Afrobeat pioneers-and backing band for 'Fela!'-drop first studio album in five years
The stakes are high for Antibalas on the eve of the release of its self-titled, fifth studio album. The project, due Aug. 8 on Daptone Records, represents a new career opportunity for the musical collective. As the band most responsible for popularizing the West African genre of Afrobeat stateside, Antibalas is already the living face of an entire musical legacy. But this time, after Antibalas helped bring Afrobeat and the story of its creator, the late, legendary Fela Kuti, to Broadway in the acclaimed musical "Fela!," a lot more ears are attuned to its raucous grooves.
Although the group has been away from the spotlight for five years, Antibalas seems ready for the challenge. "We're representing the sound of the band in the strongest way," says trumpeter Jordan McLean, who also serves as associate music director of "Fela!" "If this is going to introduce people to the band, it's the perfect record to do so."
For many, however, Antibalas needs no introduction. The band, which formed in Brooklyn in 1998, has released four albums since 2000 and toured tirelessly, helping spark a rebirth of Afrobeat, the hypnotic, brass-heavy blend of funk, jazz and West African music that Kuti pioneered in early-1970s Nigeria. The group has collaborated with the Roots, Paul Simon and Angelique Kidjo - winning a Grammy Award for its work on the latter's 2007 "Djin Djin" album- a nd has also been cited as a major influence on indie-rock standouts Vampire Weekend and tUnE-yArDs.
However, Antibalas' role as musical mentors and backing band for "Fela!" has opened even more substantial doors. After a knockout off-Broadway run in 2008, the high-energy look at Kuti's life and legacy hit the Great White Way the following year with celebrity backers Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, landing two Tonys during its 14-month engagement. "Fela!" is taking a final bow after a month-long run that concludes Aug. 4, just in time for the release of Antibalas' new album.
"The band has brought some musical credibility to the show and, in turn, the show's success has shined [a] light on the band," McLean says. "It's a brand-new audience."
The album finds Antibalas returning to a raw, traditional Afrobeat sound with help from producer/engineer Gabriel Roth, the band's original bassist who produced and engineered Antibalas' first three albums. Roth-known for his pitch-perfect reproductions of vintage, pre-digital soul classics-had left to focus on renowned R&B revivalists Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. He also won a Grammy for his work on Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black." "It was a homecoming," saxophonist/band founder Martin Perna says.
Following brief label stints at Ninja Tune, Anti- and Ropeadope, "Antibalas" is the band's first full-length album on Roth's own Daptone Records, also home to Charles Bradley, Budos Band and other like-minded funk-soul throwbacks. "It's a very small company, but it has a very loud voice," Martin says. "Being on a label that understands us and is committed to giving us their full attention feels great, because we've never had that before. It's kind of strange it didn't happen sooner, but it feels right on time."
On Aug. 10, Antibalas sets off on a 28-date U.S. run before heading to Europe, marking the group's first major tour since "Fela!" opened. Antibalas will also give its first televised performance on Aug. 24 on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."
Experiencing such breakthroughs after 15 years in the business can only be a good sign for Antibalas and the record bearing its name. "A lot of things are coming together," senior partner at management firm Lever and Beam Alex Kadvan says. "The timing is right - it's the perfect moment for the band."