For those who thought Afrobeat died in the '70s, Antibalas has something else coming. The grooves on Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1 run as deep as anything that ever came out of Lagos. This 13-15 member orchestra, in the grand tradition of Fela Kuti's groups, builds up unfolding trance music by using just about every instrument as a rhythm instrument. Even the horns lay out lines bubbling with counterpoint and accent. It's a remarkable demonstration of the idea of a sound collective, where people intersect from wildly different backgrounds in order to create music together. And make no mistake: the Antibalas Orchestra is first and foremost a protest group. With tunes like "N.E.S.T.A. (Never Ever Submit To Authority)" and direct statements against police and the courts, the orchestra stands firmly against the New World Order. (But interestingly, they do have a conductorin the form of Martin Antibalas himself, who also deftly handles the baritone saxophone.)
These eight midlength pieces (6-10 minutes) each occupy a distinct segment of the groove zone. While there's not much change of key, they rely on a couple of important jazz concepts. First, there's a head and there are solos. Instrumental refrains generally come via arranged horn lines, demarcating extended periods of group and solo improvisation. Second, each track has its own rhythmic structure, meaning that beats (and interlocking beats) organize around an agreed-upon foundation. The tunefulness that results gives this music character and guarantees that the next song will not sound the same. That's very important in a world of deep grooves, funky beats, vamps, and the inherent potential for flaccidity.
Two of the eight tunes feature live performance, which reveals a rawer side of the Antibalas Orchestra. Many of the musicians lay out, allowing more spare improvisation (and vocals) to lead the way into full-force performance. As for the rest: "Battle of the Species" offers an soaring message, using harmonized horn lines as a refrain for periodic improvisational interludes. (Yes, it's a very retro approach: James Brown was doing this sort of thing several decades ago. But freshness is a state of mind, and the Antibalas Orchestra makes a point of that.) "El Macheto" uses sharply interlocking guitar patterns as its foundation, with a cascade of drummers filling in the gaps. Intensity erupts and dissipates through trumpet and sax solos, infusing the group with extra energy and tension.
Provided you can dig a groove for seven or eight minutes (which, by the way, is a whole lot shorter than Fela's record sides), the Antibalas Orchestra will likely inspire you to celebrate its own personal Afrobeat. And that is a wondrous thing indeed.
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Personnel: Martin Antibalas: conductor, baritone saxophone; Duke Amayo: vocals,
conga; Philip Ballman: drums; Giancarlo Luiggi: shekere; Dylan Fusillo:
sticks, drums; Fernando Velez: conga; Luke O'Malley: guitar; Mother Africa:
second guitar; Don Bonus: trombone; Amadou Diallo: guitar, bass guitar;
Victor Axelrod: organ; Michael Herbst: tenor and alto saxophone; Jordan
McLean: trumpet; Nick Movshon: bass.