The Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra reared their populist uprising last Thursday at Toad’s Place. Hung-over from the election two days prior, the band made an extended effort to connect with the Yale community. The group hosted an informal discussion at the Afro-American Cultural Center and appeared on WYBC’s “Jazz Instinct,” a show I cohost. In both forums, band members shared the legacy of Fela Kuti, the progenitor of Afrobeat who died of AIDS in 1997.
In order to understand Afrobeat — a Nigerian music that mixes jazz and funk with the recalcitrant rhythms of West Africa — one must understand Fela Anikulopo Kuti. The Nigerian-born singer, whose name means “One Who Carries Death in his Pouch,” invented Afrobeat after travelling to Los Angeles in 1969.
As Stuart Bogie, the tenor saxophonist and founder of Antibalas, explained at the Af-Am House, it was on the trip to LA that Fela came under the influence of jazz, funk and the fervor of the black power movement.
After Fela returned to Nigeria, he eventually demarcated his own independent republic in Lagos. The Kalakuta Republic, as it was called, formed around Fela’s club, The Shrine, where he hosted legendary all-night concert rebellions.
He quickly established himself as a controversial Nigerian political figure, garnering the nickname Black President and writing a regular newspaper column entitled “Chief Priest Says.” Afrobeat was very much an expression of dissent against the Nigerian government, and today the music fits well with the rhetoric of modern left-wing activism.
Beyond his persona, beyond the lore of ritual cannabis use and his more than 20 wives, Fela as most important because of his music. Here at Yale, professor Michael Veal — who played with Fela in Nigeria — discourages a primary focus on his biographical eccentricities. Instead, Veal insists it’s important to first appreciate the music on its own terms.
Afrobeat is colossal in its power and in its orchestration. The great challenge, according to Antibalas’ lead singer Duke Amayo, lies in harmonizing the varied elements of the group.
Unlike Fela’s band, Antibalas — a 14-piece collective — has no conductor. Its balance depends upon a highly evolved rhythmic tension between the members. Out of this tension, a rare and sonorous anarchy slips in and out of the music, a post-harmonic glimpse that challenges the listener to reconcile himself in the collective contrast. Emerging from this chaos, Antibalas returns in solidarity, their boom uncompromising and heavy, recalling Fela’s prophecy that “music is the weapon of the future.”
Amayo, who on Thursday night carried himself as the Fela-like leader of Antibalas, maintains the heritage of the Afrobeat tradition. Just as the presence of an old Rasta validates a reggae band, the Nigerian-born-and-raised singer gives root to the group’s music.
During the interview on WYBC, Amayo spoke movingly about the influences he felt while first visiting Fela’s Shrine when he was only 12 years old.
Amayo has certainly picked up Fela’s flair for satire. This was especially obvious at Toad’s Place during Antibalas’ performance of their new song “Government Magic.” Towards its end, Amayo told the audience to act in awe of the magic of President Bush, then commanded them to exorcise that magic and to replace it with Antibalas’ own.
This exploration of the supernatural seemed appropriate in the context of Africa and even more appropriate in the context of Bush’s theocratic principles.
Another highlight of Amayo’s performance came when he snapped the microphone cable at the audience as he sang a lyric about the whip of the slave master. Immediately afterward, Amayo cringed under that same whip, his back hunched, his voice lashed.
Rather than overt moralization or political statement, this shape-shifting satire allowed Amayo to integrate political commentary with his artistic integrity.
Underneath it all, the drums beat ubiquitously and hypnotically. Rhythmic repetition is the pendulous charm to this music, and it is the key to Antibalic activation. The songs marched onward, charged by the ceaseless rattle of the shekere — an African shaker — and the machete scratches of the guitar.
The Black President may not have won any national elections, but last Thursday was a landslide for Antibalas.