Antibalas in El Barrio

Saturday February 18th in East Harlem, Carnegie Hall brought their neighborhood concerts to the historic El Museo del Barrio. Harlem, a neighborhood that is historically black and Latinx, got to experience a fusion of their culture embodied in the musical group: Antibalas. El Museo del Barrio tries to bring these events to their community regularly and for free or a low cost. This event was part of their Super Sabado program, but they’ve had other events such as lectures featuring the prominent Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz. Music, however, is a particularly strong way to immerse one’s self in culture. It also acts as a point of connection for many within the community and outside of it. This event was attended by a very diverse crowd, including a group of Eastern European women sitting near me. The band itself, Antibalas, was made of about twelve men. Though it was led by its black and Latinx members, there were a few members of other cultures who were involved as well.

Antibalas is a Brooklyn-based band composed of saxophones, trumpet, trombone, vocals, guitars, keyboard, bass, vibraphone, drums and percussion (congas and woodblocks). Their sound is a unique mixture of funk, jazz and afrobeat. Their inspiration stems from Fela Kuti and his afrobeat grooves, but their keyboardist harbors similarities with the playing style of Ray Manzarek from The Doors. The primary focus of this band resides in its brass and percussion sections which dominate both the rhythm and melody. Each member of the band had a specific role to fulfill. As a large band like this can be challenging to control, communication between one another is key. They immediately exemplified how talented and tight they were in their performance. Catchy guitar riffs, an insane keyboard solo on top and dense percussion lines mixed with call-and-response melodies from the horn section marked the beginning of Antibalas’ performance.

There was an amalgam of texture and timbre coloring the first song, which lasted about 12 minutes. The piece kept building up, leading to the vocalist emerging and calling for the audience to repeat his phrases; the audience gladly cheered the lines in excitement. As the dynamic died down, funky repeating guitar riffs settled into the mix. The band also responded to specific vocal cues by the lead singer in a call-and-response form. The lead singer began chanting, “Go up! Go down!” and the band repeated his continuous line in response. Dynamics began to build louder and louder as melodic phrases from the horn section colored the background, bringing it back to the powerful introduction with a few variations throughout. The audience was so impressed and eager to applaud that they started clapping and dancing right before the final climax.

Each song gave the audience much more than expected. They clapped to the beat as much as possible. If this wasn’t a seated event, everyone would have been dancing from the beginning. Behind each dense percussive horn driven line, a complex yet controlled and danceable drum beat was laid. Each musician had their own spotlight in one song where they would solo to showcase the talent that is Antibalas. As the last song began, the audience started to lift from their seats, unable to control themselves after an hour of outstanding music. They began to dance, both on their own and with others. The band, in response, turned the event into a wild party. Steady and fast dance rhythms grew in power while the trombonist burst out a solo that blew everyone away and empowered the entire band. An encore was definitely in order and requested by the audience who were engaged throughout the performance. In addition to their outstanding musical talent, Antibalas embodied an approach that gave the audience an even greater gift: a true community experience.


Here’s a taste of Antibalas:


  1. Nice description of this exciting music by Antibalas, Michael, and a sensitive cultural reading of the event as well.
    How much of their music as overtly political as the video you selected? Is Antibalas inspired by Fela Kuti’s politics as well as his music? For those unfamiliar with his music, perhaps someone can do a little internet research and find some good links to share here in the comments. This fits really nicely with the coming topic for March 6-8 Global Musical Encounters so let’s revisit this concert in class.

    • From what I heard at the concert they were mainly an instrumental band with minimal lyrical content. I’m sure their core beliefs fall within the same range as Fela Kuti’s politics, I’ll have to actually dig into more of their material to find that out.

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