The oversized funk outfit Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra is a band of apparent contradictions. The critically praised Brooklyn group, lately revered by world-music devotees and jam-band fans alike, is billed as "America's only live Afrobeat party," and that title is easily defended. These dozen or so brass and woodwind players, percussionists, guitarists, singers and other musicians -- the lineup expands to as large as 18, or contracts, depending on gig economics -- pump out surging, gritty, densely woven horn lines over deeply infectious grooves, driving hard until the rhythms become downright hypnotic. Call it "earth trance."
Danceability aside, the group is sober and serious when it comes to getting their message -- a decidedly anti-capitalist, pro-peace message -- across. A hearts-and-minds plea takes the place of liner notes in the colorful CD package of last year's "Talkatif" album: "No amount of money, violence, or good intentions can make the world a better place. Respect and understanding must replace greed and egotism as the fundamentals by which we live."
"We can talk, but we can't make people listen," says Antibalas founder Martin Perna (aka Martin Antibalas) of the group's progressive stance. "Some people do hear it, and some people don't. It's an ongoing process of trying to work on delivery. Whether it's Mayo (percussionist Duke Amayo) singing or me giving a little speech, we want to really speak from the heart more than anything else. Once you're able to do that is when you can really reach people. It's an ongoing thing. It's a process, but it's one that we're actively engaged in."
Activists or 24-hour party people? There's no reason not to embrace both identities, says Perna, the Philadelphia-born baritone saxophonist and toaster who organized the group in the spring of 1998 as a sort of Fela Kuti tribute band. The first show took place in May of that year, and, coincident with a massive resurgence of interest in Fela's Afrobeat music, Antibalas soon gathered a loyal following for regular Friday-night performances at the lower Manhattan nightclub No Moore. Needless to say, those audiences were as attracted by Antibalas' funk as they were by the group's fervor.
"It's about the joy in life," Perna, 24, says by cell phone from Brooklyn of Antibalas' approach. "Revolutionary Emma Goldman said, 'What's the point of having a revolution if you can't dance afterwards?' There always has to be that goal. One of the things that's a drag about people that are progressively oriented is that people never see you smiling. That joyful feeling and exuberance `in our music` is completely necessary at all times.
"It connects people to something primal and something very celestial at the same time," he says. "It's a real serious music, and it's a real therapeutic music."
Antibalas operates as a musical cooperative, and its members hail from New York bands, including Afro-soul revivalists The Daktaris (whose 1998 debut was dedicated to Fela) and the Soul Providers, as well as the "skalsa" powerhouse King Chango. Not only do the sounds of these other bands get stewed up into Antibalas' sound, the very fact that Antibalas functions as both a primary and "extracurricular" activity for the musicians is a reflection of Perna's dissatisfaction with previous playing-in-the-band experiences. In particular, he tired of the top-down approach common -- and necessary, some might contend -- to the operating procedure of most groups. Perna sought something more democratic.
"I was trying to make music on a model that's completely counter to the way our society is organized," he says. "It's a group of people that get together to play music, but it's really so much more than music. Music should really be a way of life, not something that you do outside of it. So much of our culture is about making specialists of people, and putting it in boxes and making music a commodity. I want to try to cultivate an appreciation of that, and also do it in a collaborative way, so that there's not a hierarchy."
The group's name translates literally from Spanish as "against bullets" or "bullet proof." Both definitions apply.
"I like that double meaning, because it describes the music ultimately as pacifist music, for people struggling for the right to live in peace, wherever they are," Perna says. "We all have our own battles to fight, without someone trying to get us wrapped up into other ones. There's also this idea of strength in numbers, of strength in people on stage."
The ethnically diverse group -- Latinos, Caucasians, African-Americans, Africans, Asians -- draws musical inspiration from eclectic sources, including James Brown-style soul and multicolored Latin grooves. But Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian father of Afrobeat and outspoken political activist, remains the chief role model for how Perna (of Mexican and Italian ancestry) and his bandmates think about and play music.
"`We liked` everything about him -- the music, the syncopation, the psychedelia, the sensuality, the innovation, the familiar elements, the Afro-American funk," Perna says of Kuti's colossal influence on the group.
"I think it's such a complete music in so many ways. It appeals to so many people in so many different ways. At the same time, it's a medium for political and spiritual messages to be conveyed."