Mar 4, 2010

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra - Who Is This America?


Just when I start gloating about afrobeat legend Fela Kuti's influence permeating the underground, what should find its way through my mail slot but the new Antibalas LP? Let it be known: the American afrobeat awakening is in full effect. [Much rejoicing ensues.]

All year, Fela-inspired ensembles have been rocking dancefloors and picking fights with nervous Republicans across the country. Antibalas, of course, predates them all, having staked their claim to Fela's dynasty back in 2001 with their Ninja Tune debut, Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1. That release beautifully conveyed Fela's bravado and bluster, even while the band was yet unable to evoke his humor, intimacy and personality. Of course, while I was thrilled to hear a new multi-culti spin on the Nigerian afrobeat legacy, I couldn't shake my disappointment at the record's lack of focus, or its departure from Fela's tried-and-true blueprint.

But, never daunted, Antibalas regrouped to drop the bomb the world was waiting for: Their 2002 follow-up Talkatif lightened their sound with sharper songwriting, including some truly memorable melodies (no mean feat within afrobeat's syncopated firestorm) that popped with addition of bright major chords, Afro-Latin rhythms, briefer track lengths, and more compelling lyrical fomentations from Duke Amayo. Now arrives the third installment of the Antibalas handbook for global empowerment, Who Is This America?, which, in the midst of the current trickle-up afrobeat revival, has Antibalas bringing a more galvanized and urgent righteous noise than ever before, and proving they lead the pack when it comes to the re-imagining and recreating of Fela's archetypal artform.

If you're familiar with afrobeat, you'll have a basic grasp of this record's sound: Clean, staccato guitars and conga 'n' snare breakbeats are quickly avalanched by monstrous horn sections, shakere counter-rhythms, and kinky clavinets. Opener "Who Is This America Dem Speak Of?" enters with several minutes of polyrhythmic pyrotechnics, before Amayo finally busts in with a scathingly ironic vocal introduction, kicking the album into a high gear it never shifts back down from. At 12 minutes, it's one of the longer tracks in the group's repertoire, though a peek at the runtimes reveals that America contains two even lengthier tracks, one of which nears the 20-minute mark. Indeed, where Antibalas' previous works were abridged for accessibility, here they've clearly become more comfortable with their staying power, and more confident with their voice.

While Fela was a master at submerging political censure under metaphor (see his 1973 release, Gentleman, a denouncement of colonialism that employed pants as symbolism), Antibalas is more didactic, though they do dabble in some amusing poetics. Both the opening track and the breakbeat powerhouse "Big Man" come down on America's wholesaling of capitalist consumerism, augmented by a newfound razor-sharp wit. That sense of humor is also apparent on "Indictment", a stylistic watershed for the band. The track opens with a Superfly-echoing riff as spastic tenor sax man Stuart Bogie recites a litany of offenses committed by everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to "the game of baseball," in what sounds like some funky People's Court. The terrific throwback production-- cracking, overmiked drums, theme-show guitar, and background chatter reminiscent of James Brown's original Live at the Apollo-- make for one of the most unique, compelling songs the group has ever laid to tape.

The decision to close America with two monumental midtempo songs gives Antibalas the opportunity to show off all the tricks and insight they've gained in their seven years together. Victor Axelrod's liquid organ initially takes something of a plodding lead on "Elephant", but at six minutes in, the track briefly dubs out and Ernesto Abreu's Yoruba vocals come on like a Nuyorican boogaloo crooner. "Sister" is a 19-minute percussive workout; every instrument-- clavinet, horns, guitar, bass-- is a drum, rising and falling through a sexy, hypnotic and occasionally spacey plotline that, even in its extended length, keeps a tight, tense grip on the ear.

Like hip-hop and reggae, afrobeat is one of the crucial forms of expression for the world's disenfranchised. As time passes and we get further from the initial heat of Fela's influence, bands like Antibalas play a greater role in keeping the flame lit. Who Is This America? is the group's most powerful fuel for the fire.

— Jonathan Zwickel, May 18, 2004

On its first album for the illustrious Rope a Dope label, the Brooklyn-based Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra continues to mine the deep sonic and political fields first breached by the late Fela Kuti. This is deep funk Afrobeat, full of deep, fat horns, trancelike pumping bass, snaky guitars, and hypno-groove percussion.

In addition to the orchestra, which numbers 14 pieces, the band adds another ten guests in various places and extrapolates its chunky, funky Afrobeat sound by grafting it onto Latin beats and, in the longer pieces, elliptical modal considerations.

The album begins with the manifesto "Who Is This America Dem Speak of Today?" Stuttering guitar lines insist on ushering the quantum rhythms before the horns kick it into pure hypno-groove. Amayo's vocals are pure righteousness as the track winds back on itself three times before it eclipses at 12 minutes.

The wildest thing here is saxophonist Stuart Bogie's "Indictment," with its jagged-edged, hard shadowy funk where muted trombones, keyboards, and even strings collide in a loose backbone twist-o-flex groove before the vocals come in to lay down the law with rage and authority.

The final two cuts on the set, "Elephant," with its entwined organ, synth-bass, and horn lines that become a ghostly, post midnight Afro-Latin dance jam, and B. Mann's killer dub-inflected "Sister," account for over half an hour of the disc's total playing time. The two are consistent in the way they gradually and purposefully unfold into labyrinthine considerations that are deeply textured, multivalent exercises in intervallic groove and shimmer, allowing the band's jazz pedigree to articulate itself more fully.

Antibalas may have begun its recording career by paying tribute to the nearly overwhelming influence of Fela, but as this disc attests, the band has been carving out its own space from other traditions as well, and has developed a grand woven basket design that bears the group's signature exclusively. This is its best effort yet.


True, some bands are simply meant to lead, and Brooklyn’s Antibalas--as tough and diverse as the city that birthed them nearly a decade ago--has continued to do just that. The group, whose name means “bulletproof” in Spanish, has indeed proved they possess the mettle to not only survive but also thrive by employing a musical arsenal that has become known worldwide. Initially using the revolutionary blueprint of afrobeat as a launching pad, the dozen-strong members of Antibalas weave a rich tapestry of latin, jazz, classical, funk and soul into their horn-driven mix. Words fail in trying to describe the result: simultaneously polyrhythmic and political, independent and contagious, and the reason why many have credited the band for introducing afrobeat’s framework to a new generation.

Always looking to push their unique sound further, however, Antibalas recently entered the studio to record their fourth album with much-heralded musician/producer John McEntire (Tortoise, Stereolab, Tom Ze). Holed up for a month in McEntire’s Chicago lair, the band explored and unleashed sonic sides of them not previously tapped. The resulting gem is guaranteed to shock and dazzle new and old fans alike, and will be forthcoming from ANTI- Records (no, not just because they share half a name), known for distinguished releases over the years from such artists as Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, the Refugee All-Stars and Blackalicious. The new album and record deal illustrate Antibalas’ penchant for taking chances, building upon a history of previous fiery album releases and recent, stunning collaborations with diverse heavyweights such as Medeski, Martin and Wood, TV on the Radio, Baaba Maal and Gomez.

As distinguished as their recordings may be though, Antibalas has truly become renowned via their relentless live show. And though it’s certainly no easy task to keep (and feed) such a vast ensemble on the road, the band has managed to average over 100 concerts a year, incessantly traversing the U.S, Canada and Europe in venues large and small be they the sweaty clubs of Brooklyn or in front of hordes of festival goers in places like Bonnaroo, Bumbershoot, Montreux and Roskilde. 2004 also bore witness to the group’s first-ever tour to Japan, as well as debuts at the Glastonbury and Coachella music festivals. It’s not by chance the Village Voice exclaimed “their music is right on time,” while the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone Magazine and a slew of others have taken serious notice. Make no mistake, as XLR8R exclaims, Antibalas are indeed “the baddest on the block.”


This is the album Antibalas fans have been waiting for. Anyone who has spent time losing themselves in the polyrhythmic layers of Afrobeat funk at one of the hundreds of shows they've put on over the past half-decade knows their potential. Maybe it was their label switch, moving from the experimental Ninja Tune to the saviors of jamband and roots, Ropeadope. Maybe it was the decision (finally!) to portray on wax what they do on stage: extended versions rather than brief snippets. Maybe it was their steady gradation from pure Afrobeat to Latin flavors ("Che Che Cole" on Turntables on the Hudson 4 a great starting point). Maybe it was the inclusion of frontman's Amayo's vocals, the warmly domineering figure live finally given the chance to shine in the earpods. Or maybe it was the Yoruba deities of Lagos setting up a massive skyward sound system which the 16-member collective heard standing atop their mountain of Brooklyn, screaming, "Give us what you got already, damn it!"

What they got is one of the hottest releases this year. Formed in '98 by saxophonist Martin Perna after a brainstorm meditating on Zapatistas while in Mexico, the decision was clear: to keep the lineage of Nigeria's Fela Kuti alive. Never having received the much-deserved international attention of a Bob Marley, Kuti has been enshrined (much like his hometown club where he started the madness) by audiences globally hip to the fact that, to get inside a song, to really feel the build and sway and emotion of a tune, it takes more than 3 1/2 radio minutes. Opening with a slightly-extended take of the album title ("Who is This America Dem Speak of Today?"), the 12 minutes spent let you know they're in it for the full ride. And while this, again like their performances, is a group effort, there's something undeniably engaging about the power of Amayo's vocals. His likeness to Kuti is poignant, but for those who've watched his show-stealing live antics, he is a character unto himself. The man can rhyme a hypnotic pattern relating the CIA, HMO and NBA and make sense of it; it's the suspending of disbelief comprising his craft.

"I personally tend to like the mid-tempo and slower grooves because that's where you feel the hypnotic elements," he told me earlier this year in an interview for Rattapallax. "If you go too fast you tend to miss the message. But in terms of an Afrobeat show, there needs to be room for the meditative aspect and hopefully people leave with new rejuvenation with whatever struggle they have." The blaring subject matter of struggle on this record is, obviously, the upcoming election. "Indictment," the shortest cut here, is brilliant in its maddening horn lines and bullet-like drum patterns, along with shouted indictments of Bush, Rice, Cheney and crew. But they never loose the groove; like proper political statements, the song doesn't submit to a message, but enhances it. Even more so on the closing "Sister," a heartfelt tune where Amayo truly muscles his way through the slowest - and longest - cut at 19+ minutes. He doesn't even speak until after 9, and when he does, this track dedicated to masculine support and softening towards women carries you gorgeously to the album's end.

"Not jams" drummer Phill Ballman told me a few years back in a piece in Relix, assured that, despite the circuit they constantly find themselves on, Antibalas is not a jamband. Searing through the 14-minute "Elephant," a traditional Yoruba chant arranged and sung by Ernesto Abreu, the freeform feeling is structured tightly. Throughout any show there may be moments of improvisation, but when dealing with 15 other cats on stage, one best not stray. This has been Antibalas' cornerstone: the ability to keep to the program while liberating the sound enough to sound completely inspired by the moment. With Talkatif and Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1, their first two records, this never came across quite right. Fortunately the Orishas caught wind of it and decided it was time to speak up.



1. Who is This America Dem Speak of Today?
2. Pay Back Africa
3. Indictment
4. Big Man
5. Obanla'e
6. Elephant
7. Sister

No comments:

Post a Comment