I went from Lagos to Badagry, I came upon a crossroad / to my left was Permaculture, and to my right was a path of no return. / So I meditated, to feel the ancestors / I soared up Kilimanjaro to gain an outer worldly perspective / I realized I must detach from crooked hooks, detach from life's difficulties / detach, detach...
—“Hook & Crook,” from the 2017 Antibalas recording Where the Gods are in Peace
The sound of Antibalas (Spanish for “bulletproof”) is thunderous. When this 15-piece horn-heavy ensemble is on stage, the effect is orchestral. Interlocking rhythms create a form of internal combustion, a self-generating energy source. In fact, two large, highly influential ensembles primarily inspired it—Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra and Fela Kuti’s Africa 70.
Fela, of course, is the originator and standard bearer of Afrobeat. Anything done in tribute to him must emulate, somehow, his charisma and his compositional genius. Antibalas takes up this implicit challenge, wearing its success lightly and surely. Their sets have a visceral power, a loose-yet-tight groove that just rolls and rolls. In the Fela fashion, a 15-minute workout is nothing to this crew, and it barely feels long enough to let every finely honed element find expression. All the band members are steeped in this music; the rhythm section is unfaltering, and the horn players bring all the requisite honk and holler. Rather than being imitative, the music feels rooted by a natural connection, so there is an ease to it. It swings, as the ancients used to say, like a house on fire.
At its dead center is Amayo. He is tall, imposing, wearing a brightly colored headdress, yet somehow gentle-seeming, lacking Fela’s slight air of menace. Instead, he floats on the beat, playing percussion and providing that hypnotic central focus that almost every great ensemble possesses or, by necessity, creates. Growing up in Lagos, he hung out at The Shrine, Fela’s legendary club, and absorbed its lessons. One came from an unlikely source. Walking by a Chinese restaurant, with its mysterious high wall, on his way home from school, he glimpsed around the corner a sign referencing “the third eye.” That simple phrase bred in him a lifelong fascination with finding some different way forward, a chance to integrate the myriad influences that played all around him.
Amayo came to New York in the mid ’90s, following a range of pursuits—promoting parties, designing clothing, studying and teaching martial arts—before finally diving into music. He is a confluential figure, the type described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point (2007) as a connector. All roads seem to flow to and through him. After first living on the Lower East Side, he became a longtime resident of Williamsburg, moving there when Grand Street storefronts were largely bare and the high-rise waterfront was only a gleam in various developers’ eyes. “I had a dojo down the street where I used to give classes,” he says. “I gave some to several of the guys who wound up being at the core of Antibalas.” He sees his position within the band as akin to performing a role: “They needed a central figure, so I became that.”
Though he now lives in Williamsburg, for long stretches of the last 20 years, life for Amayo was on the road with Antibalas. Numerous world tours led them to play in more than 35 countries, from Japan to Portugal, and, in their home base of New York, from Carnegie Hall to a performance at Rikers Island. As it was for Fela, social justice is a central issue for the band. Its 2004 release was titled Who Is This America?, and the question has only gotten more vexing. He quotes Barack Obama on the stubborn return of racist ideas in this country: “A dying mule kicks the hardest.”
As much as the repertoire of Antibalas is based on music from Nigeria, it is an ensemble that speaks directly of its home base in New York. The stated debt to Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra is evident in many other aspects of the band’s music, notably its effort to fuse disparate elements, as that ensemble did with Latin music and rock. They reflect a number of the cultural groups that inhabit this still international city, refracted through the lens of Afrobeat.
“I’ve always been involved in music and art,” says Amayo, yet he traces the study of Kung Fu as his longest-term love, begun at the age of 10 and still strong. “Through martial arts, I’ve always sought balance,” he says in an interview. “It’s taken me 40 years to find my balance.” His physically controlled, sinuous live performances for Antibalas demonstrate his lithe, powerful presence, but the Kung Fu-inspired work is more a matter of bringing to bear some of its philosophical precepts. “The martial arts movement is a reflection of resilience,” he says. “The five-petal flower that can grow in any environment.” He has initiated a project called FU-ARKIST-RA in an effort to integrate this interest in the movements and philosophy of Kung Fu with his musical expression.
Yet another project is Armo, a smaller but still powerful ensemble made up of several Antibalas members. It reflects the reality of how difficult it is to keep a large group together. “It’s so hard, with people all over the place,” he says. “A group this size gives us more of a chance to play.” They trace their influences to a wide range of sources, citing Sun Ra, James Brown, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, and traditional Yoruba music, as well as Afrobeat. This ensemble will be at Bar LunÁtico on January 11. (A musician-run spot, the brilliantly curated club has become a kind of home base for Amayo.) He and his fellow Antibalas members have also served as a backing band for large tributes to Aretha Franklin and Talking Heads, among others.
In the same spirit as their rhythmic fusion of loose and tight, they also embody other seeming paradoxes: engagement and detachment, resistance and acceptance. “Being too emotionally charged can blind you,” he says. Again, martial arts provides the framework: “It allows you to stand better on the ground, to walk with awareness,” he says. The salutation at the beginning of the practice is key, demanding mental presence and respect for one’s opponent. As his FU-ARKIST-RA track from 2016, “Fist of Flowers,” suggests, kindness and beauty are at the root.
Amayo regularly leads his audiences in a recitation of the phrase “deep, unconditional love” as a way of breaking through our tendency toward social alienation. He has trained for and frequently performed the Lion Dance, a ritual most often seen at traditional Chinese celebrations. It begins with an act of conjuring, of calling the lion to life. With its overtones of power and grace, it unites ancient and modern. “Having respect for tradition requires you to go much deeper,” he says. It is this expanded frame of reference, this wider consciousness, that allows him to see Badagry—the Lagos-adjacent city that was one of the central sites of the slave trade—not only as the point of no return, but also, irrevocably, as the point of departure.