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Arts in Review

We all have to dance once in a while

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Concerts are interesting, specifically because they allow us to revel in the musicianship (or perhaps simply the presence) of the acts that we have (presumably) come to know over a length of time, during which we have listened to or become familiar with their repertoire.

In the ‘40s, big bands filled stages. Towards the ‘60s, they were cut down to quintets, quartets, and trios. After the modern four- or five-piece rock band came to prominence in the ‘60s, most innovations led to either solo acts, or groups made up of multiple singers. The focus, it would seem, has primarily been on members of bands (often, on the singer as the band leader).

On Sunday, March 18, Antibalas, a 12-piece latin/funk/jazz/Afrobeat band from New York took the stage at The Biltmore. Look, I’ve been to a good number of concerts now, and up until last week I probably would have cited Ratatat or French Vanilla’s opening set for Surf Curse as the most fulfilling concert I’d been to in terms of actual performance.

Not to disparage those acts, but there is nothing quite as impressive as watching 12 guys pile onto a stage with an assortment of horns, African and Latin percussion instruments, and the conventional keyboards/guitar/bass combo, and break out into a nearly two-hour-long Afrobeat set.

There are two points here that might best explain why I walked away from this concert as impressed as I did. The first was the fact that every single musician on the stage was in sync the entire length of the concert. Skipping over the fact that most of the songs ran upwards of eight minutes each, the fact that, halfway through a piece the band was capable of breaking on a dime to allow the trumpet to call out four or five quick frills, then pick it all up again only to move it into an entirely different tempo and arrangement, was humbling.

Yes, there’s a somewhat hypnotizing quality to Afrobeat in that it builds itself around a common repeating rhythm that often accentuates movement, but more hypnotizing than that, perhaps, was watching such distinctly talented individuals moving their entire musical undertaking across the room through sheer familiarity with one another and their medium. It’s been a while since I’ve seen any band, number of performers notwithstanding, exercise that level of control over themselves and the sprawling, musical animal they’ve endeavoured to tame and control in front of a live audience. Never mind the time it’s been since I’ve seen any group of musicians pull off a similar stunt while visibly having so much fun. (The Roots come close, though.)

Look, all music is good if it makes you feel something. That said, watching a group of musicians make you feel something so intensely that it manifests itself in your very movement, while also pulling off a jaw-dropping feat of synchronization and self-awareness, is a treat you owe it to yourself to experience at least once.

Even if their music isn’t particularly up your alley, do yourself a favour, and cop a ticket next time Antibalas come to town. If your ears don’t thank you, your primal need for rhythm will show gratitude, somewhere down in your bones.

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