Rhythms of the fight
Antibalas' long grooves and funky politics
>The Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra comes to both praise and transcend its origins on the new album Who Is This America? (Ropeadope). Leader/saxophonist Martín Perna and vocalist Duke Amayo have honed what started in 1998 as a tribute to the late Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo Kuti into a multi-culti 14-piece organism with its own voice. For America, Antibalas seamlessly integrates its own spices of Latin rhythms, deep soul, jazz-rock and hip-hop into its maturing sound.
Antibalas' years of persistent live performances have sharpened its ears and chops, giving the music a supple flexibility. This is America's most striking new aspect. Three of its seven tracks stretch over the 10-minute mark, tapping into the element that made Fela such a marathon force. (His albums are frequently but two songs, one each for the whole side of an LP. While playing live, he stretched tunes to 30 minutes and beyond, making them an expression of a defiant, physical will.) Antibalas has been crafting similarly extended jams in its must-see live shows over the years, but the stretch-it-out impulse has been entirely absent on its recordings until now.
Many cuts on America stand out for their ocean-like size, giving Antibalas the space to pull off some of its wittier moments. The percolating heartbeat of an album opener "Who Is this America Dem Speak of Today?" establishes itself over a long intro, winnowing its way into the brain until it synchronizes with your own pulse. It also includes one of Antibalas' most impassioned political diatribes, offering a breathy rundown of America's bureaucratic/media alphabet soup: CIA, FBI, IRS, NRA, ATF, SEC, HMO, NFL, NBC. This litany of letters becomes a counter-rhythm inside an already bubbling groove.
The evil that political men do has fueled the lyrics of the New York-based group's lyrics since its 2001 debut, Liberation Afro Beat, Vol. 1, and Antibalas' platform is basically anti-globalization, pro-American regime change, anti-corporate greed, pro-living wage, antiwar, pro-democracy. It's not a unique stance this election season, but the group imbues these politics with danceable flavor. "Indictment" takes aim at such topical targets as Donald Rumsfeld over choppy drum patterns and an odd bassline. It's as if each note is a punch from a tired fighter. "Big Man" squares off against a corporate America that permits hourly wage drones to clock 80-hour weeks to pay for things they don't want. It features the biting line after "Thank you for liberating Iraq/ I beg you, give me the bill."
Antibalas fares even better when it lets its instruments do more of the talking. "Sister" and "Elephant" tell stories through arrangements: the percussive motif flowing through the elegiac "Sister," and the Jimmy Smith-like organ that introduces the serpentine "Elephant." Indeed, "Sister" is America's shining moment. A hazy Afro-Cuban pulse underscores hip-hop syncopated backbeats and late-'60s fire-jazz saxophone squeals, all in service to the male narrator's apology to women: "What kinda brother I am if I hunt my sister like food?"
This merging of eclectic music and politics shows that Antibalas is staying true to Fela's legacy. Fela's Afrobeat was always a pidgin of whatever he wanted to sweep under his ever-expanding tree. That he never explicitly incorporated some of what Anitbalas brings to the table only means he never got around to it. And while comparing anybody to Fela is unfair — the prolific Nigerian makes Prince look like a man of modest ego and work ethic — there is a huge difference between talking his talk and walking his walk, and Antibalas has taken its first move toward stepping into those shoes.
Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra plays the Echo Lounge Tues., Sept. 14, 9 p.m. $12.