At the intersection of North Moore Street and Broadway in downtown Manhattan is No Moore, a bar favored by well-heeled young professionals. The walls are exposed brick, the wooden floor is comfortably worn and, in the daytime, sunlight gilds the space through floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s a pleasant enough place to drink, but No Moore has a split personality, and, if you like music, the real action is in the sweaty cavern on the opposite side of the wall. A nondescript doorway in the brick leads to this other world, and people who frequent the sunny side don’t often venture into the sweaty side — and those who come to No Moore for the music don’t spend much time in the bar.
Between 1999 and 2001, the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra played no less than 70 gigs at No Moore — and they probably would have kept right on going if the club weren’t suddenly shut down for violating fire codes (though it re-opened later). The band is huge — usually about a dozen members playing horns, guitars, keyboards, bass and loads of percussion. So much percussion, in fact, that it couldn’t all fit on stage, and there would usually be a few conga players on the floor, lined against the wall, extending the band’s energy into the audience.
As their name suggests, Antibalas creates a rambunctious mix of Latin (antibalas is Spanish for “no bullets”) and African sounds. The band’s founder, a baritone saxophonist named Martin Perna, assembled the earliest version of the band in 1997, just after the death of Fela Kuti. True to Fela’s sound, the tunes Antibalas plays are long — 10, 15 minutes — and tight enough that you’ll dance all night. The repetitive Latin and African rhythms lock down the dance floor, and the bass moves the collective hips.
Antibalas had a loyal following at No Moore, but Perna believes that period was just one step in the band’s evolution. Communicating by e-mail he noted, “We are a whole lot tighter since then. We have done a lot more touring and have a lot of new material, especially vocal tunes.”
Touring, indeed. In the past few years, Antibalas has opened for James Brown, Wyclef Jean and Trey Anastasio. They’ve performed overseas with two of Fela Kuti’s sons, Femi and Seun, as well as several of Fela’s former band members. Their gigs have taken them to famed rock ‘n’ roll halls such as Irving Plaza and the Fillmore, as well as jazz festivals from Montreux to Istanbul, and massive, open-ended festivals such as Bonnaroo and Roskilde.
Antibalas has also joined the ranks of B.B. King and Johnny Cash, by playing a prison gig. King, of course, played Chicago’s Cook County jail, Cash the Folsom State Prison and San Quentin, and Antibalas played Rikers, which has mushroomed, according to Perna, to 13 distinct facilities for men, women and juveniles.
For Perna, playing Rikers was more than just a gig and helped him make good on his feelings about America’s biased and perhaps over-zealous approach to imprisonment.
“Certainly there are some evil people in prison, but I believe that far more evil people exist in society, protected by money and racial privilege. The majority of the 2 million people imprisoned in the U.S. are poor and have been imprisoned for crimes of poverty and desperation. Poverty and desperation fuel antisocial and violent behavior, but this is taught from the top down. The government can change this, but it has consciously chosen not to.”
This brings up the point of Antibalas’ politics and their newest album, “Who Is This America?” This recording follows in the Afrobeat vein of their first two — “Antibalas Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1” and “Talkatif” — but is their most overtly political, sometimes with the homespun sarcasm of Fela, as in the tune “Big Man.”
What can I buy from you?
Who can I fight for you?
What can I carry for you?
Thank you, thank you, thank you Big Man!
Their lyrics — and Web site and cover art — talk a big game, but Antibalas’ actions speak even louder. In addition to the gig at Rikers, Perna says Antibalas makes an effort to interact with and improve their world.
“Each member of the group has varying degrees of connection to community,” he says. “Some of us are involved in teaching, others in activism, some in both. Others are raising children right now, which is also extremely important in making sure that our culture and values are preserved for the future.”
The culture and values of certain others are constantly under attack on “Who Is This America?” The tune “Indictment” has a blunt precision and the intensity of a lynch mob. After an introduction of militant funk, a man slams a gavel and shouts:
Karl T. Rove — indictment!
Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld — indictment!
Dick Cheney — indictment!
John Ashcroft — indictment!
George W. Bush — indictment!
A hapless lawyer tries to mount a defense but is quickly overwhelmed by a jeering mob and a swell of funk that rises up and washes the whole mess away.
“Music is a weapon used to create peace and to extend the goodwill and spirit,” Perna says.
But as much as people love the good will and spirit of Antibalas, keeping such a large group together is a constant struggle, a difficult balance of extra-musical commitments and precarious finances. Everyone in the band hustles to make ends meet, and, while these days they play venues bigger than No Moore, Perna points out that most of the band’s tours lose money or barely break even, in spite of playing to sold-out venues.
“It is very expensive to take Antibalas on the road, even though we do most of the work ourselves. I wouldn’t say that it is the size of the band so much as it is the unwillingness or inability of people who appreciate our music to come up with the money to make it happen. There are many parts of the world, like Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, which we would prefer to travel to, but it is so expensive to get there.”
Getting Antibalas to Tokyo for this Friday’s gig will cost a small fortune, but their concerns are not just about their own money. According to the ticker on Antibalas’ Web site, in the five minutes it takes to read this article, the war in Iraq cost U.S. taxpayers $550,000.
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