Over the last decade, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra has established itself as one of the leading purveyors of afrobeats in the world. The genre founded in the 1960s, by Fela Kuti in Nigeria, hybrids jazz with the Yoruba/Nigerian music tradition and incorporates Afrocuban, palmwine, apala, highlife, funk, and soul. The result is an eclectic, mutable assortment of sound, one that’s both horn-driven and motivated by bass, both up tempo and chill funk, both African and American. It’s James Brown with congas, Zola without the heavy bass drops. Overlaying a distinct, frantic style of composition with unabashedly political lyrics, Kuti created a new form of protest music, one that fits as perfectly in today’s US as it did in 1960s Lagos.
Antibalas, with the early influences of Jojo Kuo, a drummer in Kuti’s Egypt 80 band, have re-imagined the afrobeat tradition by both respecting and experimenting with the sound. Their first three full-length releases and numerous singles have garnered great acclaim, pulling the band out of the Brooklyn basements it once played and putting it center stage in venues as varied as Central Park, Rikers Island prison, and the Bonnaroo music festival. The Village Voice remarked after the band’s third release in 2004 that its sound was “right on time,” though this mainly resulted from the lyrical ability to mirror the year’s reigning disenchantment with politics.
It would be unfair to suggest that the major appeal of Antibalas, or afrobeat in general, lies in the potency of the lyrics — angry but brief diatribes against the establishment — that have become emblematic of the sound. Still, these political statements prove a major lure for both listeners and band members alike. Security, the fourth album by the dozen-member collective, doesn’t neglect that attraction. Vocalist Amayo, who grew up in the Lagos neighborhood where Fela Kuti’s Shrine nightclub was located, has perfected the inflections and hectic recitations of lyrics that Kuti trademarked. He uses his booming, but embracing, voice to rail against such things as false intelligence (presumably a reference to the war in Iraq), Dick Cheney, and The No Child Left Behind Act. In the lengthy, frantic “Filibuster X”, he dedicates his vocal attentions to the loss of two-party rule, combining references to electoral fraud with succinct lyrics like “Democratic rule is over”. An inflected call-and-response in the same song includes: “G-O-P what they say? Clean the air … G-O-P what they do? Choke the sky”.
True, these political references may turn off some potential fans. Though they are a fundamental part of the afrobeat sound (Kuti, for his part, used the music as a call to arms for those repressed by the Nigerian class system) they are not the basis for the sound. Antibalas’ most remarkable skill lies with the easy marriage of these emotionally-heavy lyrics with an upbeat tempo that tweaks afrobeat with classical, latin, and funk. The music feels most effective in this collaboration of sound as it reflects the band’s (and the genre’s) unique style.
Security embraces this style well as the band concentrates more on the capabilities of the individual musicians. The result is a different –- calmer — album than the previous. Perhaps this arises in part because the album was recorded with musician/producer John McEntire (whose credits include Tortoise and Stereolab). Perhaps it’s the consequence of years of travel together, with the band finally feeling comfortable in its own skin. Perhaps they’ve evolved as a result of the members’ assorted collaborative efforts, which have recently included work with such diverse artists as Baaba Maal, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wu Tang Clan, and TV on the Radio.
Whatever the reason for the change, the band is all the better for it. The ever-rotating arrangement of instruments comes off more polished and practiced. Members work equally as well within an afrobeat framework as they do in other styles, such as modern-day big band, or bass-heavy funk. And though no album could ever match the mishmash hysteria of a live show (which in the past has included surprise visits by various members of Fela Kuti’s and his son Femi Kuti’s bands), Security offers an insightful and excitable polyrhythmic spree for newcomers and lovers of afrobeat alike.