Oct 6, 2009

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra - Talkatif


Oiginality is overrated. Where is it written that the height of creativity and artistic merit lies in doing something that’s never been done before? Is there not equal value in taking an existing form and polishing it to perfection? We can easily see that this cult of originality is a recent historical development: the ancient Greeks found true beauty in the refinement of stories hundreds of years old, viewing art as an attempt to emulate the mastery of those who came before. Insisting on the radical uniqueness of your work in the Middle Ages was more likely to earn you a fiery death than it was to bring you rosy plaudits. It is only in the recent past that shattering the old in order to create something new has come to be seen as the primary virtue of the artist. Cynics and naysayers deride every new band as a third-generation copy of some superior predecessor, rather than applauding the newcomers for breathing life into a genre heretofore locked away in dusty records.

Antibalas worships at the shrine of Fela Kuti. They hardly deny this, thanking him in their liner notes (along with several members of his legendary Africa 70) and emulating him with a heady mix of Afrobeat rhythms. This 18 member Brooklyn ensemble earned its stripes playing all-night parties in New York dance clubs, developing a reputation as one of the preeminent modern practitioners of Fela’s rootsy, jazz-inflected funk. Indeed, given their credentials, the brevity of Talkatif (their first album on the Ninja Tune label) surprises, clocking in at barely 40 minutes. The positive news, however, is that you’re likely to hit repeat and listen to the album again immediately.

A phased effect starts off ‘Gabe’s New Joint’ and fades into a head-nodding rhythm of basic percussion. Guitar and keyboards slowly enter, establishing the basic melody in a subdued manner. Then, the album is jolted to life by the stabbing entry of the bass, drums and horn sections. The horns begin to engage in a call and response duel with each other, restating the main theme, breaking into a solo, and snapping back into line whilst the rhythm pulses below. An auspicious beginning, but one which is utterly put to shame by the title track that follows. ‘Talkatif’ flies by at a breakneck pace, establishing a relentless rhythm that drives on for 10 minutes without losing its way. Keyboard vamps and saxophone squeals burst out of the speakers, struggling to keep pace with the frenetic tempo, until everything except congos and bass drops out of the mix. The rhythm pounds onward, slowly building layers back onto the song for a roaring finish.

Now, everything described for the first two tracks on the album could easily work to describe anything on the album. Antibalas has found a formula that works, and don’t attempt to stray far from that template. They are unquestionably talented, and have made one of the year’s most exciting and danceable albums. I’ll be interested to see what they do in future, but I’m not going to be disappointed if they make another album as solid as this one.

Kurt Deschermeier, 2003 (Source)

"They're ripping off Fela, man."

There is a law that says all reviews of Antibalas records must contain the above statement. And it's true-- this 16-piece Brooklyn collective owes a hell of a lot to the Nigerian bandleader and rabble-rouser, as they're the first to admit. They owe so much to his sound, in fact, that even people who bought the 2xCD Best of Fela Kuti at Starbucks two months ago are allowed to feel outrage at the level of mimicry on the band's second album, Talkatif. Even though these 16 musicians live and breathe Fela Kuti's music and have devoted their lives to spreading the joy that comes from sharply arranged and performed afrobeat, the punters will not stand for this wholesale appropriation of style. Down with Antibalas! Fela Forever!

Did I just say "punters"? Anyway, with that rant out of the way, let's say, just for argument's sake, that you're not really concerned with the integrity of the recorded legacy of Fela Kuti, and are instead curious about whether or not this here Talkatif album has some good music on it. I know, I know, you're actually seething over this aping of the Fela catalog, almost as bad as the number Bill Laswell pulled on Army Arrangement, but I'm going to answer this question anyway, just as a rhetorical exercise. It'll be fun.

Setting aside all issues of originality, I am here to report that Talkatif is a good album, though not a great one. First the 'good' parts: the arrangements on these seven tracks are exceptional. This unwieldy mass of trumpets, saxophones, organs, guitars, bass and drums, drums, drums seriously chug along as a unified music machine, each part working together and yet remaining separate enough to be heard and appreciated on its own. With everything going on simultaneously-- and it's quite a lot-- the music never seems crowded or muddy. The compositions are also up to snuff. Each track is built from a bass and percussion vamp; riffs and rhythm are far more important than melody. On most tracks the beat is introduced, a few horns will solo on the theme, the organ might take over for a bit, next comes a percussion break, then a restatement and time to back out. A couple of numbers also engage in shouted call-and-response vocals, which lack urgency but somehow manage to work well as songs.

Now on to the not-so-great: first, I have an image in my mind of Antibalas as an energetic live band, and much of Talkatif seems more restrained and polite than it probably ought to. While the tracks are marginally propulsive, there's a lack of fire to the music, like they were more concerned with sounding good than cutting loose. This has the odd side effect of helping Antibalas fit in at Ninja Tune, as this record seems made more for background music or head-nodding than for a real dance party. Along the same lines, the seven tracks here run just over 40 minutes, which seems a little short for the afrobeat form. With this music's semi-improvisatory nature and focus on the beat, long, drawn-out tunes that develop over time would be more appropriate. A "Live at the Great American Music Hall" follow-up could be just the thing to follow Talkatif. Still, for what it is, this isn't bad. Get yourself some Fela or pick up Antibalas, I don't give a damn.

Mark Richard-San, 2002 (Source)

"Lip Service Too Much": Antibalas Grows Up

I wanted to love Antibalas's first album, Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1, a whole lot more than I actually did. It seemed like a great idea: a multicultural Pan-American take on Fela Kuti's trademark sound! with fiery leftist politics! headed by an enigmatic loudmouth named Martín Antibalas! which means "bulletproof"!

And yeah, that album was laced with some great music, but only because it was such a slavish copy of Fela, and because Fela rocked so hard. I was a bit disappointed that Antibalas didn't try to add anything at all, and ended up sounding like a tribute band. And the lyrics, when there were any, weren't so much of a much: some vague talk about "revolution" in Soweto and Milwaukee, some stuff about how Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright were war criminals. Weak soup indeed: no one hates the left like the people farther left, but that kind of Naderrific crap is what got GWB elected.

Nevertheless, I was very interested in what Antibalas would do for a follow-up. My heart sank when I saw that it was called Talkatif -- aw, hell, more talking? But it turns out that Talkatif is actually LESS of the same, in a really good way. First of all, Martín Antibalas is now just calling himself Martín Perna. This seems like a little deal, but it's actually a big one. Remove the whole "Le band, c'est moi" thing from him, and he turns out to be an even better bandleader than he was before. The compositions are tighter, funkier, leaner -- only three go over seven minutes -- and it sounds like they've actually been practicing during their time off. They swing like 60 now; there are definite hints of Miles Davis's 1970s albums now that I never heard before. They sound great, from the massive battery of interweaving percussion lines all the way to the horn soloists. Even Martín's baritone sax work is deeper and wider this time around.

Lyrically, too, it's a stripped-down affair. Only two songs have any real words to them at all, which is a slight change from the first album. "Nyash" is about how to get one's revolutionary self out there global style, which is cool. And then there's title track/mission statement "Talkatif." This one is a grand beast of a thing; almost 10 minutes long and worth every penny, especially because it lays everything out there for us to see. Vocalist/percussionist Duke Amayo is exhorting us to avoid verbal diarrhea and useless chatter, to get our asses up off the couch and get engaged . . . but damned if it doesn't sound like he's talking to himself, to Perna, to the rest of the band. It's almost as if the whole band is acknowledging that they have a tendency to be a little too talkatif themselves, and that more grooving and less yapping will change people's minds a lot faster.

So when you pump these other instrumental tracks up, with their titles like "War Is a Crime", "Hypocrite", and "World Without Fear", you're supposed to feel all revolutionary, I guess. Do these titles, or the little screed on the inside of the CD case, or the CD cover art by Fela's artist Ghariokwu Lemi -- which my six-and-a-half-year-old daughter has decided is "the best art in the entire world" -- actually make people more political? Hell, no. But it's nice that they're there anyway. And it's nice that Antibalas seems to be back on board with the whole "free your ass and your mind will follow" scenario. But there ain't nothin' nice about these grooves: they're nasty and funky and greasy and sweet and I'm digging them all the way.

In fact, I'm thinking about volunteering with the neighborhood program again. Enough of this talkatif crap, sitting around complaining about the unfairness of the world and our racist classist fascist power structure; it's time to do something about it. And this is a very appropriate soundtrack for that.

Matt Cibula, 2002 (Source)


1 Gabe's New Joint
2 Talkatif
3 Hypocrite
4 World Without Fear
5 War Is A Crime
6 Nyash
7 N.E.S.T.A. 75

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