Few will deny that America has some serious problems. Our troubles read like Apocalyptic signs: The war on Terror. The threat of war on Iraq. The faltering economy. Corporate scandals.
Hell, not since the Cold War have American citizens felt the palpable, visceral fear of nuclear attack. And more than a small minority don't have full confidence in George W.-the wizard behind this post-utopian Oz.
"It's really frightening," says Martin Perna, founding member of Antibalas (Spanish for "anti-bullets" or "bulletproof"), regarding the current state of America.
Perna, a New York City resident, has seen the aftermath of 9/11 firsthand. He lives about two miles from Ground Zero and admits that things have gotten back to normal... maybe a little too normal.
"Things are really, in many ways, the same," he says. "We're supposed to be at war, but everyone is still going out drinking. Some people are without jobs, but everyone's buying the same shit. Everybody's watching TV. We all still remain in this bubble of ignorance, disconnected from the responsibilities of being global citizens."
A baritone saxophonist, Perna formed the Brooklyn-based Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra in 1997. As it stands, there are roughly 20 people involved in the multi-cultural group, including percussionists, horn players, guitarists and dancers. It's Afrobeat-drawing heavily from funk, Latin and African rhythms, jazz and the upbeat West African dance music known as highlife.
To really get a sense of Afrobeat music, however, we need look to its main progenitor, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Fela and his Africa 70 band were prominent in 1970s Nigeria, playing fiery, fiercely political music that also happened to be infectiously danceable.
Fela was as important to Africa as Bob Marley was to Jamaica-a cultural icon who symbolized insurgence in the face of oppression. Fela's rebellious presence was strong enough to provoke the Nigerian government to burn down his recording studio and attack members of his band in 1977. Though his grandmother was thrown from an upstairs window and he himself suffered a fractured skull in the attack, Fela remained vigilant. He formed his own political party (Movement of the People) in 1979 and continued to play Afrobeat until complications from AIDS killed him in 1997.
Perna takes no offense that Antibalas is frequently compared to Fela.
"He set such a high standard that it's always a goal of ours to try to meet that when we play, and shoot to create that intensity, that urgency, that groove," he says.
Like Fela, the music and politics of Antibalas are inseperable. And with a collective so large, they're not short of conflicting opinions. They find common ground, however, in the philosophies of nonviolence and anti-warfare-ideas that Fela espoused decades earlier.
For his part, Perna is outspoken, at least in terms of America's current political climate, where patriotism and faith in the U.S. government are the norm. He considers himself an anarchist but is quick to point out that his personal politics are much more complex.
"It's not just something I call myself. It's something that you have to live because anybody can say they're anything. I could say I'm a communist or a conservative," he explains.
"A lot of it is just common sense. The world is a really fucked up place and how did we get to that? It's by giving all of these corporations our money on a daily basis."
Perna's comments ring particularly valid these days, as Bush's "Corporate Responsibility" campaign attempts to clean up the mess left by unscrupulous corporations like Enron and WorldCom. But Perna contends that real change starts with the individual.
"People need to be more responsible for every action that they have because as the world becomes more interconnected financially and culturally, everything affects everything," he says.
For Perna, even the mundane act of purchasing a soft drink has deeper political meaning.
"When you buy a Coca-Cola, you're not just quenching your thirst, you're empowering Coca-Cola to go colonize some other part of the world where they go in and just totally wipe out the local beverage market, rot people's teeth [and] give them diabetes."
Living and working without the help of corporations is virtually unavoidable in America, however. So far, Antibalas has kept their music out of corporate rock's clutches, signing with Ninja Tune, a record label that mainly specializes in underground electronica. Antibalas has released two full-lengths on the label-2001's Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 and 2002's Talkatif.
"Being on an indie label means, in some senses, that we have to make a lot more sacrifices," Perna says. "On the other hand, it means that we don't have a bunch of assholes in suits and ties telling us what we have to do and what we don't have to do in order to fulfill our obligations to them."
Due to the size of Antibalas, touring is an immense undertaking, especially without major label money. On top of that, the group has to deal with stingy club owners who often treat the 15-plus member collective as a four-piece band when it comes to paying them to play.
The band is in the process of applying for grants so they can tour parts of the Third World like Nigeria, Mexico and South America. Through Antibalas' past tours of Europe and Canada, Perna says he gained perspective on America's domestic problems.
"Since September 11th, I've been out of the country probably about seven months. You kind of get a better picture of what's going on in America when you leave America," he says. "In America we can push a button and drop a bomb and whole bunch of people die, and it's just business as usual here. America is a very big bubble.
"You go to where people get the ass-end of all the good things that we have in America and you realize that every time that we're cruising around the block in our SUV's someone else is paying the price for it."
Perna and the rest of Antibalas are more than outspoken idealists. The collective involves themselves with a number of New York City activist groups and grassroots organizations, such as: Auto-Free New York, which seeks to alleviate the congestion and pollution caused by traffic in New York City; Sista II Sista, a Brooklyn-based education program for young African-American and Latina women; and numerous New York food co-ops.
"All of our actions have deeper repercussions than we give them credit for, and a lot of what the music is about is making people realize how much power they have-empowering them to make changes," Perna says.