It’s not easy being Antibalas.
The Brooklyn-based afrobeat band, currently 12 members strong, is an anomaly in today’s world of three-minute, auto-tuned pop songs and laptop-toting DJs.
On a very basic level, the logistics of travel, accommodations, and dining present unique hurdles for the super-sized group. They’re also up against the inherent challenge of peddling politically charged, eight-minute West African songs to the MTV generation.
But it certainly hasn’t stopped them from trying.
“We’re all very flexible people,” founder/saxophonist Martín Perna told DiscoverSD from a recent tour stop in New Hampshire. “But it’s still like trying to manage a small army of people. And no matter how well we play our music, it’s just not in the cultural DNA of America yet.”
Broadway disagrees. In 2008, Antibalas arranged and performed the score for “Fela!” - the long running musical based on legendary afrobeat forefather Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
And on March 23, the band will return to Carnegie Hall for a tribute to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Byrne - a celebration of the iconic musician’s musical canon featuring singers like Sharon Jones, Cee-Lo Green, Rufus Wainwright, Bebel Gilberto and more.
But in between high-profile guest appearances, the band is always open to collaboration. Their latest is a 29-date co-headlining tour with Belgian singer Zap Mama (Marie Daulne).
And instead of the traditional rotation of switching slots each night, the performances will be a truly collaborative experience.
“It’s not like anything we’ve ever done before,” Perna said. “Zap Mama starts off the show. They play a few songs and we slowly join them on stage. We play a few of our songs, and we end the show with seven or eight songs together. It’s a lot of work, but also very fun.”
For Antibalas fans, it’s also worth noting that the band is working new material into their portion of the set each night. If the timing is right, Perna says there’s a good chance that many of the songs will find their way onto the next Antibalas LP.
“We’re trying out a lot of new songs on this tour,” he said. “It’s great to get the chance to work them out on stage. But finding the time to get all of us into the studio to record them is another thing. That’s a whole other logistical nightmare.”
After 17 years, even with all of the necessary extra planning, Antibalas isn’t about to change. But like their current excursion with Zap Mama, they’re happy to switch things up for a musical good.
“The collaborations are really cool,” Perna said. “And they’re necessary for our survival as a group. It gets trickier when we do our thing in its undiluted form. It’s like going to a Mexican restaurant. They’re not really giving you the real s--t because you couldn’t handle it. A lot of people can’t handle what we do on our own, so we find a bridge to make it more familiar. But music is stronger than that. And we’re committed to doing what we’re doing.”
Antibalas and Zap Mama play the Belly Up on Feb. 22.
Scott McDonald is a writer, on-air personality and consultant with 15 years of experience in the San Diego music scene. He has interviewed hundreds of artists, from the legendary to the underground, for print and television. Follow McDonald and his melodic musings on Twitter @eight24_ or Instagram @scotteight24. Send your music musts to firstname.lastname@example.org.