In the aftermath of Fela Kuti's highlife/jazz/funk invention called Afro-beat, few groups have come close to the freshness, energy, and poignancy of his work. One reason is logistical: it can be hard to keep a large group together long enough to develop a coherent voice. Another reason is the cultural barrier that can prevent Western musicians from penetrating the inherently African sound of Fela's music. Finally, it seems impossible to build a critical mass without invoking some sort of collectivist mentality. Even though Afro-beat's inventor was a leader of the highest order, his band retained a looseness that made every voice equally important.
Antibalas, otherwise known as the Antibalas Orchestra, has surmounted each of these obstacles. The New York collective draws its members from around the world, and each musician brings something unique to the group. Talkativ represents a logical progression from the group's previous record, Liberation Afrobeat (Ninja Tune, 2001). It has the same rhythmic freedom, drawing from Cuban and other Latin American styles in addition to the West African concept of interlocking beats. The underpinnings remain deeply rooted in funk, and a strong jazz element creeps in through the instrumentation and voices of the melody instruments. James Brown, anyone?
But what distinguishes this record is its coherence. The rhythm section, such as it is, has a fine-tuned sense of balance. Repetition, which occurs everywhere on this record, exists to serve a greater goal: providing a skeletal framework on which to hang the melody and shake the booty. Each instrument in the rhythm section (which at times can be every instrument!) makes itself known through crisp, carefully placed notes. When the horns step in to assert fanfares or harmonized themes, they seem completely logical. Guitarists toss in angular lines that accrue an unstoppable momentum. And as instrumentalists soar into solo space, their travels never lose sight of the ground.
Notable musicians on Talkatif include trumpeter Jordan McLean and keyboard player Victor Axelrod, each of whom improvises memorably across groove space. The percussionists, who can be quite difficult to resolve, have a knack for filling the right spaces and leaving holes where they sound right. But in the end, this is a group thing. Whether playing horns, drums, guitars, keyboards, or voice, every player is part of a greater whole. And that's the magic of Talkativ.
Check out Antibalas on its February/March tour to experience its reinvented Afro-beat live. Visit Antibalas and Ninja Tune for more information.
Personnel: Jordan McLean: first trumpet; Anda Szilagyi, Todd Simon: trumpets;
Micheal Herbst: tenor saxophone; Martin Perna: baritone saxophone;
Stuart Bogie: alto saxophone; Aaron Johnson: trombone; Mike Wagner:
trombone; Ernesto Abreau: lead conguero; Fernando Velez: congas,
percussion; Duke Amayo: vocals, congas, percussion; Phil Ballman:
drumset; Giancarlo Luiggi: shekere; Dylan Fusillo: sticks, percussion,
drumset; Del Sribling: bass; Gabriel Roth: guitar; Luke O'Malley: guitar;
Victor Axelrod: keyboards.