Antibalas: A Sense of Community

By Brett Sigurdson, Burlington Writers Workshop


A review of Antibalas, who performed June 11 under the Waterfront Tent for Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.


“Let’s take some of the chill out of the air,” said Steeve Valcourt, guitarist for Haitian music collective Lakou Mizik, before kicking into one of the joyful, high-spirited songs off the band’s debut album Wa Di Yo (released by Charlotte’s Cumbancha label). Opening for headliner Antibalas on another cold June night in Burlington, Lakou Mizik warmed the crowd slowly filling the Waterfront Tent with its exuberant take on traditional Haitian music. Indeed, the nine-member band brought its infectious sound and message of hope to the masses literally during the last song of the set, the soaring “Wa Di Yo,” when it descended into the audience for an extended percussion chant, one of my favorite moments of the night.

This notion of building a connection between band and audience continued with Antibalas’s set, as did the hot south-of-the-Equator sounds. The band specializes in Afrobeat, the lovechild sound of James Brown, John Coltrane, Santana, and Gerald Pino, and it wasted little time in showing the audience its own take on the genre with the night’s second song, a blistering “Dirty Money.”

The song was an apt overview of the allure of Afrobeat, especially as interpreted by Antibalas. Think of it as the Vermont town meeting of music genres. At its heart, this is music about building and fostering community, an exercise in bringing people together to raise issues and effect change. The foundation of the Afrobeat sound is the call-and-response structure of the songs, which is predicated on input and commentary from the musicians. The chief concern of its lyrics is largely and overtly political in nature (Donald Trump and wealth inequality were frequent targets of Antibalas’s lyrics). “My intention is to get you to feel how I feel,” said Amayo, Antibalas’s magnetic singer and percussionist, who acted as a sort of moderator for the proceedings, conducting the musicians with wild gesticulations and dance moves.

But like jazz (and town meeting), Afrobeat thrives on the power of the individual, and all 14 members of Antibalas had a chance to provide a voice to the proceedings through their instruments. Sometimes the solos were passionate, outspoken, especially those from saxophonist Jas Walton. Other times they were subtle but forceful, as trumpeter Jordan Maclean illustrated throughout the night. Yet, the music always came back to a greater cause, the larger discussion, as each solo ended with all of the musicians playing a boisterous chorus, in unison.

The context for creating the Afrobeat milieu isn’t the town hall, nor is it the stage, for these are too exclusive. Rather, it is the venue, and the entire audience is brought into the music’s sense of community. On this night, revelers danced from the outskirts of the tent to the pit, young and old, funksters and jazz cats, during songs like “Him Belly No Go Seet” and “The Ratcatcher” and “Sáré Kon Kon.”

The only dissenting view on this night came from the audience when the show ended—much too soon for this reviewer—and many called for an encore the band didn’t deliver, likely due to curfew. Instead, we all departed the tent, the night feeling cooler than before.