Jul 13, 2009

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra - Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1

Owing as much to James Brown and Tito Puente as to Fela Kuti, Antibalas, the multiracial 14-piece Brooklyn collective named after the Spanish word for "bulletproof," are far from straight Afro Beat revivalists. Instead, Liberation Afro Beat, Vol. 1 lays New York's rich musical heritage of jazz, funk, and Latin groove over Afro Beat's polyrhythms to spectacular effect, resulting in a raw selection of driving ghetto funk. Despite tracks being mostly instrumental and nearly 10 minutes long, the relentless onslaught of rasping horns, African chants, strutting bass, and frantic percussion mean there's nothing dull about these eight phenomenal tunes. The collection's explosive Afro/Latin/American collision may earmark it as a party album, but there is a deeper motivation to their music. Hear the cries of war in the tenor sax breaks of "Dirt & Blood" and "World War IV"'s denouncement of American foreign policy; Antibalas's unreserved '70s grooves come with unreserved passion and politics. With all the ingredients of the golden age of funk, Liberation Afro Beat, Vol. 1 is a modern classic that matches (beat for socially aware beat) the best the era had to offer.


Like America itself, Antibalas (Spanish for “Bulletproof” or “Anti-bullets”) is a vast and multi-ethnic superpower. This fourteen-plus musical collective is a tight union of Latinos, whites, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Africans who all call New York their home. Their music moves like a burning spear launched from the heart of Mother Africa to skewer the Big Apple with its funk. Every Friday night Antibalas brutalizes grateful New York audiences with AFRICALIA, a ferocious concert series touted as “America’s only live Afro-beat party.” In every way, the group pays homage to their source of inspiration, the Black President, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Their sound and message closely follow that of Fela, whose radical politics and electrifying Afro-beat shook world music and Nigerian politics until his death in 1997.

With missionary zeal, Antibalas play their asses off, doing everything they can on Liberation Afro Beat Volume 1 to draw the people into Fela’s African-born movement of political funksters. Their music sustains the blueprint Fela laid down, with lots of drums and percussion breaks, thick bass lines, funky rhythm guitar, throbbing Hammond organ, and catchy horn riffs, all interlocking in hypnotic polyrhythms.

While Fela lives on as the holy ghost hovering over their music, the spirits of other great ancestors also make their heavy presence felt. The deep funk energy of the JBs and Tower Of Power unmistakably permeate the grooves all over this record. Antibalas is able to project the mighty sounds of their musical elders by employing a vast arsenal of hard hitting horns and drums.

Despite their numbers, this big band of dedicated musicians are tightly integrated by conductor Martin C-Perna Antibalas, creating one powerful Afro Beat Orchestra that demonstrates why music is the weapon of the future. Like an insurrectionary force whose moment of truth has arrived, Antibalas is moving out of the shadows and into the light. Get ready to move.


Music is a political statement. This fact is inescapable. All forms of music, regardless of national origin or temporal placement, have in some way reflected the struggle and separation, the spaces in which artistic expression is allowed, as well as the spaces between those spaces, of the particular societies that bore them. In America, politics are mostly, if not entirely, about economics; oddly, we often make much of the emotional content of a particular piece of music, but rarely, especially in what is known as the "indie" community, examine its economic context.

Antibalas want to destroy capitalism. Really. They say so right in their liner notes: "Time to destroy capitalism before it destroys us." A holy imperative. And they have the beginnings of an army to back it up: fourteen people contributed musically to this record. Based out of Brooklyn, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra is a collective of like-minded revolutionaries bent on liberating minds from the bounds of a free-market economy through the performance of mostly instrumental funk in the tradition of Fela Kuti. Failing that, they hope to create a space beyond in which they and others are not held down by "corrupt institutions like governments, armies, and banks," and can start anew, cooperatively rather than competitively. As they state in the less Mumia-esque-than-Metaphysical Graffiti-ish spoken-word intro to the album closer, "World War IV," this struggle is just that: a war. Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 is their first missile.

So where's the explosion? Certainly not in that ultimate track, recorded live at the Jazz Café in London. In an unexpected turn, both the live tracks on the record emphasize how much stronger Antibalas is in the studio. Thankfully, it's not the rhythm section that falters in performance situations (what would a funk band be without a rock-solid beat?), but the horns. While the brassists and reeders do manage to piece together some nice soloing when they're in the glass booth, they end up faltering mightily when playing out live, letting their lines trail off into unexciting sighs. Or, at least, that's what happened during the Jazz Café show. In any case, the live recordings are about the least explosive thing on Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1, which is a bit like saying sparklers are the least explosive things in a box full of caps.

The album begins with a noise that sounds a bit like a distant bomb going off; an organ enters, then screams, then a rhythm. And it's a very good rhythm, but not an explosive one; it does not fulfill the promise of the bomb-noise. The song itself, a nearly ten-minute workout titled "Si, Se Puede," goes a little somewhere, eventually, but not very far into that somewhere. There's a funky groove, that's true; there's some nice horn solos, yes; but is there any fire? The answer there would have to be a resounding maybe.

The truth is, for a band that makes so much noise about being political revolutionaries, they end up coming off, musically, rather boring. This is not to say that the music itself is tepid; played for a party full of open-minded friends, it would cause more than one head to bob. It's just that Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 should be so much more than head-bobbing music. It should grab you by the heart and the loins, lift you out of your chair, and force you to fuck with the world. Songs like "N.E.S.T.A. (Never Ever Submit to Authority)" promise, in their titles, that kind of experience; in their execution, however, they become seven-minute exercises in Fela Kuti/James Brown worship. And these two artists, at their pinnacles, could achieve this kind of affective artistry by translating a type of music that was, in itself and its time, politically incendiary, into an even more radically politicized context. All Antibalas do is take the gestures of afro-funk and graft them onto the current political climate; in doing so, they end up speaking for no one.

Hip-hop is the music of the politically oppressed now; Jay-Z has more to say than Antibalas about the dangers of complacency in a corporate-ruled world, and he does it by acting as a case study. We can't forget, of course, that rap has its roots in funk, dating back to the first Kool Herc James Brown breakbeat; however, it would be truly something for a group like Antibalas to capture some of the emotional heat generated by hip-hop and "sample" it, integrating a real magma flow into their currently dormant volcanoes. Then maybe they could live up to their liner-note goals.

Antibalas is a band that, in their concept and through their words, makes you want to be revolutionized. There is so much promise, so much possibility in their music, and in music in general; they could not only make a statement about the world as it is, but also be a trigger-force for change. It's regrettable, then, that Antibalas do not fulfill this promise, nor take this possibility and turn it into a weapon. I really wanted them to.

— Jonny Pietin, January 16, 2001


1. Si, Se Puede
2. Dirt and Blood
3. Battle of the Species
4. N.E.S.T.A. (Never Ever Submit to Authority)
5. Musicawi Slit - (live)
6. Uprising
7. El Machete
8. World War IV - (live)

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