[AFROBEAT-AMERICAN] If Afrobeat has a mecca, it is, appropriately enough, the Shrine. Like New York's CBGB for punk rockers or Hamburg's Star-Club for Beatles fanatics, the nightclub, located in Lagos, Nigeria, is a sacred institution for acolytes of the late activist-songwriter Fela Kuti and the brand of Africanized funk he pioneered. Founded by Kuti in the 1970s, the Shrine, where he often played with his band, the Africa '70, stood as an oasis of freedom in an increasingly dictatorial military state. But for Antibalas singer-percussionist Abraham Amayo, who grew up down the road from the club, the Shrine was just the place where his cool soccer-star uncle used to hang out, and it only held an allure because his parents forbid him to go.
"I was always grounded whenever I went," Amayo says over the phone from Brooklyn, "but I always found a way to jump a fence and get in there."
Raised on Afrobeat's vibrant horns, trance-inducing polyrhythms and aggressive political conscience, Amayo admits that, for a long time, he took the music, and the fact he spent his childhood a block away from its epicenter, for granted. Seeing him perform today—his face slathered in war paint, dreadlocks exploding from his head—it's hard to imagine he was ever unaware of the power of Kuti's invention. But it wasn't until he moved to New York in the late '90s and fell in with a group of Kuti-worshiping, American-born musicians that Amayo began to re-engage with the sounds of his youth. "I started looking at [Afrobeat] again from a different perspective," he says. "It gave me an opportunity to get closer to the music I grew up with."
Over the last decade, Afrobeat has experienced an international renaissance, thanks to reissues of the Fela Kuti discography and the acclaimed off-Broadway play based on his life. When Antibalas (Spanish for "bulletproof") started, though, about a year after Kuti's AIDS-related death in 1997, the music was still mostly a foreign curio, familiar only to obsessive record collectors. So when Antibalas founder Martin Perna tracked down Amayo, who owned a clothing store in Brooklyn and organized fashion shows featuring Nigerian percussionists, and tried to recruit him into his new Afrobeat-inspired band, Amayo was impressed—to a point. "I wasn't completely blown away, but it was cool," he says of seeing one of the group's early shows. "It was like, wow, something is about to go down."
Eventually, Amayo signed on, and Antibalas has evolved into the United States' premier Afrobeat orchestra. Along the way, the band picked up pieces of other genres, from Latin jazz to hip-hop, to the point that, by the time of 2007's Security, it was using Afrobeat merely as a jumping-off point. On its new self-titled album, however, the band resets after a four-year break—several members took time off to work on the Fela! musical—returning to the pure, protest-minded funk of classic Kuti.
"It was more a decision from where we are, or where we got to," Amayo says. "You depart and go as far as you can go, then you come home again. In a metaphorical way, we all came back home." Literally, too: For the album, the band returned to its original studio and signed with Daptone Records, the soul-revival label co-founded by ex-Antibalas member Gabriel Roth. But Amayo says the band doesn't plan to stay home too long: "It's just the beginning of, hopefully, the journey we're about to embark on."
SEE IT: Antibalas plays the Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE 39th Ave., with Stay Calm on Saturday, Dec. 8. 7 pm. $16 advance, $18 day of show. 21+.