"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.