Photo: Celine Pinget
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Antibalas Talk 'Fu Chronicles,' Kung Fu And Their Mission To Spread Afrobeat
Even somebody who barely listens to music could presumably name three artists in each of these spheres: rock, blues and jazz. Sure, Bob Marley may remain the embodiment of reggae, but chances are you've heard of Toots and the Maytals or Lee "Scratch" Perry at least once. What about Afrobeat, a West African amalgam of soul and funk with regional styles like Yoruba and highlife?
For many, the Afrobeat conversation begins and ends with the outrageous, incendiary, brilliant multi-instrumentalist and pioneer of the form, Fela Kuti. While the Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, which ranges from 11 to 19 members, undoubtedly work from the template Kuti helped create, they argue the story of Afrobeat begins—not ends—with him.
"I think that's one of the weirdest things, being in a genre of music that is so defined and predetermined by one person," Martín Perna, the multi-instrumentalist who first dreamed up Antibalas in 1998, tells GRAMMY.com. "Even reggae artists don't all get compared to Bob Marley. I don't think anybody in any other genre is in the shadow of one person like people who play this music." (For those who wish to dig deeper, Perna recommends Geraldo Pino, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou and the Funkees; his bandmate, Duke Amayo, name-drops Orlando Julius.)
"It's been a weird thing," Perna continues. "I would have thought after 22 years that it would have expanded a little bit more."
More than 20 years after Kuti's death in 1997, Afrobeat may soon expand radically in the public eye thanks to Antibalas. The group, who played their first gig half a year after Kuti's passing, has been nominated at the 2021 GRAMMYs Awards show in the newly renamed Best Global Music Album category for Fu Chronicles, which dropped last February on Daptone Records. Their first album to be solely written by lead singer and percussionist Amayo, its highlights, like "Lai Lai," "MTTT, Pt. 1 & 2" and "Fist of Flowers," partly derive their power from his other primary pursuit: kung fu.
A Nigerian-born multidisciplinarian who is a senior master at the Jow Ga Kung Fo School of martial arts, Amayo aims to find the nexus point between music, dance and martial arts. When he received the unexpected news that Antibalas had clinched their first-ever GRAMMY nomination after 20 years in the game, he launched into a dance of his own.
"I walked over to my girl and said, 'Check this out. Is this real?'" he recalls to GRAMMY.com with a laugh. "She Googled the GRAMMY nominations, and it was surreal. And then I did that usual thing where you shake your hips, violently doing the hip thrust back and forth. Then, I woke the whole house up screaming, as my daughter screamed with me for a minute or two."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Martín Perna and Duke Amayo about Antibalas' origin story, their decades-long rise as an outlier in Brooklyn and how their nomination could help introduce new listeners to Afrobeat.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How would you explain the vocabulary of someone like Fela Kuti to a person who's unfamiliar?
Martín Perna: Afrobeat is like musical architecture. It's a set of ingredients and musical relationships between those ingredients. All the instruments are talking to each other. They're all in dialogue, and these dialogues create dynamic tension in the music. Some instruments create a rigid structure, and others—vocals included—have much more free reign to improvise or solo.
Duke Amayo: I would describe it as a tonal language of the common Nigerian—or African—singing truth to power from a marginalized place. That is the window from where Fela Kuti was operating. He drew from observations around him and expressed them truthfully throughout his music. He is like the Bob Marley and the James Brown of Nigeria rolled into one.
Perna: Whereas the guitar might be playing the same five-note pattern without stopping for 20 minutes, the singer or keyboardist gets to improvise. Or, when the horns aren't playing the melodies, they get solos. It's both very rigid and very free, but it's a dynamic tension between the two.
In a nutshell, describe how Antibalas came up in the Brooklyn scene.
Perna: I was 22 when I dreamed this up, and a lot of it was just trying to create a scene that I wanted to be part of. At the time, I played with Sharon Jones—rest in peace—Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. A bunch of the musicians were my colleagues in that band. The rest of the musicians came pretty much from the neighborhood—just people I knew who either had the chops or the interest to be in this band.
Amayo: I was living in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that embodied gentrification in record time. I was in the right place at the right time as I opened a clothing store/martial-arts dojo in my residence called the Afro-Spot. From here, I hosted many fashion shows, using Nigerian drummers to maintain an edge to my brand. This exposed me to musicians who wanted to make resistance music, if you will.
So that brought me in contact with Martín and [Daptone Records co-founder and former Antibalas guitarist] Gabe [Roth], who stopped in my store one day to hang. Eventually, they asked me to join the band. I started as a percussionist and then became the lead singer.
Perna: I wanted to make a band that was both a dance band and a protest band. Because you need so many people to make this music, it fulfilled that idea of being a band and a community. You need anywhere from 11 [musicians] on the small end; at our biggest shows, there have been 19 musicians on stage. So, already, you have a community of people.
Coming up in Brooklyn, did you have local peers in this style? Was there a scene?
Perna: No, there wasn't a scene. There were individuals—mostly West African guys a generation older than us—that had played with Fela or were part of some other African funk band in the '70s. But no, there weren't any peers at all.
Amayo: I would state that we were the scene.
How would you describe your vision for Fu Chronicles as opposed to past Antibalas albums?
Amayo: Fu Chronicles is a concept album written by only me. While the past albums have been written by different members employing the group dynamics of the time, my vision was to create a musical universe where African folklore and kung fu wisdom can coexist seamlessly, supporting each other in a harmonious flow.
The first song I composed [20 years ago], "MTTT," came from my intention to compose a timeless, logical song, expressing a new frontier in classical African music. I wanted to move the music forward by writing songs with two distinct-but-related bass and guitar lines and shape the grooves into a two-part form: yin and yang.
How did martial arts play into the album?
Amayo: I wanted to reimagine Afrobeat songs from a real kung fu practitioner's mindset. I'm a certified Jow Ga Kung Fu sifu, or master. I started studying kung fu in Nigeria as a young boy. The song "Fist of Flowers" describes the traditional form of Jow Ga Kung Fu that I teach. My rhythmic blocks are sometimes based on the shapes of my kung fu movements.
How did you learn about your GRAMMY nomination for Best Global Music Album?
Amayo: The first person who texted me was Kyle Eustice, [who interviewed me in 2020] for High Times. I didn't react at first. I walked over to my girl and said, "Check this out. Is this real?" She Googled the GRAMMY nominations, and it was surreal.
I did that usual thing where you shake your hips, violently doing the hip thrust back and forth, and quickly calmed down. Then I woke the whole house up screaming as my daughter screamed with me for a minute or two.
Perna: On my fridge, last year, when I set my goals and intentions, one of the five things [I wrote] was to win a GRAMMY. This year has been such a disappointment in so many ways, so it's exciting that at least we got, so far, the nomination.
This nomination serves as a punctuation mark on Antibalas's 20-plus-year career. How do you see the next 20 years?
Perna: Oh, gosh. I hope it provides some wind in our sails to continue to record and tour and grow our audience. It could be either a nice end to a beautiful history of the band, or something like I said: wind in our sails.
Amayo: I see the next 20 years of Antibalas as a flower in full growth, writing music to push the genre forward while maintaining excellence in the trade. We began as a bunch of guys in Brooklyn who wanted to make a change, make some noise, and be part of the revival of activist music.
And it's still as relevant as ever, demanding for justice movements like Black Lives Matter, Indigenous peoples' plight, and a more comprehensive education system based on truth ...
Perna: … To get this recommendation and this nod from the GRAMMYs, it's like, "Hey, everybody! Pay attention to this band! They made this amazing record, and you should listen to it!" That's something that propels us out of the world of just musicians listening to us. It feels good to get a little bit of wider recognition.
Amayo: I've been praising my wife ever since [the nomination]: "This is all mostly you." Because if she hadn't put a fire in me, I wouldn't have been able to make the right moves. It takes something to light it up for you, to believe you can get there.
Thus, my song, "Fight Am Finish," with the lyrics, "Never, ever let go of your dreams." I'm going to keep running. I'm going to keep my feet moving until I cross the finish line, you know what I mean?