Antibalas’ self-titled fifth album marks a return for the band in many ways, including working again with producer/engineer Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Man, co-founder of Daptone, Dap-Kings bandleader, and producer of Antibalas’ first three albums. Five years after 2007’s Security, an album that saw Antibalas pushing its limits, the group has also returned to the sound that they helped to re-introduce (at least to American audiences) in 1998, no doubt prompted by various band members working with the Broadway production Fela! in the interim.
In the 14 years since Antibalas’ formation, the band has been the torchbearer for a resurgence in the exuberant percussion and poly-rhythmic sounds of afro-beat, which now includes other artists such as Ann Arbor’s Nomo, the Chicago Afrobeat Project, and New York’s Kokolo. Blending in elements of Cuban Son, American soul, and Latin dance rhythms with a smart, savvy approach to political and social protest, Antibalas evolved the sound while keeping the spirit of the genre’s forefathers (artists like Kuti, Tony Allen, and Sonny Okosun). That spirit of unrest is very much alive on Antibalas.
With only six songs and coming in around 45 minutes, Antibalas explodes out of the gate with rolling percussion and doesn’t let up until the last crash. Afro-beat is partially defined by every element maintaining a rhythm and groove unto itself while simultaneously being part of the whole. This is best exemplified by album closer “Sare Kon Kon (Running Fast)”, a song that certainly lives up to its parenthetical title as well as showcasing Antibalas’ exceptional musicianship.
However, afro-beat is not defined by poly-rhythms alone, but also by the message it wants to convey — a message that seeks to expose corruption and injustice. Even the title of single “Dirty Money” points directly at current issues. Band founder Martin Perna has suggested that it could indeed be seen as “taking a dig” at the current global financial crises, but the song speaks to a more universal truth – the self-destructive nature associated with money’s seductive power. That self-destruction is thematically carried over on “The Ratcatcher (Di Ratcatcha)”, a song whose protagonist, in his desire to catch a rat, builds a trap so large that it not only continues to attract more rats but traps himself inside as well. By using such straightforward metaphors, Antibalas allows its message to cross over to any walk of life, and that global awareness helps keep them true to the spirit of the music.
And while some have criticized Antibalas for lacking the anger and danger often associated with the genre’s founders, it must be remembered, to slightly misquote Roy Ayers, “[They] live in Brooklyn, baby.” Yes, there is enough injustice and corruption to incite anger in any American actually paying attention, but Kuti had an army breaking down his doors regularly. While Williamsburg hipsters may be in danger of getting their asses kicked by Bronx residents, Brooklyn will always be tamer than 1970s Nigeria.
Essential Tracks: “Dirty Money”, “Sare Kon Kon”