Tuesday, December 1, 2020
As Afrobeat heroes Antibalas arrive, recalling a classic track

As Afrobeat heroes Antibalas arrive, recalling a classic track

The Brooklyn band celebrates 20 years with a new album and three local shows. Their cross-cultural influence still runs deep.

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When Brooklyn’s¬†Antibalas‚ÄĒwidely¬†renowned as one of America’s fiercest live Afrobeat bands‚ÄĒtakes over The Bay for three gigs this weekend (Fri/4 and Sun/16 at The Independent and Sat/15 at The New Parish), they’ll be celebrating their globetrotting 20-year career and the release of new album The Fu Chronicles, full of their signature horns and ebb-and-flow drum swells, and working a unique kung fu theme. (The album was inspired by lead singer Duke Amayo‚Äôs kung fu dojo and the pre-gentrification days of Williamsburg.)

But in their long career, one classic Antibalas track sticks with me. You may have to sip an extra Red Stripe, waiting for their show encore, to witness this tiny piece of balladry they transformed into an anthem. The origins start with a children’s folk song from Ghana called “Che Che¬†Koolay.” That humble seed put Antibalas label Daptone¬†Records‚ÄĒhome to both iconic and now deceased vocalists Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley‚ÄĒon the map to stay in 2004.

Antibalas, which means bulletproof in Spanish, was fashioned after¬†Fela¬†Kuti’s¬†Africa 70 band and Eddie¬†Palmieri’s¬†Harlem River Drive Orchestra, and spun a cultural call to dance into a piece of music that levitated all over the world, speaking to several languages at once.

‚ÄúChe Che Col√©‚ÄĚ, a 1969 Willie Colon-produced Hector¬†Lavoie-sung invitation to dance from his¬†Borinquen¬†salsa album¬†Cosa Nuestra, got flipped by Antibalas into a 12-inch¬†banger¬†of a tune, using a style inspired by Fela‚Äôs Nigerian¬†Afrobeat¬†with stinging vocals by¬†Mayra¬†Vega. The original B-side, a remix by¬†Bosco¬†Mann and¬†Antibalas’ keyboardist Victor “Ticklah”¬†Axelrod, removes most of the band’s parts and¬†recasts the arrangement in the¬†Makossa¬†style of¬†early-’70s Cameroon, by way of¬†Jamaican dub.

What’s so special about that?

For starters, upon release, it was the streets and clubs‚ÄĒconsumers not purveyors‚ÄĒthat declared and made it a hit. Not radio play. Not streaming platforms. Not influencers. Live shows from the band and DJs in the know put the track in the ears of the people. Amplifying that thunderous intro, those talking drums, pushed up so loud in the mastering, DJ’s had to immediately EQ the record down from the previous one, to avoid blowing out the sound system, and going home early and broke from a gig.

No matter if you were in the Lower East Side near Houston Street in NYC, hustling about on a Friday night between nightclubs, galleries, bars and Katz Deli for upholding sustenance, at some point “Che Che¬†Cole” leaped out, booming from the back of an Escalade. 3,000 miles away in SF, if it was a good Friday night,¬†shown¬†by a rhythmically proficient¬†dance floor¬†at¬†Elbo¬†Room on Valencia, “Che Che¬†Cole” got played several times before the funk spilled out on the street just after 2 am.

Antibalas photo by Celine Pinget

According to Oliver Wang, author, host of¬†Heatrocks¬†Podcast, professor and OG San Francisco DJ who now resides in Los¬†Angeles, the song uplifts so many brown folk,¬†it’s inevitable those drums will carry cultural currency forward until infinity.

“The original “Che Che¬†Cole”¬†was done¬†by Willie Colon, the salsa artist. And Willie Colon comes out of this moment in New York-Puerto¬†Rican¬†history, where Latin music and soul music have merged and now become, you know, quite¬†miscegenated. And the song gets covered by¬†Antibalas, which is another New York group an entire generation later, which are these people who are paying homage to¬†Fela¬†Kuti¬†and other Afro-beat artists. It just seemed like a really fantastic collision” Wang said of the record. “And to me, that’s part of what soul does well, too, is to really bring together and embrace a very wide array of¬†musical and cultural influences. If I could just add, I mean, the other thing, too, is that is that’s a very funky song.”

John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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