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Antibalas brings Afrobeat sound to ACL Music Festival

Nancy Flores
nflores@statesman.com
Several Antibalas members are also involved with the hit FELA! Broadway show.

Unless you closely read liner notes, you’ve likely listened to multiple albums that Afrobeat band Antibalas members have been a part of and not even realized it. TV on the Radio? Yes. Mary J. Blige? Check. The diverse list of musical collaborations stretches across genres.

Yet after 14 years in the business, the heart of Antibalas’ rhythmic and socially conscious music still remains comfortably outside the mainstream.

Their songs are, after all, about two to five times longer than the average pop song, says Antibalas founder Martín Perna. And then there’s the political content of Antibalas’ (or bulletproof) songs and the uniqueness of their lyrics, which sometimes are sung in Spanish and other times in an English dialect spoken in West Africa.

“It’s not like we’re trying to be against the mainstream,” says Perna, a former Austinite who also partners with Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Quesada for funky side project Ocote Soul Sounds. “It’s just how we do it. With (Antibalas) there’s a lot of surprises in the music, and a lot more nuance.”

It’s been five years since the New York City band has released an album, and they play Saturday at ACL Fest.

Perna describes Afrobeat music as a rare language. “Not many people speak it, and it’s really hard to master,” he says. “So much of it is not just the notes, but the nuance and context. Just like a language, you can study from a book or listen to tapes, but it’s not until you immerse yourself in it and read between the lines that you will understand the deeper meanings. Afrobeat is very much like that.”

Perna’s early exposures to the language of Afrobeat began as a teenager growing up on the East Coast listening to Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti. Afrobeat spoke to Perna’s activist spirit and love of improvising musically. At 23, he formed Antibalas.

Over the years the band has awoken Afrobeat sensibilities in global audiences, leading a contemporary wave of the deep-rooted jams and inspiring other Afrobeat bands such as Austin’s Hard Proof, helping to re-popularize the sound. But perhaps the biggest recent boost to the music has been the successful Broadway show Fela!, a musical based on the life of Kuti — a production that involved several Antibalas members.

Antibalas went on hiatus during the musical, a time when some of the group’s members enjoyed spending time with family while off the road, Perna says. But making new music with Antibalas, he says, nourishes them in different ways. “Antibalas has a particular feeling and a particular energy unlike any other group.”

However, even after more than a decade of Antibalas’ foreign and domestic musical success, keeping the 14-piece band going financially continues to be challenging.

“The music environment is not set up for a band our size,” Perna says. And digital music’s effect on record sales hasn’t helped either. “It’s still a tremendous struggle. It’s still a labor of love.” So the highly talented Antibalas musicians often pursue other musical endeavors in order to keep creating music with Antibalas.

Getting Antibalas members all in one room is not so easy. But when they do finally come together, the skillful results are gratifying.

Such was the case with their new self-titled album, which was recorded over a two-week period. Some songs had been played by Antibalas on stage for a long time. But other songs, like their opening track “Dirty Money,” grew out of the creative spark and energy that comes when the band unites.

Antibalas plays at 7 p.m. Saturday on the Zilker Stage.