One thing you notice when the reggae band Antero performs, as it did on Brown's Island or at The Diamond for separate festivals in May, is how everyone seems to be enjoying the music.
And by everyone, that is to say the demographic you wouldn't exactly expect to be familiar with influences of Peter Tosh or Barrington Levy. You certainly don't want to make assumptions, but watching Antero around town you wonder, Is the girl in her ridiculous “Bachelorette” T-shirt and tiara really getting the chant down Babylon system references?
That's the Antero paradox: It's Richmond's premiere party-starting, palatable-to-anyone reggae band, wooing a wide segment of folks at spots including the Republic, Gibson's and the occasional festival with breezy, upbeat rhythms.
Lyrically though, Antero is about revolution, love and justice: a discourse covertly packaged in dub you can dance to. This is the kind of reggae that references Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey, icons of Rastafarianism who respectively are regarded as an African god incarnate and a champion of the back-to-Africa movement of the early 1920s. Not exactly light party conversation, but Antero makes it work. And makes it fun.
“We don't alter the message because of the party,” says one of the band's lead singers, Joshua Achalam. “You have to keep the message consistent. We [band members] have all seen injustice one way or another, and we talk about it. Our band members are well-read and are interested in the world. We care. We enjoy delivering the message. And if people have a good time, great.”
Of course, Antero isn't all dissertation; there's sugary lovers' rock too. And perhaps the reception of its kind of heavy socio-political content is eased a bit not only how the band sounds but also by the way the band looks: The seven-piece is a multicultural partnership of people from different ethnic backgrounds.
If you ask the white guys in the group about being a minority in their field, though, the labored responses suggest such a conversation is missing the point entirely. “I grew up playing a lot of metal,” says Sam Privance, the group's bassist who by day manages food servicing at Ellwood Thompson's. “Then it got old. I just wasn't angry any more.”
Growing up on a block full of black and Puerto Rican people, Privance was drawn to “urban” music and eventually reggae. “Reggae just captivated my heart and soul.” Jacob Larson, one of the group's percussionists, who is a glass blower by day, grew up in Northern Virginia and played in go-go bands. He echoes his bandmate's view: “Music is like math. You get it or you don't. It's not about black and white.”
Antero is also novel for a reggae band — or a lot of bands, period — in that it uses a lot of percussion, merging congas, African drums, bells and tambourines into its work. “That gives us an added accent,” Achalam says. “Sometimes we have more of a Latin influence, sometimes a go-go sound.”
The band formed four years ago as a splinter of an existing troupe, Richmond Dub Collective. It got lead singer Wiley Jones — an avid walker and hiker, who once trooped from Mexico to Canada — after he left the group Crucial Elements. Members include Mike Sheroshick, the group's drummer and unofficial heartthrob; and Gordon Jones on saxophone. A number of guest musicians also play with Antero regularly, including Chris “Peanut” Whitely, who plays internationally with acts such as Eek-A-Mouse and serves as producer and manager for Corey Harris, the blues and reggae sensation based in Charlottesville.
“He [‘Peanut'] has a professionalism that I admire,” Achalam says. “He tells me stories about my idols that I have only ever read about, which makes them human. It's like, ‘You mean to tell me that to tell me that so-and-so got so high he couldn't perform?' Wow!'”
In the coming weeks, the band will continue to play at its regular spots, including the Martini Kitchen and Hat Factory. It also holds some fundraising events. In August, Achalam will go on a month-long sojourn through the deserts of Kenya to raise money for the Mikindu Orphanage, which assists children affected by HIV and AIDS.
By day, the Virginia Commonwealth University grad works counseling troubled young people at a Goochland day school, but he felt he needed to do more to help youth in need, even in a country he's never visited. “I'm an advocate for children worldwide,” he says. “I feel like I have a personal responsibility to do what I can as an African-American.” Just like Antero's music, Achalam's seems to have a personal mission everybody can get behind. S
Antero is on Facebook at facebook.com/pages/Antero-Reggae; information on the band's fundraising efforts at Joshua4makindu.blogspot.com.