Afrobeat will probably always be associated with one man, one time and one country — Fela Kuti, in late 1960s Nigeria. But for the past 20 years, Antibalas has been establishing Brooklyn, N.Y., as a new center of the Afrobeat universe. The band's seventh studio album was just released and it has a name that calls back to its martial arts origins: Fu Chronicles.
The group was founded in 1998 by saxophonist Martin Perna (who was part of the initial stable of musicians at Daptone Records), but Antibalas really got its start when Duke Amayo — known on stage simply as Amayo — joined the band. Born to Nigerian parents in Britain but raised in Lagos on a steady diet of Kuti's music, Amayo was running a kung fu dojo and working as a fashion designer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when he was recruited to Antibalas as a percussionist and lead singer.
NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Amayo and Perna about the persistent power of Afrobeat, getting musical inspiration from kung fu and being part of the gentrification of their neighborhood. Listen to the full conversation in the player above and read on for highlights of the interview.
On the connection between martial arts and Antibalas' music
Amayo: Since I was a kid,I was always studying martial arts and kung fu was very central [to] everything I did. So when I started playing music, I couldn't imagine not having kung fu as part of that training. But then, I wanted to now figure out a way to bring it all together. So this album was the first chapter in [which] kung fu meets Afrobeat.
On the origins of the band in Williamsburg, N.Y.
Amayo: [I opened up a dojo in] pre-gentrified Williamsburg; it was the only place you could find a space where I could do the kind of martial arts that I was doing and the art I was doing (as a fashion designer). So I had a space to explore that combination of my martial arts — and then the music part was how I would present my clothing, using Nigerian drummers.
Martin Perna: [The original band members and I] lived in Williamsburg and went out for a walk one Sunday afternoon trying to find this dojo that had Nigerian drummers. The band was already up and running and we were like, "Let's let this Nigerian guy who has these awesome fashion shows know about our music," and knocked on his door, and [he] opened up and we met. [Addressing Amayo] And I think you were a little suspicious of the music we were making at first, but we invited you to come around. And then there was one day, a couple months later, where we needed an emergency percussionist, so I called up Amayo and I was like, "Hey, can you fill in? We're in a jam." And the rest was history.
On the endurance of Afrobeat
Perna: It's a timeless music in the sense that it is based on clave, this West African rhythmic concept. It's not one particular rhythm, but it's a sensibility — almost like the poles of a magnet or a battery that has a positive and a negative end. And when you put those two together and weave it into any style of music, it gives it this impression, a feeling of perpetual motion. Even if you listen to stuff that's on the radio right now — trap music — there's clave in it and that's why it pops. So even though that term might have been coined in 1969, most of the world is still just catching up to this music.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Afrobeat was pioneered by Nigeria's Fela Kuti in the late 1960s, but one of its centers is now in Brooklyn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT AM FINISH")
ANTIBALAS: (Singing) Get ready to rumble.
SIMON: This is music from Antibalas and their new album, "Fu Chronicles." Joining us from our studios in New York are the co-founders of the group - Duke Amayo, thank you so much for being with us.
DUKE AMAYO: Thank you for having us.
SIMON: And Martin Perna, thank you very much for being with us.
MARTIN PERNA: Hey, thank you.
SIMON: Duke Amayo, let me turn to you first. The title of this album is "Fu Chronicles." I mean, that's a reference to kung fu. What's the connection?
AMAYO: Yeah, it's actually the connection of my teachings from my up - you know, since I was a kid, I was always studying martial arts. And Kung fu was very central in everything I did. And so when I started playing music, I couldn't imagine not having kung fu as part of that training. But then I wanted to now figure out a way to bring it all together. So this album was the first chapter in where kung fu meets Afrobeat, you know?
Like, when I practice or when I'm doing my rhythmic punch in, like, when I'm hitting the punching bags, I could hear jab, jab, hook, jab, jab, hook, jab. So I put all my combinations in a rhythmic form.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMENAWON")
ANTIBALAS: (Singing) Triple, triple, triple exposure. Triple, triple, triple exposure. (Unintelligible) triple, triple, triple exposure (ph).
SIMON: Do I have this right? You opened a dojo, a martial arts space?
AMAYO: Yeah. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in pregentrified Williamsburg. It was the only place you could find a space that you could, you know, do the kind of martial arts I was in, the art that I was doing as a fashion designer. So I had a space to explore, you know, that combination of my martial arts and then the music part was sort of kind of how I would present my clothing, you know, using Nigerian drummers.
PERNA: Yeah. Once we made the connection, Gabe Roth, who is the founder of Daptone Records - we were operating in midtown Manhattan, but lived in Williamsburg, and went out for a walk one Sunday afternoon trying to find this dojo that had a Nigerian drummer. So the band was already up and running. We were let this Nigerian guy who has these awesome fashion shows know about our music and just knocked on his door and opened up. And we met. And I think - you know, I think you were a little suspicious of the music we were making at first. But we invited you to come around. And then there was one day, a couple months later where we needed an emergency percussionist. So I called Amayo, and I was like, hey, can you fill in? We're in a jam. And that was - the rest was history.
SIMON: I've never heard that phrase before, emergency percussionist.
SIMON: But - in Brooklyn.
AMAYO: Only in Brooklyn.
AMAYO: I started calling myself a gentrifier because you as an artist, you are the gatekeeper. You gentrify the space with your coolness, this your ideas, right? And then that opens the door to...
PERNA: It expelled from - yeah.
PERNA: It's built on the money - the people without cool ideas build on the backs of the people.
AMAYO: Obviously, we all did (laughter).
PERNA: People with a lot of money and no ideas build on the backs of the people with ideas and no money. And that's how gentrification happens.
SIMON: Well, with that cheery note that I'm...
SIMON: No doubt will include many of our listeners. Well, let's listen to your song Fist of Flowers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTIBALAS SONG, "FIST OF FLOWERS")
SIMON: What accounts, Martin Perna, for the endurance of Afrobeat, do you think?
PERNA: It's a timeless music in the sense that he is based on clave, this African, West African rhythmic concept. That's not one particular rhythm, but it's a sensibility, almost like the poles of a magnet where a battery that has a positive and a negative end. And when you put those two together and weave it into any style of music, it gives it this impression, a feeling of perpetual motion. And even if you listen to stuff that's right on the radio right now, trap music, there's clave in it. And that's why it pops.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MTT, PART 1 AND 2")
ANTIBALAS: An African proverb says the truth in the morning becomes daylight with time - M-T-T-T. Mother, tocker (ph), tick, tock. (Singing) Tick, tock, tick. Everybody. Tick, tock, tick. (Singing in Non-English language). Tick, tock, tick. (ph).
SIMON: I heard about the band just a little bit before singing your album cover. So let me ask you about it, Duke Amayo, does this cover that you've created for "Fu Chronicles," there's a mother with a baby. It looks like the Statue of Liberty standing over would be the New York City scape, I think.
AMAYO: Absolutely. I mean, you know, like these are all imagery and symbolisms, things that and how and representation of people in my life and my friends.
PERNA: The city also - the things that are promoted, it's like the group from the beginnings has always been a utopian project, how things can be. What could be going on inside a skyscraper besides people just eliminating jobs and making carbon, you know? And so that's what was exciting about it. And part of the aesthetics representing these utopian visions of the group.
AMAYO: And crafts, craftsmanship, you know? Illustrations I did by hand, you know? Like the old way of doing illustrations, you know? It's a disappearing, you know, trade so.
PERNA: Yeah, probably the newest piece of equipment that we use to make the record was, like, from 1978 (laughter).
AMAYO: Wow. What is that piece of equipment?
PERNA: You know, probably a microphone or something. But the tape machines we were using were analog tape from 1969 and old '70s mixing board.
AMAYO: Mixing boards, yeah.
PERNA: My horn is from 1952. You know, as Amayo said, not just the album cover, but everything that we do is built by hand.
SIMON: Duke Amayo, Martin Perna from Antibalas. Thank you so much for being with us.
PERNA: Thank you, Scott.
AMAYO: Thank you, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTIBALAS SONG, "MTT, PART 1 AND 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.