It’s a pretty good time to be in Antibalas right now.
The Afrobeat group began its story 12 years ago in Brooklyn and now spans the globe, with talent from Austin, TX, to London. Currently in New York City, you can find much of the band on Broadway nearly every night in Fela!, a musical on the life and music of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, as well as getting Brooklynites dancing every Thursday night at their December Knitting Factory residency.
“It’s turning into a very busy time,” says Jordan McLean, trumpet player for the group and its longest member, after founder Martin Pena. “It feels like an active and vital time.”
Busy is a good way to describe it. McLean was between shows when we spoke, grabbing a quick bite to eat before the evening performance of Fela!, which tells the life of the Nigerian protest singer, who died in 1997, through his music, a blend of jazz, funk and African rhythms and harmonies.
Once described as having the baton when it comes to carrying on Fela’s torch, Antibalas is an obvious choice to play and arrange his music for the stage. As the associate music director for the musical, McLean and musical director Aaron Johnson, who plays trombone in Antibalas, were tasked with rearranging Fela’s songs – often 20-minute percussive jams with lyrics in both English and African tribal languages – into ones fit for the Broadway stage.
“I think the most exciting thing was to be able to really deconstruct Fela’s music and to rearrange it,” says McLean. “To be able to have the creative license to make something new, as an arranger, it’s the best job I could ask for.”
About half of the band playing on stage during the show belongs to the Antibalas family, which includes over 30 musicians at any given time. Thursdays this month, they leave the Eugene O’Neill Theater with that musical high and hop into cabs headed to Williamsburg to make their late-night residency at the Knitting Factory, where the jam continues late into the night.
In the first night of the residency, McLean was surprised to see more of a younger audience than their shows generally attract (though the midnight starting time may have been a factor).
“It’s great to play for our very savvy, experienced, well traveled, educated, politically conscious audience, but also nice to have some very young people who are maybe beginning their way in the world of activism and their own higher education, or joining the work force and feeling like may this is something that could help them feel a little bit of a peak to their week,” says McLean.
That might be a bit more than you anticipated for a Thursday night. But the music, and band, is inherently political: Antibalas literally means anti-bullet in Spanish, and translated to bulletproof, it makes for a double meaning – music as a form of resistance, but also pacifism.
“Afrobeat as a genre definitely is a political music,” adds Perna, whose song topics range from misogyny and patriarchy to global warming. “But it’s also a danceable music at the same time. It doesn’t sacrifice one for the other. That’s what makes it so irresistible. People can dance, have a good time, get a groove on, but not feel like they’ve forgotten their responsibilities.”
Looks like they’re carrying that torch well.
Antibalas can be found on stage at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Fela! Tickets range from $55-$112, and the closing is open-ended. Show is dark on Mondays. For more information, go to www.felaonbroadway.com.
The band’s Thursday night residency at Knitting Factory (361 Metropolitan Ave.) ends December 31 (though it might extend into January; check www.bk.knittingfactory.com or call 347-529-6696 for details). Tickets are $12, with the show starting at midnight.
For more on the band, go to www.myspace.com/antibalas (which also has information on Fela! discounts).