Antibalas celebrates 20th year forcefully, masterfully

Duke Amayo sings during the Antibalas 20th anniversary tour stop last night at the Sinclair in Harvard Square.


Antibalas has had the kind of staying power that few bands enjoy. Last night, when the 20th anniversary tour of the Afrobeat ensemble hit the Sinclair in Cambridge, it was obvious why: Antibalas keeps attracting new fans with their infectious beats. The vast majority of the near-capacity crowd must have been in grade school when Martín Perna founded the band in 1998. Yet, there they were, bouncing with the polyrhythmic beats, hooting with glee whenever the first few notes of familiar songs sounded.
Although Perna unfortunately was out last night with what the band’s publicist reported as a case of the flu, the muscular, 12-piece band hardly missed a beat.
Lead singer Duke Amayo, a British-born Nigerian and one of just three original members of Antibalas (“bulletproof” in Spanish), remains the most indispensable part of the group, and he was on point last night. Having been baptized by Afrobeat at The Shrine, in Lagos, Nigeria — home of genre pioneering genius Fela Anikulapo Kuti — he has an uncanny knack for channeling Fela, who died mysteriously the year before Antibalas was  formed. The band’s music is a tribute to his, and Amayo replicates both Fela’s powerful vocals and energetic stage presence. Duke Amayo, in fact, sounds more like the real deal than Fela’s sons.
This is one reason members of Antibalas were featured in the off-Broadway musical “Fela!” in 2008. That caused a momentary lapse in the band’s own work and touring as the production moved to Broadway a year later.
Last night’s show started a little slowly with the relatively sedate “Tombstown,” but once Amayo and the band kicked it into call-and-response mode with “Hook & Crook,” it was full speed ahead. Like a heavily loaded train rattling down the track, the way Antibalas holds it together through the twists and turns is gravity defying. Even as the brass players engage in playful choreography behind Amayo, the musical focus is never lost.
While the players have changed over the 20 years, Amayo likened it to a rambling house. “People may come and go, but this is always our home,” he said.
In keeping with Fela’s tradition of preaching love, togetherness and social consciousness, Amayo pleaded to the audience to remember to “detach” and meditate on life. And he had a mantra — “Deep … Unconditional … Love” — that he asked the audience to frequently repeat during the show.
The highlights included a raucous rendition of “Gold Rush” from the latest Daptone album, “Where the Gods Are in Peace.” The song addresses the exploitation of indigenous communities, whether in America historically or Africa presently, in pursuit of natural resources and riches. The brass section dramatically uses it horns to pantomime digging and pick-axing when not playing its parts. The 15-minute encore, a cover of Fela’s “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power),” was the most powerful song of the evening, and brought opener Cochemea Gastelum, former player in Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, back to the stage for a frantic and powerful finish.
About the only disappointment on the night besides the absence of Perna, is that Amayo has jettisoned keyboard player Will Rast in favor of playing the keys himself, to less-than-stellar results. Amayo is so engaged on stage to begin with, it seems like a needless distraction to him and the listeners.