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Best of Boston 2009

The making of the Roots-versus-Antibalas Sound Clash

How ?uest got his groove back
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  January 20, 2009

ONE TIME ONLY: Antibalas (above) and the Roots have been jamming together off and on since September, but no one knows exactly what will happen at the live show.

An abridged history of the Roots' collabs. By Chris Faraone.
We're not previewing the Red Bull Sound Clash just because the buzz-beverage overlords supply Phoenix headquarters with enough voltage to paralyze a petting zoo. The company's grand upcoming event, which pits the legendary Roots crew against polyrhythmic Brooklyn orchestra Antibalas in all-out, double-staged, trans-venue warfare, is a one-time-only marvel. Neglecting to investigate its genesis would be an insult to hip-hop heads and Afrobeat geeks everywhere (or at least around Boston, where we alone get to revel in the crossfire).

Once upon a rhyme this past September, after returning from a three-week performance dash across Europe and Asia, Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson heeded a friend's advice to reject exhaustion and check the Off Broadway Fela Kuti bio-play Fela! Thud junkie that he is, ?uest simply couldn't fight the lure of a revue celebrating the Nigerian luminary's genius. Hours later, after basking in pounding percussion and impassioned dialogue, he didn't turn in but instead churned out a 1000-word-plus e-mail to friends, fans, and family titled "Tonight I witnessed a miracle." It began:

Ladies and gentleman this is Ahmir. it is 5:58am in the morning and I just got home. i witnessed a miracle tonight and it is a MUST you read this. and when I say miracle you have to think this on the level of sam jackson trying to convince john travolta in pulp fiction to acknowledge the miracle that just occurred (them escaping death by *this* much).

The letter, in which ?uest assures everyone that "this is NOT just some 'oh ahmir is being dramatic shit,' " applauds what he describes as "the BEST MUSICAL EVER CREATED." To his surprise and delight, Fela! was not at all Broadway-ized, and thanks to a certain predominantly Caucasian New York collective, its sonic component was especially resounding. Assigned the Jurassic task of conjuring Kuti's massive Africa 70 and Egypt 80 bands, Bushwick Afrobeat outfit Antibalas didn't just step to the plate. "These funky white boys," as ?uest calls them, homered with the bases loaded:

next to the dap kings, the antibalas are the 2nd most important retro/revision band working today. the scrutiny and standard they uphold in creating AUTHENTIC afrobeat music can only impress the music snob in me. they have the baton when it comes to carrying on fela's torch . . . yes even more than fela's two sons who record today.

?uest is one of music's foremost advocates of authenticity. He's jammed with bassist Christian McBride as the Philadelphia Experiment, recorded with Joshua Redman, and produced for D'Angelo and Al Green. So after witnessing Antibalas "gel" in ways that he hadn't seen a "group of black musicians do in 30 years," he had no choice but to reach out.

"We've bumped into ?uest and the Roots a bunch of times on the road, but most of the stuff that we've done with them has come together since Fela!" says Antibalas trombone player Aaron Johnson, who worked as the production's musical director. "I love the Roots; I saw them for the first time in Central Park in 1996 and at least five or six shows since then not counting all the watching I've done from backstage and off to the side. I was really happy ?uest felt the way he did; that was probably the first time I saw that he had more than just a little bit of respect for us."

Since September, members of the Roots and Antibalas have regularly rapped shop and united for random jam and overdub sessions. However — as is often the case with such improv-prone composites — Johnson is at a loss to explain how Sound Clash came about. "I'm not really clear about what went down, except for that the first I heard about it was as a pipe dream from a friend who's a publicist for the Roots. Everybody is a little anxious to see how it's going to go down, though — especially since we had just started conversations right before the Roots left for Japan."

Working through a shared music director, ?uest and Johnson have spent the past two weeks exchanging e-mails about next Thursday's red-letter beat harvest. For now, the only thing they know for certain is that the bands — who'll be perched at opposite ends of the room — will melt songs and fire off each other's leads. As for whether Sound Clash will be as competitive as it will be collaborative, Johnson says he doubts it. But to judge by ?uest's e-mail musings, it seems the Roots might have something to prove:

now granted I don't wanna ruffle no feathers . . . but [while] i know the first decade of the new mill was the age of irony, black musicians overplaying and showboating while white cats find their groove will FOREVER baffle me.

RED BULL SOUND CLASH, FEATURING THE ROOTS AND ANTIBALAS | Roxy, 279 Tremont St, Boston. | January 29 at 8 pm | $15 |

  Topics: Music Features , antibalas, Brooklyn, Christian McBride,  More more >
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