Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra Electrifies at the Belly Up!

by Tom Nguyen

Last night was an incredible show by Antibalas at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. My first time at this beautiful and historic venue was just last year, to see Salif Keita, and let me tell you a secret I’ve quickly learned: if an act is playing both in Los Angeles AND at the Belly Up, it’s worth the drive for me to see them here, because the sound is incredible and the stage is low, up close and intimate!

And in fact, why not see acts twice? After boasting to a gentleman next to me, that we’d driven 2 hours to be here, he told us he’d driven 3 hours from Moorpark! Brett says Antibalas is a “2 show band” — meaning if they play 2 shows in the area, it’s worth the drive, and he’s seeing them again at their Saturday Los Angeles show at The Regent!

I made the drive with Vanna Mae Art and DJ Glenn Red, who’s been coming to the Belly Up since 1996. We got there in time to catch the last few songs of Here Lies Man, a psychedelic rock group fronted by Marcos Garcia (Chico Mann) and whose percussionist Rich Panta, we know quite well from Very Be Careful. Chico Mann is also the rhythm guitarist in Antibalas, but with Here Lies Man, he gets to really showcase his vocals and rock guitar solos — it’s an audacious mix of what he calls “Afro Rock….What if Black Sabbath played Afrobeat?”  

11-member-strong Antibalas took to the stage and every song they play is a powerhouse of rich texture and powerful sound. To the uninitiated, Antibalas songs, in the tradition of Afrobeat, unfold like a story, taking the audience on a journey. In fact, Afrobeat is just one incarnation of a rich West African tradition and importance of storytelling. The musician, the storyteller, the carrier of oral history, are one and the same. Singer Amaro in his bright clothing and facepaint is the mesmerizing musical shaman who prefaces many of the songs with whimsical stories as the music starts with a slow simmer.

Then, when all four horns kick in, it’s a wall of sound that takes over my body! The riffs they play commands the audience to respond, and to further remind folks that participation is mandatory, in the African musical tradition of call and response, Amaro often led the crowd in chants, like “Be in the Moment!”, lyrics in Nigerian Yoruba, and one that he had the audience repeat throughout the night “Deep! Unconditional Love!”

Don’t be fooled by their 8 song set list…each song is usually over 10 minutes long, and watching my clock, the 1st three songs were 40 minutes combined! I was lucky to be situated in front of Will Rast on keyboards (his organ solos were gold), and Reinaldo de Jesus on congas, who kept up the steady Afro-Latin rhythms that pulse throughout their music. And whenever their songs crescendo into a climax, with the full ensemble of horns, with Antibalas founder Martín Perna on baritone sax, guitars and drums, it’s pure musical bliss!

Like Fela Kuti songs, many Antibalas songs are commentaries on social justice and the evils of power and corruption, like “Dirty Money”, and introducing their final song, “Gold Rush”, Perna says the song is about those who try to commoditize natural resources. He highlighted that Nestle Waters North America is trying to take municipal water from his Appalachia, Pennsylvania community, and that it’s happening everywhere, like right here in our state, in Arrowhead, San Bernardino.

Perna thanked folks for coming out, and by a show of hands of who’s been to their shows the last 20 years, there were a lot of first-timers, who had no idea what Afrobeat was, but were dancing non-stop to Antibalas’ infectious, rhythmically addicting, almost 2 hour set!

One of those was Soleil, of North Park, San Diego, who’s been coming to the Belly Up since 2000, but had never seen Antibalas — he showed off some serious dance moves that got us into synchronized line dancing with him. That’s one of my favorite things about going to shows…meeting folks with good vibes, who aren’t afraid to let loose and express themselves.

And the good vibes continue this weekend….here’s where you need to be: see Antibalas this Saturday, March 10, with another favorite LA band of mine, Ethio Cali, playing a special set to honor the late Hugh Masekela, at The Regent. Before the show, you can catch Vanna Mae Art live painting along with many other boss ladies at Las Fotos Project annual benefit Viva La Muxer at Plaza de la Raza. Glenn Red and his crew La Junta put on their monthly free Afro Latinx tropical dance party, Piña, tonight Friday, March 9, at El Dorado, with special guest Chief Boima (INTL BLK, Sierra Leone). AND….Glenn wants to come back to the Belly Up for Galactic on March 29, and I want to come for Ibeyi on April 16 (it’s their only other SoCal appearance outside of Coachella, and it WILL sell out!).

New friends Soleil, Ida and Brett we met at The Belly Up

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