Antibalas Avoid Trump to Make Timeless Political Points

Antibalas Avoid Trump to Make Timeless Political Points
Photo: Michael Davis
Anyone familiar with Afrobeat knows that politics play a major role in the West African musical style. So it seems obvious that Afrobeat revivalists / activists Antibalas would have plenty to say about the planet's biggest political foil, Donald Trump, on their latest LP, Where the Gods are in Peace.
Yet on this fifth LP, the Brooklyn 12-piece deliver five rubbery and vibrant tracks that seem to focus not on the much-maligned American president specifically, but rather the historical American West and an intergalactic being referred to as the "Cowboy."
"I think people get what we're going with, because the last thing we wanted to do was to make something that adds to the noise," baritone saxophonist and founding member Martin Perna tells Exclaim! "And the term reactionary tends to describe the political right, but it could also describe the left, in that we're just sitting waiting for bad things to happen and then get mad and indignant about them. Whether or not we're right, that's not a proactive way to be.
"Some of the best political songs might have been inspired by one particular historical incident," he continues, "but they find ways that that struggle existed in the past to see how it's going to exist in the future. The song by Fela Kuti called 'Water Get No Enemy' — someone who lived in the United States in the '70s might have seen it as quaint, like, 'Ah, an African thing about water,' and then 25 years later in California, people can't water their lawns and there are crops that dry up. That why we want to focus on writing songs that the message lasts longer than just one political cycle."
In the five years since their well-received self-titled LP, Antibalas not only find themselves dealing with a new political landscape on Where the Gods Are in Peace, but an internal strife as well; five members have left the band over the past half-decade.
"In 2012, we put the [self-titled] album out and it really broke us financially," Perna explains. "The cost of taking 12 people on the road was really crushing. A couple things happened that put us over $50,000 in debt, like cancellation of festivals, weather-related stuff. It really slowed down the band as far as our creative output. At the same time, we established ourselves as competent musicians, and a bunch of guys got gigs with other bands: our tenor player, Stuart Bogie, is with Arcade Fire; our bass player on the last record, Nick Movshon, went on to the Black Keys and the Arcs; our keyboard player went on to do a bunch of stuff with Mark Ronson; and our guitar player [Luke O'Malley] is now part of the Roots."
But the departure of key members has only opened the door for Antibalas's current youth movement, which is evident on their latest LP. "It's exciting to have new members who are really versed in the music and they've had the advantage of being able to learn our stuff when it's already done, coming into the music instead of learning it altogether."
With a lot of new blood infiltrating the band, and with a built-in fan base ready to see them hit the road, Perna feels the energy within Antibalas is high at the moment. "A lot of the heavy lifting has been done. It's like, we can go out on the road and know that we'll have a full house in this city or that city and that's exciting to be a part of. This band that has momentum!"
Where the Gods are in Peace is out September 15 on Afrosound/Daptone Records.