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Antibalas – Bridging Culture Through Music

In early 2019, Brooklyn-based afrobeat band Antibalas travelled to Salt Spring Island, BC to perform at Fullford Hall. While there, the Come To Life team filmed Antibalas’ performance and met with band members Martin Perna and Amayo, resulting in this short video exploring how music and connection come together in their work. In the following article, Martin reflects upon the role of intention, energy redistribution, and space creation at Antibalas’ shows.

Years ago at a retreat, a facilitator framed relationships through the lens of transactional versus transformational. I had been trying to sort this concept out in my head and on this day it crystallized. I kept thinking about how it ultimately described [Antibalas’] mission; how we go about creating and making music, and then how we go about sharing it to the public once it’s done.

We have no set formula—it is more of an aspiration and and attitude, a mental framework of leaving at the door everything you know about the rules of capitalism, about ego and other cliches of rock and roll, and embark on a different mission. We do have some basic practices though.

Ritual of some kind is a necessary part of it. It’s always a challenge to make it work in a new space every day: most dressing rooms can only really comfortably accommodate half of the band, and even the most basic preparations can be elaborately complicated. Once everyone is suited and booted, and the last of the twelve of us have scurried back from the nearest available toilet, we find somewhere to circle up. We acknowledge the space, welcome any new members or welcome back members that have been out of the mix for a minute. Then we prepare to breathe, usually following our frontman Amayo’s cues, or whoever picks up the slack if he is running behind with his wardrobe.
Breathe out—let go of all the stress (the friends who are still blowing up my phone to get on the guest list), the worries (my horn got bumped last night and I hope those MacGyver rubber band repairs I made hold up through the show), the anxiety (this is our first time playing this song…will everyone remember their parts and the transitions?). Breathe in. Gratitude—I can’t believe we can keep doing this after so many years, there are so many new faces in the audience, the musicianship in this circle is astounding. Hope—tonight can be our best show of all time. Purpose—the world is dark right now, let’s try to create as much light as possible and have it spill out into the street.

That’s the trick, not just to entertain—to create a good time, or a spectacle for sixty or seventy-five minutes, two hours or whatever—but to weave into the performance a series of actions that, repeated over and over, allow us to evolve and to establish deeper bonds with the people around us.

Is every show like this? Mostly yes, but always to widely varying degrees. The live music industry is set up to profit from alcohol sales: anything meaningful that happens onstage is largely secondary as long as bodies are in the room and money is changing hands. Clubs [can be] easier, [but are often] harder when you’re an opening act and have to set up around the headliner’s stuff and enjoy less than awesome sound. Festivals are much harder: no soundcheck, a short 45-60 minute set (that’s 3-5 songs for us, hardly enough to get through the extended rhythmic hypnosis into deeper planes). There’s sound blaring across the field from one to five other stages, each competing with each other for volume of sound and sun-dazed bodies. You just try to project, cut through all the static, and get your musical point across.

After 22 years, the shows can blur together. We’ve put on somewhere around 2000 of them and I’d be lying if I could give you details about every single one, or most of them, for that matter. However, there are shows that remain indelible regardless of how much time has passed. These are the shows where what we do, and the response we hope to achieve, is in full alignment and together with the audience; where we have created a utopia- at least until the music stops and hopefully longer, after the show ends.

One such show was in Bergen, Norway. I looked it up—May 23, 2007. It was around our tour for the “Security” album. We had two shows set up in an art centre in a converted former cannery. Our first show was a morning matinee. We all grumbled at having a ridiculously early soundcheck (and slightly complicated and painstaking, if I remember correctly) sometime around the breakfast hour. Back in the dressing room, the morale was not high. “A show this early?” “Who was the show for?” “A bunch of kids coming through, apparently.” “That could be cool.”

We went through our warm up and took the stage, and couldn’t believe our eyes. The room was nearly full, and more kids were trickling in, all between the ages of seven and fourteen. As we took the stage they erupted into applause, despite never having seen or heard of us. We felt welcome and appreciated. As I scanned the crowd, I noticed something else—the students were of numerous racial and ethnic groups besides just Norwegian. There were Arab boys and girls, kids from Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq, all scattered in the crowd amongst the Norwegian kids.

We began to play—Amayo led the audience in beautiful call and responses throughout the show. Despite our lyrics not being in Norwegian—nor any of the half dozen or so mother tongues of the newly arrived students—they were adept listeners and enthusiastically sang back their parts to us with near perfect intonation. I wish it could have gone on forever, the vibe was so beautiful.

Among the many beautiful moments was one in particular that I’ll never forget. Towards the back of the room, there was a precociously tall Norwegian kid of nearly twelve or thirteen. At some point early in the show, he had helped the smallest of the kids, an East African kid of about seven, up onto his shoulders so he could actually see and enjoy the concert. Then, towards the end, we invited both of them and a bunch of other kids onstage to dance with us. That small gesture of self-awareness and thoughtfulness gave me hope that maybe the next generation of kids might be able to figure things out that previous generations haven’t been able to.

That show in particular, was one where we came as close as we could to achieving what we aspire to do – to create a vibe where voluntarily positive interactions and connections are made, where people breathe together, sing, dance, and hopefully leave the show recharged and on the way to being better versions of themselves.

Often times the one to two hours we have onstage is the only time that life makes sense, that we are doing what we’ve been put on the earth to do, as musicians, as artists, and as fellow human beings. We hope that this light will multiply again, and again, over and over, on the dance floor, out into the street, into the homes, schools, workplaces, sacred sites, parks, and beyond. That is why we keep on doing it.

– Martin Perna