On the eve of a large pro-war protest in the nation’s capital, it couldn’t have been a better time for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra to return to Ottawa. While the city regularly plays host to weekly anti-war protests, Antibalas (Spanish for anti-bullets) brought along a refreshing message of peace through their trademark concoction of hypnotic afrobeat grooves. Regardless of one’s personal views on the current Middle East conflict, the band’s performance created unity amongst the audience, making you wonder, “When did politically charged music feel this good to dance to?”
The crowd’s enthusiasm was apparent long before the band hit the stage. Maybe it was due to the city’s re-acquaintance with spring, one of the first nights having an above-freezing temperature, but a 45-minute delay in the club’s opening didn’t dim the anticipation of fans.
And these fans came to dance. From the opening horns on “Nyash”, the 12-piece band quickly locked into a groove that immediately propelled the front section of the audience into a small tribal-like dance circle. As the song progressed, the enthusiasm spread throughout the rest of the 300-plus crowd until it reached the back of the club. This passion didn’t only last for the remainder of the 15-minute song; it continued relentlessly throughout the band’s two-hour performance. Yes, Antibalas do play lengthy songs. And while all of their 11 songs exceeded the ten-minute mark, they never lost their intensity.
Having played Ottawa four times in less than two years, Antibalas helped keep the performance fresh by expanding outside the repertoire of their two albums, delivering mostly unreleased material and songs by legendary afrobeat leader, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. It’s evident the band clearly wears Kuti’s influence on their sleeve, embracing the authentic afrobeat sound that fuses a vibrant horn section with intense rhythmic percussion. There’s also no doubt each individual member brings his own influences that contribute to the band’s overall sound, from the funk-styled guitar riffs to the freestyle jazz drumming of Phil Ballman.
In addition to a single red fluorescent light, Antibalas’ own stage presence highlighted the visual element of the show. Closely grouped together on stage, members swayed to the rhythm all while communicating through hand signals to indicate section changes. But the band’s overall strength is in the sum of their instrumental parts. Put them all together, and you have a performance tighter and even more colorful than the sweater grandma made you years ago.
Despite only having released two albums, Antibalas delivered refreshing new material in both sets. If new songs like “Elephant” are any indication, the next album could prove to become their most successful. Like the title, the song’s rhythm progresses in slow powerful stomps, but then encompasses the smooth trademark porn-groove rhythm. Beginning with the deep baritone sax of Martin Perna, the song soon infuses itself with organ melodies while the beat is held with the rattling percussive shekere instrument.
Another powerful aspect to the afrobeat sound is the ability to convey politics through the instruments themselves, rather than through the testosterone-fuelled rage of other modern groups. But when members of the band decide to speak, it’s straightforward and powerful. The song “Money Talks” was dedicated to living in the United States, where “a newer, bigger blank check is written for war.”
The show reached its pinnacle moment near the end of the night, during a cover of Kuti’s, “Slap Me Make I Get Money”. As the conga rhythms propelled the audience to dance faster, the horn section got everyone dancing harder, questioning my assurance of the club’s “solid” floor. To further intensify this experience, the ceiling’s disco ball, which usually moved slowly in a clockwise direction, was soon rotating like a planet spiraling out of orbit. By this point, the majority of the audience had discarded their last remnants of winter clothing as the club reached a disgustingly high level of humidity. The club’s moisture soon evacuated outside along with a tired audience that had spent nearly two-hours dancing.
Not surprisingly, it poured several hours later.