Antibalas to headline Aspen Core Party
IF YOU GO …
Where: Aspen Skiing Co. Hi-Fi Concert Series Core Party (at Galena St. and Cooper Ave.)
When: Saturday, March 31, 8 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: www.aspensnowmass.org
With its famed horns section blaring, the 12-piece Afrobeat band Antibalas has been carrying on the righteous firebrand spirit of Fela Kuti for two decades.
The Brooklyn-based collective, which will play Aspen Skiing Co.’s free Core Party on Saturday night, puts a contemporary spin on the dance-driven Afrobeat sound that brings in touches of hip-hop and punk but holds tight to the genre’s roots in political activism.
Antibalas’ tactics have shifted, however, in the Trump era.
“We don’t want our shows to be a rally against anything,” Martin Perna, Antibalas baritone saxophone player and founding member, said in a recent phone interview. “We want our shows to be a rally for something. However you voted in the last election, you’re welcome. We’re not going to lure you in and berate you.”
In the activist tradition of Afrobeat, Antibalas in the past has written songs that name names and rip stories from the headlines.
On 2004’s riotous jazz freakout “Indictment,” for instance, the singer Amayo yells for George W. Bush and administration officials to face criminal charges. The 2007 song “Filibuster XXX” targets Dick Cheney, lobbyists, the Republican Party, Bill Frist and the “whole corporate senate.”
There are no such specific protests against President Donald Trump on the band’s new album, “Where the Gods are in Peace.” The record instead works in metaphor and with bigger themes, often using imagery of cowboys and the West to look at American greed and violence.
“One of the narratives is this idea of the Gold Rush and the West as this limitless frontier, with unlimited resources for the taking,” Perna explained. “Where anyone and anything that’s in the way is just an inconvenience. We wanted to conjure images of that and tie it into what’s happening today in the world.”
Perna lives in the mountains in western Pennsylvania, a much-analyzed Trump stronghold in the 2016 election. He recalled a show in Pennsylvania last summer when a friend and neighbor, who supported Trump, came to an Antibalas show and left because he felt threatened. The experience shook up Perna and his bandmates, and inspired them to try to bridge the country’s bitter political divide in their performances.
“I don’t want anyone to ever feel they don’t belong at an Antibalas show,” Perna said. “At this moment I think the most powerful thing we can do is create a sanctuary for people who come to see us.”
The band’s change in approach is, in part, philosophical and in part practical, Perna said: philosophical because Antibalas want to be more inclusive across the political spectrum; practical because the news cycle is so head-spinning in the Trump era that it’s nearly impossible to write topical songs.
“Even as crazy as it was during the Clinton or Bush era, your mind wasn’t a ping-pong ball every morning,” Perna said on a day when the resignation of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was competing with porn actress Stormy Daniels for headlines out of the White House. “It didn’t seem to be productive to write songs based on stuff that’s ripped from the headlines because we couldn’t keep up. … Every morning there’s a scandal that’s bigger than the last.”
To that end, the new song “Hook & Crook” urges listeners to disconnect from the barrage of unrelenting bad news and look at the big picture. Joining the chorus of artists railing against Trump, Perna argued, probably wouldn’t do anybody much good.
“The political firebrand part, it’s necessary but if it was really effective we wouldn’t be in the political situation we’re in right now,” he said. “If our strategy was working and ‘Filibuster XXX’ was effective, George W. Bush would be in jail right now.”
Antibalas, with its dance party protest music, these days isn’t interested in calling out leaders who won’t listen to them. Instead, they want to speak to citizens who might, carrying a message that resonates across the conservative-to-liberal spectrum.
“The end game is not that Donald Trump is lying in a coffin,” Perna said. “It’s that our political system doesn’t allow people like Donald Trump to be president. That begins with people loving themselves, having faith in themselves and feeling like they’re worthy of good government.”
Though Colorado includes one of the Antibalas’ biggest regional followings in the U.S., the band has played here infrequently (due largely, Perna said, to the cost of traveling with its 12 members). Along with the free Aspen show, the band is playing Fort Collins and Denver on this swing through the mountains. Perna last played Aspen on New Year’s Eve in 1999, backing the late Sharon Jones.
Antibalas has made something of a specialty of playing non-traditional venues, often bringing their sounds to the streets, which makes this weekend’s outdoor wintertime show in Aspen a prime showcase for the band.
“We’re going to vibe off the environment and pull as much of the energy, both from the crowd and from the surroundings, as we can,” Perna said.
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