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Antibalas: Cooking Up Afrobeat In A Sweltering Kitchen

Antibalas was founded in 1998 by baritone sax player Martin Perna (far right, in hat) and is fronted by singer-percussionist Amayo (center, in head wrap). The group has seen many lineup changes in its decade and a half together.
Antibalas was founded in 1998 by baritone sax player Martin Perna (far right, in hat) and is fronted by singer-percussionist Amayo (center, in head wrap). The group has seen many lineup changes in its decade and a half together.

Years ago, without setting out to do so, the Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas jumped out ahead of the pop-culture curve in two ways. First, geography: The band was formed in Brooklyn in the 1990s, before the New York borough became the mecca of independent music that it is today. Second, the music itself: Afrobeat makes its way into lots of popular music today, but Antibalas was doing it before it had a mainstream foothold.

Antibalas contains 11 people, all hard at work in a complex musical machine. Rhythm tends to lead the way, with each song evolving over several minutes. The members have been busy with separate projects for the past five years, but with their latest album, simply titled Antibalas, they've reunited. The group's lead singer, Amayo, says time is an essential ingredient of the music he and his bandmates make.

"We've got a lot of tunes on our menu that we play over and over again. It takes, sometimes, a year or two before the song actually starts to make some sense," Amayo tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "That's the beauty of being in an orchestra of this size: You let the song marinate, as you would a fine meal or a fine wine. I think this record is, for me, a fine wine. It finally matured."

Martin Perna, Antibalas' founder and baritone sax player, says time isn't the only important variable: Temperature matters, too.

"We did a show a couple years ago in New York City, in December, in the street," Perna says. "We asked to have these big gas heaters on the side of the stage to just blow hot air at least on our part, because when it's cold, the wind instruments — the trumpets, saxophones, trombone — actually go down in pitch."

You can hear more of Rachel Martin's conversation with Antibalas by clicking the audio link on this page.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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