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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1693

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Antibalas: Antibalas
by George Graham

(Daptone 028 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/12/2012)

It has been 25 years since the release of Paul Simon's seminal album Graceland. That recording probably did more than any other to open American ears to World music, especially African sounds. It also coincided with a blossoming of African pop sound throughout the continent, and subsequently led to a significant number of African recordings being issued in the US.

One of the African artists who developed a distinctive sound and won legions of fans on several continents was Fela Kuti from Nigeria, whose style came simply to be called Afro-Beat, and whose political protest lyrics got him imprisoned. "Free Fela" was a cause taken up by quite a number of popular artists around the world.

Kuti's Afro-Beat music was a distinctive blend of the complex rhythmic undercurrent of traditional African music with a strong dose of American funk, influenced by James Brown, and large ensembles with horns reminiscent of soul bands. Kuti's music tended to run toward extended pieces that combined a danceable groove, jazz-like horn solos, a prominent keyboard usually with old-fashioned rock organ sounds, and a kind of oddly downcast mood to the vocals and lyrics. In recent years, there has been a theatrical tribute and kind of musical biography running on Broadway called "Fela!"

This week we have the latest recording by a band that has been carrying on the Afro-Beat tradition of Fela Kuti since 1998, Antibalas, whose new CD, their fifth, is simply called Antibalas.

The New-York-based band was formed by saxophonist Martin Perna, who looked upon it originally as a mixture of Latin jazz and salsa in the Eddie Palmieri tradition with Afro-Beat influence. But over the years, the Afrobeat part has come to dominate their sound, as the group gained in popularity and toured worldwide.

Antibalas, with 11 regular members on the new CD, plus various guests, includes a number of players who divide their time among other projects. Perna, who these days is a resident of Texas, is also involved with a group called Ocote Soul sounds, which has some of the Latin influence that he intended for Antibalas. A couple of the other horn players have been in the orchestra for the Broadway production of "Fela!" and some of the members are also involved with funk bands, such as Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

Adding a degree of Afro-Beat authenticity is lead vocalist Abraham Amayo, who was born in England but grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where he fan of Fela Kuti, and interestingly, from an early age, also has had a passion for the Martial arts specializing in Kung Fu. He used Kuti's music constantly while practicing as a youth. Amayo also has a career as a Kung Fu master.

The new CD has Antibalas becoming an increasingly tight performing unit, and also marks a reunion with original guitarist Luke O'Malley, who also contributed some of the material.

While Fela Kuti's music was known for its protest lyrics, and Antibalas took that cue early on, this new CD features words that are more celebratory, with some based on Yoruba legend. The CD comes with a lyric sheet with translations, which comes in handy for the kind of patois that Amayo sings, partly in Yoruba and partly in English.

The CD contains six lengthy pieces, most of which are thoroughly danceable. It opens with the closest thing to a protest song it has, Dirty Money, written by rejoining guitarist Luke O'Malley. <<>> Like most of the album, the bulk of this track is instrumental. It's a good example of the cross pollenization going on -- an American band performing music that originated in Nigeria, influenced by the all-American James Brown. <<>>

One of the highlights of the album both musically and lyrically is Rat Catcher, about a man whose obsession with catching the pesky rodents eventually traps him. It's got a great danceable Afro-Beat groove. <<>>

With a somewhat more exotic sound is a track called Him Belly No Go Sweet. It's bilingual lyrically, and musically another interesting hybrid pairing African vocal influence with a mix of American funk rhythms. <<>>

Ari Degbe, translates as the "spirit of the metalsmith" and goes on to praise various occupations such as farmers, teachers, policemen, painters and others. The mostly instrumental track is the kind of epitome of the Afro-Beat sound, with a great groove, but with its minor key giving it a bittersweet quality. <<>>

Another piece with lyrics based on African folk influence is called Ibeji, an original by lead vocalist Amayo. The more contemplative-sounding piece has a subtitle that translates as "Twins -- for Balance and Abundance." It relies more on the complicated interweaving African rhythms than the funk beat of much of the rest of the album. <<>>

The CD ends with Sari Kon Kon translating as "running fast." The tune certainly does, at a nearly frenetic pace. Consequently, it's probably the closest thing to a disappointment on this otherwise strong album. <<>>

Antibalas, the new fifth album by the New York-based Afro-Beat band of the same name is probably the best yet from this 11-member ensemble that carries on in the style influenced by the late Fela Kuti. The group brings together most of the distinctive parts of the sound, the funk beat with African textures, the large horn section, the prominent role played by the vintage electronic keyboards, and the suitably exotic vocals in a mixture of Yoruba and English. With that many people putting down such a tight but multifaceted beat, it's hard not to be drawn into the rhythmic drive. And it's also interesting music in a number of ways, unlike the repetitive inflexible electronic beats of most dance music these days.

Our grade for audio quality is a "B." The CD was recorded in a studio in Brooklyn on an old analog 8-track tape machine. With as many instruments as Antibalas has, a degree of control in the mix process was lost. So the recording does not have the kind of clarity that would make this ensemble really stand out sonically. Dynamic range -- how well the loud and soft of the music was reproduced -- is mediocre, but it's not as heavily compressed as many other CDs.

Antibalas founder Martin Perna pointed out that when this group was formed in 1998, there were relatively few bands on the American scene adopting the Afro-Beat style. Now there are several others, including the Chicago Afro-Beat Project, whom we reviewed on this series a couple of years ago. But Antibalas is arguably about the best on the scene and their new eponymous album is both rhythmically irresistible and musically interesting.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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