Big vibe: 12-piece band spreads the love
It can't be easy keeping a 12-piece band together. Personality management, traveling long distances in close quarters, astronomical food and room expenses- these things can really cause a strain on group dynamic over time. However, as long as the music is right and a positive vibe remains among the players, those other issues are small potatoes.
At least that is what the road manager for 12-piece Afro-beat ensemble Antibalas tells me. It was very important for me to buddy up with someone who knows this music well.
Don't get me wrong. I have some great Afro-beat in my home collection. The rhythms are absolutely addictive, not to mention the profound effect the music has had on contemporary popular American music.
But, to tell you the truth, it's pretty darn difficult to tell the difference between some of the jams (it's not uncommon for jams to last seven to 10 minutes). Misha (the manager/merch guy) was just the person to keep me on track. I traded him a cigarette for a band sticker. From there on, we formed a great bond.
He explained to me that this was Antibalas' first time south of the Mason-Dixon Line and that they hadn't expected to get half the crowd that was in the room. He was also quick to point out that almost all the songs in the set were original, unreleased material.
The first cover the band broke out was "Excuse-Al" by the king of Afro-beat, Fela Kuti. The only thing missing that kept the song from being as good as the original was female back-up singers. Even another hand drum on stage may have sent the keys player falling off the edge, considering there were already two saxes, two trumpets, two guitarists, a bass, a trombonist, drummer, vocalist, percussionist, and keyboardist.
Misha also explained to me that there was no specific bandleader in the group. The trombonist usually gave cues to go into new sections of the songs, but that was only because he was centrally located in the line of musicians. Even without a definitive director, Antibalas never seemed to misstep. Even if you (god forbid) got bored with the meditative groove, lead vocalist Amayo, with his full head of dreadlocks and animated body, was enough to keep one focused.
Toward the end, Antibalas played a tune from their most recent album, Talkatif, released earlier this year on Ninja Tunes Records. I tried to get Misha to trade an Antibalas T-shirt for another cigarette. He quickly explained to me the necessity for a band that large to make every penny they could. There was a lot of love in the room, but not that much love.
I thanked him for his help and walked off to stand in the middle of the room- where the music was most right and the vibe was nothing but positive.
PHOTO BY DAMANI HARRISON