It’s been five years since the United Nations declared that 2015 to 2024 would be the International Decade of People of African Descent, and a year since Ghana initiated the Year of the Return, inviting descendants of enslaved African people to come home, explore their heritage, and even seek citizenship. It’s also been a century since Jamaican civil rights activist Marcus Garvey initiated the Back to Africa Movement.
These events have long played a role in drawing well-deserved attention to the resilience of a continent that has long been exploited through colonization, slavery, and intense mining of its natural resources. And though traveling to Africa requires a substantial degree of planning, South Floridians can catch a glimpse of its musical offerings through the Rhythm Foundation’s two African music concerts being staged this week. This Thursday, January 23, 3MA — a trio of African stringed-instrument players — will strum up a sweet soundscape of three continental corners: Mali, Madagascar, and Morocco. Then, on Friday, January 24, New York’s legendary Afrobeat outfit Antibalas will thrust audiences into what ought to feel like a transatlantic jam cruise featuring an energetic fusion of Latin and Yoruba rhythms.
“We play instruments that are really born in Africa,” Malian 3MA member Ballaké Sissoko says, adding that his instrument, the kora, is the one that reaches the farthest across the continent. It originally comes from what is now Gambia but is played widely in the region in present-day Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Guinea. Meanwhile, Malagasy artist Rajery represents the sounds of East Africa through Madagascar’s valiha, and Moroccan artist Driss El Maloumi uses the oud to fuse North Africa and Europe’s Iberian Peninsula.
“We see and define our trio as an African string project showing that virtuosity and improvisation is possible with traditional instruments, and even coming from three different countries and cultures, we can create a music that can speak to any people of the world,” El Maloumi says.
And though the language of their countries’ French colonizers helps them speak to one another, it was the music that really told them they were destined to collaborate. The artists first met about a decade ago during a music festival in Morocco, and upon hearing one another’s performances, they picked up their instruments and played a harmonious strum session.
“When we started playing, we immediately felt that the communication with us was easy and fluid,” Rajery says.
They’ve since reunited on numerous occasions to record albums — 2008's 3MA and 2017's Anarouz — and tour. Thursday’s performance will mark the first time all three have shared the stage in Miami, and they say that because they’ve spent years interacting with Latin and Caribbean artists, they already “love the groove.”
Antibalas in its current iteration formed about two decades ago in New York City when Nigerian artist Duke Amayo joined the newly formed Afrobeat fusion group onstage, where they meshed African and Latin American sounds.
Amayo — a graphic designer, fashion designer, and martial arts fighter — was living in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and developing a successful clothing line. His project began as a positive-messaging T-shirt initiative for historically black colleges and universities and expanded into Asian- and African-inspired martial arts wear.
Around that time, founding Antibalas members Martín Perna and Gabriel Roth (now known as Bosco Mann) were trying to re-create a conjunto akin to 1960s and '70s Fania All Stars for New York block parties and nightclubs and infuse it with the sounds of Nigeria’s late mod African music legend Fela Kuti. They had come in to check out Amayo’s store and his martial arts space, and after learning he was from Nigeria, they invited him to see one of their performances.
“When I went to watch the band, I was kind of intrigued that someone was playing music from my culture. I was excited to actually see someone attempting to do what most people wouldn't do because, you know, in Nigeria, no one would really do it. That was Fela territory; you don't cross that line,” Amayo says with a chuckle.
Unorthodox or not, the music brought him back to his childhood studying martial arts in Nigeria, where Chinese kung fu was really taking off.
“I grew up listening to Afrobeat music; I grew up doing my martial arts to Afrobeat music. It was my soundtrack; it was my comfort zone,” Amayo says.
Soon he was giving the band members kung fu classes in exchange for an opportunity to compose and perform in the band.
“It became a beautiful relationship. There was a lot of trade-off of ideas, of borrowing,” he says.
In the two decades since, Amayo and Antibalas have channeled the sound and spirit of Fela Kuti in all kinds of ways, the most notable being their participation in the Broadway musical Fela! The show chronicles how Kuti rose to fame in Lagos in the 1970s by fusing traditional African music with James Brown-inspired funk during performances at his nightclubs Afro-Spot and the Afrika Shrine. It then tells of the repression he faced from a hostile Nigerian military, which seized power in a coup in 1966, just three years after Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain.
Amayo was raised between his family’s native Nigeria and in exile in Ghana during those tumultuous times, and he remembers the sense of security and empowerment he gained from practicing kung fu to the music of Fela Kuti. His exposure to Kuti's music came from more than just the legend’s recordings: Amayo lived close to Kuti’s clubs and would sometimes sneak in to hear live shows.
The radical messages he absorbed from Kuti's music would take on new life in 1979, when he moved to Washington, D.C., to attend college at Howard University and later begin a career in advertising. After a few years working as a graphic designer in the Mid-Atlantic’s public utilities industry, he moved to New York to expand his clothing business, build out a dojo studio for kung fu, and produce graphic posters and other ephemera depicting the power and resilience of the world’s many colonized cultures.
Today those are the elements Antibalas fans will notice when they listen to the band’s new album — Fu Chronicles — and view its cover art. The Asian, Afrobeat, and Afro-American funk elements are easily identifiable, and the pacing is sure to cause a related style of martial arts dancing.
Antibalas members say the album is a hypnotic decolonization of the psyche and a window into the limitless dream world of a child’s mind. It also delivers a wide array of African and Asian proverbs and messages about maintaining positive energy and courage in the midst of tense times, making it a fitting soundtrack for the nail-biter of a movie that is present-day America and the current world order.
It’s also a celebration of the 20-year process that has helped Antibalas come into its own.
“It used to be that I was always looking at the music from outside, just enjoying it,” Amayo says, noting his introduction into Antibalas has allowed him to explore his creativity and communication from within. “The only way I knew how to make it was to make it like how I do martial arts.”
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One might even say the long-exploited continent of Africa possesses the culture of resistance and resilience many Americans could use right now. That’s especially true in a place such as South Florida, where many diverse residents have spent a lifetime, and likely generations, grappling with colonial and neocolonial affairs.
The melodic plucking and strumming at Thursday’s 3MA show could certainly take the edge off nerves stirred by this week’s impeachment hearings. And while America’s future probably won’t be clear by the weekend, Friday’s Antibalas show should energize guests to keep up a righteous struggle. The band always says it composes for a hot, tropical country, and South Florida, Amayo says, “has the right temperature for this music.”
3MA. 8 p.m. Thursday, January 23, at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 400 NW 26th St., Miami. Tickets cost $20 via rhythmfoundation.com or $25 at the door.
Antibalas. With Scone Cash Players. 7 p.m. Friday, January 24, in Hollywood Arts Park, 1 Young Circle, Hollywood. Tickets are free with RSVP via rhythmfoundation.com.