One night in 2002, on a narrow, winding street in Istanbul, a dozen or so guys walked on stage with an assortment of horns, drums and keyboards at a sweet little cellar club called Babylon and proceeded to blow the roof off.
That was my first exposure to Brooklyn-based soulsters Antibalas, who subsequently became the darlings of the jazz festival circuit, but who now, for a variety of reasons, appear to be breaking out to a larger public.
Antibalas plays Seattle’s Crocodile Friday and chances are the place will be packed. Part of the excitement is a new, self-titled album, which, thanks to promotion from the band’s label, Daptone (home to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, of Amy Winehouse backup-band fame), has been featured on National Public Radio as well as earning the group its first spot on late night TV.
But the real push toward wider acclaim began in 2008, when the musical “Fela” hit Broadway. Antibalas was eagerly embraced by the producers as New York’s resident experts in Afro-beat, the brand of music played by the show’s namesake, the late, great Nigerian Afropop star Fela Kuti.
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“About three quarters of the band was involved in the workshop phase of the show,” explained Antibalas founder Martin Perna, whose popping baritone saxophone anchors the group’s horn section.
(If you’re unfamiliar with the style, think Tower of Power with a stream of percolating hot lava running underneath.)
Ironically, Perna, who grew up in Philadelphia and now lives in Texas, never saw Fela.
“The one time he came to Philly, I missed him,” said Perna, who discovered Afro-beat through recordings.
Since then, however, Perna and other members of the band have performed with many Fela sidemen. Though Antibalas is by no means a tribute band — the group might play one Fela tune the whole night — its own material is informed by the same kind of ardent social critique as its African inspiration’s.
“Rat Catcher” — sung on the new album by British-bred Nigerian frontman Amara — is a parable about a man who builds a rat cage so big he eventually fits into it himself, a metaphor, says Perna, for Homeland Security.
“What government agency isn’t going to take an extra $2 billion to divert its resources to try to make us feel more secure?” he asks. “But (the song says) it’s not working.”
When I first heard Antibalas in that Istanbul grotto, I had no idea their lyrics carried all that weight. But what a win-win. Dance your brains out listening to a band with brains. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org