Roots, Public Enemy, Paul Simon, Amadou and Mariam, and Fela’s son Femi Kuti. Members of Antibalas have also individually recorded or performed with TV on the Radio, Iron and Wine, Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Angelique Kidjo, and St. Vincent to name a few.

For the first time since their 2012 self-titled album, they have another (their sixth) full length album on its way. The description sweeps you off your feet; “Antibalas’ new studio album, Where The Gods Are In Peace, is an epic Afro-Western Trilogy searching for solace from American political opportunism, greed and vengeance. Through its battle cry of resistance against exploitation and displacement, Antibalas’ long-form compositions investigate oppression in 1800s America that eerily mirrors the current state of the country. Three explosive original arrangements cultivate an urgent call to heal a broken system. Ultimately, the sonic excursion lands on an island where love is our first instinct. A new ideology is born opening our hearts to the possibilities of living as one unified people, where all gods are equal and together we prevail.”

Q & A with Martín Perna and Duke Amayo:

  1. I’m wondering about the name Antibalas (bulletproof), and how you conceived of it? In these intense times, has the name Antibalas found new or more profound meaning to you?


I was on tour and visiting some family in Mexico and kept seeing the word antibalas in the newspapers, on TV. I knew what it meant but I had never really considered the possibilities of its double meaning: something both resistant and durable and simultaneously against bullets, i.e. against the idea of violence as the primary way to solve problems. 

I don’t think the name Antibalas (bullet-proof / anti-bullets) has a particularly new meaning now–we’ve been stuck in a cycle of militarism which existed prior to the band forming and has been ramping up continuously. I think it is however important, now more than ever to acknowledge that more weapons does not equal more safety, and to rededicate ourselves and individuals, as a community, and as a country to the idea of peace, both internal and externally.  

  1. How does the essence of Fela Kuti’s influence live on in your upcoming album Where the Gods Are in Peace?


l like composing Afrobeat music at times with Fela in mind as my critique. Making a bold return to long form recordings was a conscious decision.  The fact is that most of my favorite Fela music is about 30 mins long. And in order to drive a serious social justice point home, or mobilize a cause of deep love, and or make one commit to dancing with careless abandon, the rhythms must be compelling and consistent for longer than a 10 minute groove. It is very important for us to give the people music that’s closer to a live experience.  You know? That hypnotic experience, of being transported to a world of possibilities and goodness.     

  1. If you could transport any politician or group you wanted to the island Where the Gods Are in Peace, “where love is our first instinct,” who would you hope to send there the most and why?


I would love to transport the entire GOP to the Island, for a “FutCamp” (boot camp), where they can detox, detach, retrain and retool. The next generation would benefit greatly from such a trip.    

  1. Question for Martín Perna: In your album description, you said, “There’s something unique about making music during these dark times, you’re really able to make a difference,” continuing that thought, what do these dark times say about all of our duties as creative people as a whole? What do you hope all people will do with any feelings of hopelessness?


The most important thing to do is first focus on things you can change, and focus on things that will immediately improve your life, like making better personal choices, adopting better habits, living in a healthier way. This will at least give you a bit more energy and clarity to assess the situation, to be able to provide more presence and hopefully comfort for other people around you.

It is crucial to keep on making beautiful things at this moment–artwork, gardens, clothing, events, to remind ourselves that another world is indeed possible and we just need to keep pushing to change this paradigm. The more we do this, the more we can see the results of these different choices and be released from at least some of this pain and hopelessness that we are all feeling to some degree.  

  1. Since your newest album takes people on a journey to another place, based in a specific order of the songs, how will you play this for audiences at concerts so they can also go on this same journey? Will you play the full album through at any point, or just in parts?


 We have been playing this material live for a while now so people have gotten a chance to experience the songs. That’s part of how we knew they were good ones to put down on a record. We have experimented with performing the songs in the album sequence as well as putting them in a longer set with other songs–old and new–in between as part of a larger narrative and concert experience. 


However, we are working on the Album set in full, with designs to expand on how audiences will experience the songs in a specific order.  For example some venues and shows may provide us the opportunity to present a more comprehensive show with lighting, set design, props and costume change etc.  


Last week we put together a two-day retreat and played for several hours each day, introducing song ideas and also spent a long time jamming, riffing, and communicating new musical ideas. Part of the mission of this was to begin developing new material to play live and eventually record on our next album (hopefully out next year). The other more important thing was the process of making new music together all at once. It’s something that we haven’t been able to do in a while as we lost our space / laboratory when our neighborhood got gentrified. Since then we hadn’t been able to post up with all our instruments and make music without the meter running.

  1. What do you most look forward to about being back in Salt Lake?


We came out several years back and played a private event for owners of ski resorts, which was wack: that once the bar closed and we began playing, most of the people left! The check also bounced and I don’t believe they ever fixed it.  Fortunately, we had a club show the next night at the Zephyr and it was packed and had incredible energy. I think a lot of people who have never been to SLC imagine it to be a wholly uptight place and our experience has proved otherwise. 

This is a show we’ve been looking forward to for months, not only to finally get back to SLC but to be able to be a part of a larger concert with Kamasi Washington and his band who are making some of the most important, bold, and visionary music today.

  1. I see you are playing at the Oregon Eclipse Festival later in August. How does it feel to be playing at one of the most anticipated new festivals in the world, during one of the most anticipated planetary alignments in most of our life times?


We are thrilled to be a part of the Oregon Eclipse Festival. The lineup looks great and a lot of our larger musical community will be there performing and/or DJing. It will be a joy to experience this planetary phenomenon with so many like-minded people in a beautiful place. I hope our music can contribute to the experience, make people happy and help create lasting memories that can get them through their hard times. 


GA: $10 at the gates, $7.50 in advance at 24tix.com or Graywhale Entertainment locations.

VIP: $35 at the gates, $30 in advance.

Tip: Large purses or backpacks will not be allowed into the venue. See complete information here.


This article was originally published on August 3, 2017.