Antibalas keeps Fela’s afrobeat alive

Rating: NNNNNIt started as a joke. Even by the standards set by the Desco label -- notorious for perpetrating the.

Rating: NNNNN

It started as a joke. Even by the standards set by the Desco label — notorious for perpetrating the phony action-film soundtrack The Revenge Of Mr. Mopoji — the Daktaris’ concept of getting members of New York’s Soul Providers to masquerade as a Nigerian afrobeat band was daringly ambitious. But it worked like a charm, and the resulting Soul Explosion album fooled record buyers, radio programmers and concert promoters alike.

It was only when the tour offers started rolling in that they had to confess it was all a hoax. But some of the players enjoyed the session enough to turn the prank into a full-time working band, Antibalas, to keep Fela’s funky groove going.

One of the people who grudgingly admits to falling prey to the clever con was Phil Ballman, then a DJ with an open-format show on New Jersey’s popular WFMU-FM. However, Ballman managed to turn the Daktaris’ flim-flam to his advantage, landing a position as Antibalas drummer under the alias Ekpon Ota.

“A trumpeter friend of mine, Jordan MacLean, knew I played drums and asked me to sit in on percussion for a gig in our neighborhood,” remembers Ballman, er, Ota from his Brooklyn hideout. “We got to the place and all these guys with instruments were sitting around passing a bottle of tequila. I asked Jordan who the band was and he told me they didn’t have a name but they’d made an afrobeat record using the name the Daktaris.

Crooklyn dodger

“To me that was hilarious. Here I thought the Daktaris were some obscure Nigerian group, when in reality it was just a bunch of white guys from Brooklyn. Before the show started, the conga player, Fernando, told me to watch his hand signals so I could follow along with shaker and bells.

“Then someone called a tune from the Daktaris record, and Fernando said the intro was really tricky so I should lay out and wait for his cue. But I knew the song so I just went at it, nailing all the hits right on time. As I glanced at Fernando I could see his mouth hanging wide open. The second we finished, he jumped up and shook my hand, saying, ‘Wow, man, that was brilliant!’ I’ve been in the band ever since.”

Listening to the pounding Antibalas debut disc Liberation Afrobeat (Afrosound), you’d never suspect these fools were from New York. In fact, they roar more like classic Fela chop ‘n’ quench than what either son Femi Kuti or longtime Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen is currently cutting.

Certainly, there must be a few furrowed brows each time Antibalas take the stage, but Ballman says the response has been extremely positive — especially from the Nigerians in the house.

“You’d think we’d get criticized a lot for playing this music, but so far that hasn’t happened. Every time we’ve played, people have been very enthusiastic.

“A couple of weeks ago, we played Fela’s Suegbe & Pako and afterwards this Nigerian guy came up to us, just ecstatic, saying the last time he’d heard that song he was at the Shrine in Lagos when he was just a child. He said, ‘Thank you for keeping this music alive!’ That’s amazing.

American way

“It’s interesting how race issues get tied up with music,” he ponders. “When I was in Haiti recently, I started jamming on a samba rhythm and afterwards people were asking me if I was from Brazil. When someone reads Dostoevsky, no one automatically assumes that person is Russian, but for some reason when music is involved it’s a different story.

“The truth is, afrobeat didn’t really take shape until Fela and the group came to the U.S. in 69 and spent the better part of the year here absorbing the influence of funk and R&B. In a way, knowing that American component exists in afrobeat makes me feel like I belong to this music, too.”

ANTIBALAS, with SUGARMAN 3 and DEE JAY NAV, at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor West), Wednesday (September 20). $10. 532-1598.

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