When you're a band sporting a fiery left-wing message and rolling about 15 deep in a multiethnic caravan that looks like a UN delegation which took a wrong turn, cornfed Middle America presents certain challenges. Imagine, for example, what the reaction at highway truck stops must be to New York Afrobeat band Antibalas, with its various skin tones and cacophony of accents.
Then again, maybe not. According to the group's tenor sax man, Stuart Bogie, Antibalas doesn't actually turn too many heads.
"People in gas stations love Antibalas," he says with what sounds like sarcasm (but later reveals itself to be bona fide optimism). "People are very curious. They're excited. It's a little bit of a pain in the ass in restaurants, but that has nothing to do with the politics. It's because we're some picky eaters — and shitty tippers. Wait, I didn't say that!"
Indeed, that kind of reputation can get a band in trouble even more than its political views. But what would you expect from a band that cites Nigerian firebrand and Afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti as its chief inspiration, frequently covering his songs?
Don't call it a tribute act, though. Antibalas stakes its own creative territory. Repeating grooves until they become hypnotic, the musicians lay down polyrhythms that are as concise and economical in the way they fit together as they are intricate when taken as a whole. Factor in wailing horns and a rabble-rousing message, and audiences can't resist moving something.
Bogie, however, insists that the band's politics don't incite negative reactions at shows.
"Every now and then," he says, "you used to hear somebody yell, 'Ah, get off your soapbox' or 'Go back to playing music' or something like that. But, you know, we're growing and we're changing. Now, when we talk about these things, there's more wisdom and more humor — 99.9 percent of the time, the response is enthusiastic. You hear stories from the soundman when we play festivals that sometimes people will get up and run out."
As for his own political views, Bogie waxes optimistic.
"If I do my share," he says with a laugh, "things are going a fraction better. If we have — what, 300 million people? — things are going one-300-millionths better. If everybody in the band does, then they're going 12 300-millionths better."