Dojo Risin’: Amayo, Antibalas, Music and the Martial Arts
As Brooklyn’s premier Afrobeat unit Antibalas celebrates over 20 years in the game,
frontman Duke Amayo realizes a lifelong dream to merge the accumulated wisdom
of his two guiding disciplines—music and kung fu
In the immortal words of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, “Music is the weapon of the future” and, for him, the meaning was literal. Living hard and fast in the oppressive crosshairs of the Nigerian government, he endured a constant state of siege that pushed him to the brink. In the end, he transformed the groove-heavy Afrobeat style he invented into something more than just a mind-body refuge. Each new album he recorded with his groups Africa 70 and Egypt 80—and there are so many, from classics like Roforofo Fight and Zombie to the latter-day rave-ups Army Arrangement and Beasts of No Nation—added to a multi-pronged, militant narrative of struggle, resistance, transcendence and Pan-African empowerment that still resonates loudly, and universally, today.
Abraham “Duke” Amayo still has his ears wide open. “Fela is one of those people who’s always on my altar, you know?” he says, thoughtfully stirring a cup of tea in a Williamsburg café. Growing up in Lagos gave him a front-row seat to the music; as a teenager, he managed to sneak into shows at The Shrine, the famous compound where Fela held court, honored his ancestors, and performed allnight marathons several times a week. “Having been part of this Afrobeat world, it’s my window. When I hear other forms of music, I can’t divorce them from Afrobeat. I see it more now as the king of all sound because it’s directly connected to the clave [rhythm]—the root of communicated music. It has that DNA within it, so my palate, or my whole being, just resonates in that vibration, and I feel the Afrobeat remix everything. It gives me this beautiful way to listen.”
Just a few blocks away, at 340 Grand Street, is the building where, starting in the late 1990s, Amayo followed the muse that led him to the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, as the 12-piece collective was known in their early days. He talks about the space today—which acquired the Fela-inspired name Afro-Spot, but also came to be known affectionately as “Amayo’s 40th Chamber”—with bemused reverence, as though it was a foregone conclusion that he would end up in this section of Brooklyn. At a time when raw, unfinished lofts and struggling mom-and-pop storefronts dotted and defined the neighborhood, it was a risky move.
“When I first came to New York, I said ‘Let me just see what happens,’” he recalls. He teamed up with a Nigerian designer to print T-shirts, eventually launching his own silk-screening business. The Afro-Spot gave him room to explore his acumen; he designed custom clothing, hosted the occasional dance party, and opened a dojo to teach martial arts. (Amayo is a licensed sifu in the Jow Ga style of kung fu.) “All this stuff was happening under that one roof, and it felt natural for me to be doing all these things. I was overwhelmed, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I just wanted to keep doing, keep moving.”
He wasn’t the only one. Former NYU roommates Martín Perna and Gabriel Roth were also gaining traction with their own musical pursuits when they first heard music spilling out the front door of the Afro-Spot. “Amayo was listening to Fela,”
Perna recalls. “I had been living in Williamsburg since ‘95, so there was a time when you knew everybody’s face on the L train, or you could tell when somebody new had moved to the neighborhood.” (Another one of their roomates, Tunde Adebimpe, cofounded TV on the Radio around the same time and has continued to use the Antibalas horns on several of his band’s sessions.) Perna had started Antibalas—whose name, it bears repeating, is Spanish for “bulletproof,” or better yet, “anti-bullet”—the year after Fela’s death, and while he envisioned the 12-piece band in the mold of the Africa 70, he was also heavily influenced by the AfroLatin and Nuyorican funk of Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra, the Fania All-Stars, Ocho and Mandrill.
“Not long after we met,” Perna continues, “Antibalas had a gig at the Cooler [a hip downtown Manhattan club that has since shuttered]. One of our percussionists couldn’t make it, so I called Amayo. We had Jojo Kuo sitting in, one of the drummers from Fela’s band, and when Amayo shows up, he just gets right into the gig, really organically. Then he had lyrics to try out. We didn’t start out covering Fela tunes, but at the time there was an obscure one he called ‘Jeun Ko Ku,’ and Amayo knew it from childhood. That got him into being a singer, and in a few short years, he became a very dynamic frontman and composer.”
Fu Chronicles, the seventh studio album by Antibalas And their third for the Daptone label, refracts all this history and more through Amayo’s cinematic lens. Most notably, the project is a glimpse into the singular task he set for himself: to merge his musical sensibilities with his kung fu consciousness. It wouldn’t be the first time an artist has sought to make the connection; hip-hop’s golden b-boy era was heavily influenced by the grindhouse films of the Shaw Brothers, along with stone-cold classics like Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, while RZA and Wu-Tang Clan took it a step further with their devotion to the Shaolin style of kung fu. But Amayo’s ties to Jow Ga go well beyond the romantic; as a lifelong student of martial arts, he has folded his years of training into a work-life balance that seems to radiate outward from him in a calm, Zen-like wave of self-awareness and confidence.
“When I was younger, I was already thinking outside of my immediate environment. I discovered martial arts when I was 10,” he notes, referring to the influence of Chinese culture in Nigeria that grew out of the two countries’ geopolitical alliance, forged in the 1970s. “I used to walk by the Great Wall of China on my way to school. It was a restaurant in my neighborhood!” By the time he came to the U.S., settling first in Washington, D.C. to study with his sifu, he was well on his way to becoming a teacher himself.
At the Afro-Spot, he took on several of his Antibalas bandmates as students, all while crafting and shaping the music that makes up the bulk of what appears on Fu Chronicles. “I started writing these songs in my dojo so, inherently, they already had the DNA of kung fu. But I wasn’t even trying to pretend. I was meditating on how to make it serious and subtle, just so it’s not so obvious.”
This meditation took time—20 years, in fact. Along the way, Amayo launched his Fu-Arkist-Ra, an offshoot of Antibalas that he conceived as a vehicle to explore his ideas in depth. In 2000, he self-released the Fu-Arkist-Ra’s Afrobeat Disciples, which featured early versions of “Fist of Flowers” and “M.T.T.T (Mother Talker Tic Toc)”—both longtime staples of the Antibalas live repertoire, and now central to the message behind Fu Chronicles.
“The flower fist is a form in Jow Ga,” he explains further. “Even though I don’t describe the specific movements, it has an intent behind it. That was my source, when I started looking at intention and movement, and how it relates to sound. And I found myself in a world where I can dive deep. I think about my style, which has over 200 forms—my goodness. That’s a lot to dig into! But I also thought about why it took me so long to release this album officially, besides the fact that the timing was never right to complete the story. You know, I can’t just study a martial arts style for a few years and come out and say, ‘I know this.’ It’s a life commitment. And that’s how I approach the music. I wanted to take my time, play it all kinds of different ways, and make sure everything fits.”
As he continued fleshing out the music, Amayo also began hosting a series of parties with the Fu-Arkist-Ra to celebrate the Chinese New Year. A key part of the show was his Lion Dance—a traditional dance, meant to bring good luck in the coming year, that he picked up while studying Jow Ga. “That’s where it was becoming actualized onstage,” he says. “And that series ended with the seventh one in Williamsburg. It was the biggest one, the most ambitious one, and it almost burned me out. I did the Fu shows so I could work the songs out live. Everyone in Antibalas was already playing them, but in my sifu head, I was still thinking, ‘Not yet.’ It was almost like, ‘I’m not ready as a composer yet. I still need more training.’ That’s how I was processing it, without really expressing it to the guys. Then, one day, Martín and I had another conversation [about making a full-length album], and he supported the idea.”
Naturally, Gabe Roth was fully on board. The tireless cofounder of Daptone and the world-famous Dap-Kings has produced numerous Antibalas sessions (including their self-titled 2012 opus), and played guitar on their first three albums. He assumed the studio controls and provided bass duties on Fu Chronicles—no easy undertaking— but, as usual, he relished the challenge.
“What’s interesting is that I’ve played all these songs many times, at many gigs,” he observes, “and I don’t think I’ve ever played bass on them. I was there from the beginning with a lot of those guitar parts, which are intricately woven, but the bass lines—I knew them, but sometimes it took me a second to wrap my head around the way they work. Amayo’s music is definitely its own thing. It’s not like a Fela record or a typical Afrobeat record. These songs don’t fall into the same type of mathematics, harmonics and rhythms that much of that genre does, mostly because they tend to be these longer, winding phrases. But I enjoy it, man. I mean, it’s a little hard to be on both sides of the glass at once, but it was really fun to play with those guys.”
The recording sessions themselves, which took place last summer at Daptone’s famous House of Soul in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, had the feel of a family reunion. There’s been a diaspora of sorts among the Antibalas crew, as well as the extended Daptone family. Perna left New York around 2005 and moved to the Bay Area last year, while Roth returned to his home turf in Riverside, Calif., around 2010, and founded a second studio, Penrose Recorders (often referred to as Daptone West). To this day, Antibalas remains an ever-rotating collective of players—some are recent arrivals, others are veterans of the band’s original core.
“The beginnings of Antibalas were super organic and really humble,” says Jordan McLean, the band’s lead trumpeter and a groundfloor member for more than 20 years. “Nobody really knew what it meant to be an Afrobeat band back then. People came in and out, but we had a very close camaraderie because those first iterations of the band played together a lot over a very concentrated period of time. That helped to really secure what would become our legacy. There were many times over the years where it was like, ‘OK, maybe we’re done? Is this a wrap?’ But it never was and here we still are.”
In that sense, Fu Chronicles is as much a testament to the band’s perseverance as it is Amayo’s own personal journey. For the band to reconvene at the scene of one of their earliest triumphs—2004’s Who Is This America? was tracked at Daptone shortly after the studio was completed—was, quite simply, a reward that made all the effort worthwhile.
“That was a thrill, because everybody was super excited about it,” Perna recalls. “And there were other members of the extended family around to either play or just hang.”
When word came through the grapevine, distinguished alumni turned up to sit in. “Stuart Bogie came around, and Victor Axelrod was there; when Gabe was playing bass, Victor would sit at the board with [recording engineer] Simon Guzman, and he picked up the sticks and played on a couple of things. We had Giancarlo Luiggi there, who was on the first couple of records. Being able to invite all these friends and band members brought a real family vibe,” Perna says. “It was out of love and respect for the music and for the opportunity to be at Daptone. It feels good to be there, so people were really savoring it, you know?” The enthusiasm is visceral, especially on the classic live cut “M.T.T.T.”—which is perhaps the most overtly Fela-stamped song in the band’s repertoire, but still maintains enough deep-seated New York-style swing and psychedelia (fueled by Amayo’s tastefully restrained keyboard lines) to transport it into a soothingly meditative realm. It all seems to imbue Antibalas’ underlying political message with that much more of a bite.
“Fight Am Finish,” the album’s first single, is ostensibly poured from a similar mold. “The whole song is set up as these different rounds of battles between different instruments, with the rules of engagement narrated by Amayo,” Perna explains. “Normally, when this tune happened live, the solo battles could go on for three minutes for each round, so if you unzip this thing, it can turn into a 30-minute song! We didn’t have the option of making a double album, so we had to figure out how to make arrangements that are very rich but also lean, so we’d have the freedom to unravel them when we play them live. With ‘Fight Am Finish,’ we had to be that much more accurate and precise with punching the melodic shapes and the riffs.”
The song opens with a stately Eastern-sounding keyboard figure that gives way to a slow-building, heartbeat-like rhythm. In effect, it’s the perfect soundtrack for walking down a crowded city street. “It gives you a swagger,” Amayo says. “It’s basically about complete awareness of every motion and that every motion has a purpose. There’s a muscle connected to it and then you start internalizing that as you’re walking or breathing. As I wrote this body of songs— again, they’re movements—and as I refined them, they started informing me about the words. All my lyrics came later because I was still processing the concept of kung fu-meets-Afrobeat.”
As a statement of Amayo’s intent, Fu Chronicles succeeds on every level, right down to the multivalent, Afro-futuristic cover art that he designed specifically for the project. And as a milestone in the legacy of Antibalas, the album marks yet another chapter in the growth and forward motion of a band that has evolved well past the edges of the long shadow cast by Fela, and into its own sunlight. But as Amayo is quick to point out, even after 20 years, there’s still plenty more to accomplish.
“When we’re talking about concepts, the album that was supposed to come out in this cycle was what I call the Mothers album,” he hints. “So in a subtle way, this is my first dip into that because there are references to my mom [in the opening song ‘Amenawon’] and to feminine energy, and the idea for the next album is to really manifest that. Some of these women, they are the mothers of our era, the future. But all these songs have served to help us express—and not just our frustrations. For me, that was not enough. You’ve got to have a real intention, a resolve, for someone to listen to what you’re saying 20 years from now, and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m there now!’ It’s a long game, and over time, you’ll get it.”