BEFORE ANTIBALAS, the Dap-Kings, Fela! on Broadway, or even TV on the Radio, there was simply an apartment. Its tenants came from towns across America and beyond, hoping to find like minds in New York. They packed inside the dingy loft like sardines, but scraped by happily. There, a family was born. It remains related through music.
Martín Perna met Gabe Roth at NYU in the mid-'90s. "In the early days Antibalas was my thing, the Dap-Kings was [Roth's] thing," says Perna. The two shared tapes, records, a taste for big arrangements and vintage soul, and eventually band members. "Basically both bands were almost the same group of musicians," explains Perna, who played saxophone in the Dap-Kings while Roth added guitar to Antibalas.
"I was inspired by the political music of Fela [Kuti] and Eddie Palmieri," Perna says of Antibalas' origins. He was equally interested in Latin funk, but lacking an experienced conga player, the band began focusing on afrobeat—Kuti's fusion of African rhythms and James Brown's powerful, horn-driven American funk. Antibalas has since become America's premier practitioner of the style, and members have even been sought by Kuti's original band, including drummer Tony Allen.
"It was an amazing time," Roth remembers of the early days. "We were really roughing it. We were living in some really rough places—sleeping on floors and getting splinters, not having windows and being cold. We were really struggling, you know, but we had a really good time." Among the many roommates in their three homes together was Tunde Adebimpe, singer of TV on the Radio, whose records Perna and Antibalas have contributed to.
The reason the three groups "started in the same apartment," Perna says, is not so much a product of a place or a time. "I think it's heart," he says. "We have a vision for something that nobody else did, and the energy to make it happen." But as Antibalas and the Dap-Kings grew, so did their needs to operate independently. Success was bittersweet, and in 2002 they quit sharing members. "It was real tough," says Roth. "At a certain point we kind of all had to know where we were needed." Or as Perna puts it, "we had to divide our forces to conquer."
Financially and economically, New York eventually became too much for Perna, and in 2005 he left for Austin, Texas. But he's proud the community's musical legacy lives on. "There's very little that happens in New York musically that one of us is not a part of," he explains, mentioning Antibalas' collaborations with the Roots and Public Enemy, plus jazz legend Ornette Coleman, Amy Winehouse, Cee Lo, and Gnarls Barkley. And of course there's Fela!, the Broadway hit based on the life and music of Fela Kuti. A handful of Antibalas members fill out the band and share in the musical direction.
But the repetition of Broadway was never for Perna, or the handful of other Antibalas members who've since spread out across the globe. "New York is, in a lot of ways, like walking in front of the sled," Perna says. "You see all the shit that's coming first but you get snow in your face."
Still, Antibalas are dedicated to continuing the communal bonds forged back in those dirty lofts, even if it means playing less. "You adapt or you die," says Perna. "So we're adapting."