Exclusive: Antibalas Readies First Post-'Fela!' Album for Daptone
Antibalas will release in June its first album since its members took on the role of house band for the musical "Fela!" that is currently touring the country.
Daptone Records, the independent label based in Brooklyn, will release the album as the "Fela!" road tour is at the end of its first leg. The musical runs Dec. 13 to Jan. 22 at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles before heading to Detroit (Feb. 14-March 4), Philadelphia (March 20-25), Chicago (March 27-April 8), Houston (June 5-10) and St. Paul, Minn. (June 12-17).
"It will be interesting to see what happens after all the hype for the musical and putting up this new record," says Antibalas leader and trombonist Aaron Johnson, who has been the musical director of "Fela!" since it was in the workshop stage six years ago.
"The new Antibalas record is more getting back to our roots," Johnson tells Billboard.com. "We're not a Fela (Kuti) cover band but what he did is so amazing and so powerful, we just want to play it right -- stay true to his instrumentation and capture all we can in six or eight minutes."
For their fifth studio album, the band reunited with Daptone Records co-owner and bassist Gabriel Roth, a former Antibalas member who leads the Dap Kings behind Sharon Jones. Once the album is released, Antibalas plans to tour into 2013.
Prior to that, Johnson and his nine bandmates in "Fela!" will book gigs in different cities to stretch out beyond the truncated versions of songs that appear in the show. Johnson and the "Fela!" band will perform at the Troubadour on Jan. 13 during the Los Angeles run.
"We grab Sahr (Ngauja), the lead, and few of the queens and go out and play the music as Fela would have played it, really explore and capture his spirit," Johnson says.
"Fela!" is set in Nigeria in 1978, soon after Fela and his band Africa 70 had their biggest hit with "Zombie." Kuti died in 1997 at the age of 58; in 2000, Antibalas was at the forefront of an Afrobeat revival that coincided with a wave of Fela's albums being reissued by MCA.
Johnson and producer Stephen Hendel say "Fela!" serves as an introduction to Kuti's music, delivering his songs in bite-size portions rather than the 10- to 25-minute jams that fill his multiple albums. The musical had four versions in workshops and then played off-Broadway before a final revamp - and financial backing from Jay-Z and Will and Jada Smith - landed the show on Broadway for 463 performances between Nov. 23, 2009 and Jan. 2.
"America is very conservative country in many respects and Broadway has an incredibly conservative milieu with a very defined, less-diverse base," says Hendel, who became acquainted with Kuti's music in 2000 and started thinking about a musical soon after. "How do you gets yourself launched into the mainstream? One way is to have very celebrated people involved in the show. The fact that Jay-Z and Will and Jada Smith invested certainly helped us.
"It would have made it to Broadway some way," says Hendel, whose lone producing credit is this show. "Fela wrote some of the great music and hippest music ever. Anybody who likes rock, jazz soul, funk should hear him. He wrote it in the service of standing up against oppression, degradation - he put it all on the line."
As the show came together, certain songs were deemed crucial - "Zombie," "Water No Get Enemy," "Trouble Sleep" - to celebrate his legacy, but others made it into the show for separate reasons.
Hendel singles out "Coffin for Head of State." "It's the crucifixion song, the martyrdom song that comes from carrying his mother's coffin. I don't think musically it's as rich perhaps as some of the other songs, but that song goes to a place as deep as anything I have ever heard."
For Johnson, who has sent the last few years absorbing the compositional intricacies of Kuti's work with Egypt 80, he takes pride in exposing more obscure songs - "Lover" from Kuti's 1969 sessions in Los Angeles and "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense." "It's so different harmonically and rhythmically, all the counterpoint. It felt so good. Unfortunately it was cut from the tour to tighten up the show."