Antibalas – Antibalas

January 01, 1970



multi-instrumented, multi-ethnic, Brooklynite disciples of Fela Kuti have been
off for half a decade, some of them backing Sharon Jones, others composing and
performing the score for Broadway’s  Fela!, still others participating in
funk-world-soul collaborations with, among others, Ocote Sound System. During
the time off, Afro-beat has become, if anything, less of an exotic hybrid, more
an accepted part of the landscape. These
polyrhythmic, in-the-pocket grooves are not quite as American as tacos or pizza
at this point, but they are also no longer quite so foreign. You don’t have to
trade Nigeria 70 on battered cassette tapes anymore. You can order it on Amazon.


So let’s
set aside, at least for the moment, the worthy role that Antibalas played in
popularizing some of the world’s funkiest, most searing grooves, the way the
band has relentlessly, show-by-show, town-by-town, built up awareness and
appreciation of Nigerian funk. How good is Antibalas the album, the band’s fourth, on its own merits?  The answer is: pretty good, but not as great
as its inspiration.


 “Dirty Money” starts in a fractured friction
of multilayered drums, an organ line (that’s longtime Antibalian Victor Axelrod
on keys) strutting and slinking amid flash-lightning illuminations of brass and
saxophone. The song balances on a knife edge between laid-back ease and
propulsive motion. It leads with the hips, all physical insistence, yet remains
rather cool and contemplative at its core. “The Ratcatcher,” up next, also
melds traditional drum kit with the syncopated tonalities of cowbell, claves,
bongos and horn bursts (the horns are just as percussive as the drums). Seventies
American soul twitches to life in the Shaft-era
guitar work of Marcos Garcia, the space-age funk of the keyboards, but there’s
fusion jazz, too, in the wild keening and blaring of Stuart Bogie’s saxophone. “Sare
Kon Kon” (or “We Are Running”) is, perhaps the most furiously heated of these tracks,
skittering forward on a staccato rhythm of hand drums and overlayed with vocal
howls, moans and exclamations.


Like Fela
himself, Antibalas engages whole-heartedly in politics, making the common man’s
struggles a center of its syncopated, body-moving art. The video for “Dirty
Money” is explicitly tied to the Occupy Movement, making abstract lyrics about
a man drowning and falling off buildings concrete and economically determined. (Though
doing so, in a fairly lighthearted way, and with Muppets.)  “Sáré Kon Kon” is less of a narrative, more a
direct channeling of post-global meltdown anxieties. Its motion is ceaseless
and, oddly, circular, as rhythms hurry this way and that, as saxophones blare,
as people shout and groan…without anyone getting much of anywhere. Afro-beat
has always been protest music, but it’s also an escape hatch, a physically
enveloping, mildly hallucinatory experience that puts harsh realities on hold.


I still
sense a bit of remove, of holding back, of loving tribute rather than full-body
engagement in Antibalas’ work. Heard next to actual Fela, it sounds ever so slightly scholarly and dry. Yet
there’s so much positive in this band’s work – in its devotion to an intricate
aesthetic, its commitment to justice, its sensual, hip-shifting appeal – that
it hardly seems fair to grade it against the source. 


DOWNLOAD: “Dirty Money” “The Ratcatcher” “Sáré Kon Kon” JENNIFER KELLY


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