Antibalas Afro Beat Orchestra: Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1


By Ted Swedenburg

Just when you thought that Afrobeat, epitomized by the late and great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, was dead, or rather, the product of a bygone Third-Worldist, anti-imperialist era: all of a sudden, a veritable (and still on-going) deluge of re-releases of Fela’s voluminous and previously hard-to-find recordings. Fela’s son Femi Kuti, storming the World Music scene with his retooled Afrobeat. And now, New York City’s own Antibalas Afro Beat Orchestra, conjuring up Fela’s political spirit and inimitable musical energy for the globalized twenty-first century.

What is truly amazing is how supremely well this 15-member multi-racial and multi-racial Brooklyn collective manages to channel Fela’s Afrobeat sound—its multi-layered instrumental density, its long, repetitive, and hypnotic grooves, its breathtaking polyrhythms, the atmospherics of deep dread combined with a frenetic intensity, and that dirty, low-down funkiness that few besides James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Fela have every been able to produce. The numbers are mostly instrumental, with only the occasional chanted, evocative slogans thrown in, and are for the most part up-tempo and eminently dance-friendly. I like slightly less the two slower numbers (“Battle of the Species” and “N.E.S.T.A. (Never Ever Submit to Authority)” which drag just a bit. The song titles evoke Third World, peasant-based liberation struggles: “Dirt and Blood” and “El Machete” and “Uprising” and “Se, Se Puede”.

But Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 is not the music of solidarity with heroic revolutionaries elsewhere nor the sounds of nostalgia for a bygone, militant Afrobeat. Rather, it’s Afrobeat refunctioned for current political battles here in the US. The leader of Antibalas (“bulletproof” or literally, “anti-bullets” in Spanish), Martin Antibalas (Perna), is a staunch anarchist, whose father is Mexican, and who sees close parallels between the current situation in Mexico and the conditions Fela described in Africa. (Martin first learned of Fela from the credit sheet of an album by X-Clan, who sampled Fela on the track “Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It?”) Antibalas perform frequently on behalf of political causes: to support community gardens in New York City (a revolutionary activity, given the current hyper-capitalist real estate climate), to benefit Paper Tiger TV, at the counter-activities of the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, in opposition to the US Navy bombing on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, and at a NYC anarchist-activist center. But mostly, they are militants of the politics of dance, with a fierce schedule of live performances, including a Friday-night residency at NYC club No Moore.

Given the upsurge of struggles against globalization, heralded by the Seattle demonstrations against the WTO, and given the new kinds of politics associated with anti-globalizations (defenders of Sea Turtles, hand-in-hand with the Teamsters), the anarchistic, community garden-friendly sounds of Antibalas Afro Beat Orchestra hardly seem, as the San Francisco Bay Guardian has described them, “hopelessly nostalgic” but rather, preeminently contemporary and relevant.

(Afro Liberation Beats Vol. 1 was re-released, with two new songs, and minus a live version of “Blood and Dirt”, by Ninja Tunes in April 2001. The Afrosound Records version, reviewed here, may now be a collector’s item. Whichever version you can find is well worth the price of admission.)

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