Published Mar 01, 2002Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti. Very few have inspired so many with their music, words, struggles, and beliefs as this great, sorely missed Nigerian artist. Even fewer have almost single-handedly invented a genre. Though he found his own inspiration in diverse sounds and sources Yoruba drumming and theatre, highlife, jazz, funk, blues, Nigeria's oppressive government, his activist mother, the black civil rights movement in the U.S. Fela Kuti worked as bandleader to fuse them into a sound he made his own: Afrobeat.
And so it goes that when speaking of Afrobeat the story begins, but does not end, with Fela and his Africa 70 band. Their killer rhythms, heavy horns, and pointed, politicised lyrics lit a spark, leading many other Nigerian artists to incorporate elements of its fusion and the Nigerian military to imprison Fela on several occasions. To this day, Fela Kuti and his contemporaries continue to fascinate and inspire musicians, DJs, dancers, beat- and fact-junkies alike.
Afrobeat bands can now be found in many corners of the globe. Original Africa 70 drummer (and the man credited with creating the beat in Afrobeat) Tony Allen continues to experiment and evolve while living in France, with solo projects, numerous collaborations and his Afro Messengers band. Fela's eldest son Femi Anikulapo-Kuti has gained massive respect and popularity for his own musicianship, stage presence and increasing political outspokenness with his Positive Force band. Artists such as Toronto's Culture Force (led by funky, politicised Nigerian vocalist and musician Femi Abosede) and London, England's Ju Ju Juice Afrobeat Band (led by former Jazz Warriors and Incognito saxophonist Ray Carless) have also long been spreading the vibe.
But look into today's Afrobeat, and another band name comes up consistently: Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Formed in 1998 by baritone sax player and lyricist Martin Perna, the 15-member, New York-based collective has garnered great interest and critical praise for their storming live shows and Liberation Afrobeat debut. With the release of their second album, Talkatif, (out March 19 on Ninja Tune), the band is certain to expand on an already broad fan base.
"We've worked hard, but we've also been lucky," says Antibalas drummer Philip Ballman of their success thus far. "Martin had great instincts in the forming of the band it was an idea whose time had come. Somebody would have done it sooner or later and he was just the one who had the vision to make it happen. There was definitely Afrobeat in the air, people wanted to hear about it Femi was breaking out, all the Fela reissues came out so we were kind of right place, right time. Then we were lucky enough to attract a really diverse range of very talented musicians, and that's where the magic is."
"Diverse" doesn't cover it where the musical backgrounds of this multi-ethnic crew are concerned. Many of the members played in now-infamous Desco Records bands the Daktaris and Soul Providers; both Perna and Ecuadorian-born conga player Fernando Velez were part of King Chango; fellow conga player Ernesto Abreu is steeped in sacred Cuban bata rhythms; vocalist and percussionist Duke Amayo operates a community space, home not only to Antibalas rehearsals and recordings, but also to music, dance and kung fu classes; organist Victor "Ticklah" Axelrod is part of NYC's reggae, dub and ska scenes, while the many horn players are connected to the city's contemporary jazz world. As for Ballman himself, he's recorded in Haiti, played in a gamelan band, touches on jazz and currently also plays in samba projects. And there's more where that came from.
While it's little wonder then that Antibalas (Spanish for anti-bullets) add the flavours of funk, ska, boogaloo and other Latin touches to their Afrobeat blend, it is a minor miracle that they've managed to function as a collective while leaving room for the differing degrees of commitment that parallel musical projects can demand. With an "extended family" of musicians bringing the band's unofficial tally up to roughly 20 people, it's damn impressive that they keep it all together.
"Well," laughs Ballman, "it's the kind of music that's already had a lot of longevity. Plus, the communal aspect is very important, so that very much comes into play. We had the feeling that we weren't just starting a band, but that it was almost a family or a movement.
"Our motto has always been that we're not going to wait for someone else to make things happen for us we'll do it ourselves first. We started our own label, built our own studio and rehearsal space, even made our own merch. Later on a real' label came along and said Hey, we want to do something for you guys.' Now we can focus on the music."
For a band with so many influences and stylistic gestures, Antibalas's focus translates to an ongoing pursuit of playing and recording that perfect Afro beat. More than almost any such band I've heard, they pay obvious tribute to Fela Kuti, staying true to his music's roots, rhythms, soul and political spirit. Though Perna, son in a family of Mexican socialists, writes less of nation-specific acts and results of government depravity than Fela regularly did, his lyrics point to similar and still sharply relevant themes of global corruption and greed. The band's music itself, while fresh to the ears of generations raised on sampled and sequenced beats, is largely derivative of Fela's, leading many to question where a largely white, American band fits into the Afrobeat mix.
Ballman recognises that people may think "Oh man, you guys are just copping Fela's thing.' It's cool, I can see that point of view, but really for me on a gut level, I know that when I first heard Fela and Afrobeat music, I said Wow, this is incredible! This is what I'd love to play!' You get it all, you get that non-stop, killer groove; you get the solos and improvisation of jazz and that kind of freedom; you have the political message that's almost like punk rock very committed and uncompromising. Then you've got the dancers, and whew, it goes for 20 minutes! It's not like you hit it and quit it it's a party."
I ask if Antibalas has received much criticism for being North American yet steeped in African sounds. His tone becomes more reflective. "Not as much as you might think. It's not like we went out and said Okay, we're going to be playing very traditional, sacred rhythm kind of music.' Afrobeat is already a hybrid, it's already very influenced by Western, particularly American, sounds. It already owes a huge debt to American music, which, in general, owes a huge amount to African traditions that were brought here by the slaves, with things like jazz, rock, and funk. One of the reasons everyone in the band is so excited by the music is that it's like Wow, all these different musicians can get together on a project that sort of transcends all the individual genres that we were each involved in.'
"The kind of thing that we face," he continues, "is more like when we first played for musicians who were in Fela's band or we played for Nigerian audiences, there was definitely a little bit of scepticism. Not even so much Oh, can these white guys play?' but Can these non-African guys play Afrobeat?' because it is very specialised. But we really put in our time. It wasn't like we just sat down and said Oh let's play Afrobeat' and boom, it just rolled out."
It's clear that Ballman and crew are devoted to furthering their own sound as they settle deeper into the genre, working to push the music forward as a whole. After all, they're working from the advantageous position of having Afrobeat's formative years and recordings available to learn from and live by. Arrogant as it may seem, they see themselves as keeping a tradition burning. Where North American audiences are concerned, at least, this may very well be true.
"Where we're a little bit different is that most musicians influenced by Fela, like King Sunny Ade he had his thing going already and he just incorporated Afrobeat. Now that Fela is gone, we've been like Let's keep this form alive.' It's too fun, it's too good to let it just fade away. We didn't think that it was just a style, we felt strongly that it's really a genre. It wasn't like we were becoming a Who cover band or something that's just a stylistic gesture. Here, I think before we even knew what we were doing, most of us envisioned that all of us together eventually were going to be able to put our spin on the Afrobeat genre. We knew that the other musics we're involved in were gonna seep through, and I think that's really starting to happen."
There's no doubt that Talkatif finds Antibalas tighter, stronger and more infectious than ever. They sound like the monstrous, blazing, glorious band that they can be on stage. Where their first album was recorded only months into the band's career, as single-take sessions with the band all playing together in one room (the old Desco studios), Talkatif was recorded in the Brooklyn studio Antibalas built in the basement of Duke Amayo's spot. There was the time, room and budget to record the musicians section by section horns, rhythm and so on add overdubs and do more thorough mixing sessions. While this no doubt accounts for the crispness of the sounds with the congas and other percussion coming through just as strong and clear as the tighter than tight horns, deep organ grooves and move-your-butt low end the main contributing factor is obvious: hundreds of gigs played together between the two recordings.
Appropriately to the history of Afrobeat, Antibalas shines brightest when on stage. When they find their groove, they don't let go. On a good night, the musicians work hard for their audience, sweating, connecting and smiling at one another as they bounce between instruments, rhythms and occasional words. Dancers generally go off, encouraging the band to push it up that next notch. Their energy can be captivating, largely because Antibalas play as a close-knit group, not as a collective of soloists simply waiting their moment to soar.
"It's all about finding your space in the rhythm, and maintaining," Phil asserts on the topic of 15 members finding and sharing their voices. "There's plenty of room to move, there's plenty of room for individual expression, but at the same time, we feel that it's most successful when we really keep it locked tight. There's as minimal noodling as possible. We're not a jam band!
"We appreciate the communal aspect of Afrobeat where it's not cool if you just start doing your own thing and noodle around. You have to learn that you occupy a space in an organisation and, in Western culture in American culture so much of what we hear is It's all about me,' individualism, Looking out for number one,' and all that stuff. When you play Afrobeat, you realise pretty quickly that while you're very important as an individual, overriding that is your obligation to the community that you're working within."
"Community" is a significant word and concept to the members of Antibalas. It reflects a commitment to something larger than ourselves, and an effort to work as a collective of equal opinions while not precisely measuring the degree of Antibalas-related work each person is able to take on. It is the band's sense of community and human compassion that is at the core of their politic, as they encourage respect, understanding and positive change. While Antibalas is known to play benefits, give percentages of gig proceeds to charities, and do educational outreach at schools, they have not, as a band, endorsed specific causes, activist groups or organisations. They're up front about the fact that the band members don't agree on every political issue, but they also provide an excellent resource of web links on their site (www.antibalas.com), spanning topics from prison activism to low-powered radio, independent media, anarchism and resources for peaceful protest. You, then, can choose to educate yourself and form your own opinions.
Phil Ballman agrees. "I think what Martin was thinking when he founded the band because he's the one who's really had the most impact in shaping Antibalas ultimately was not so much to get everybody to sign up on the same thing, but for each person to individually experience a kind of opening up. It's not about us telling you what's cool and what's not cool. Who cares? It's just kind of saying Well, we're going to put this out there on a musical level, and on a literal spoken kind of level.' I personally think that the music itself is political; that it holds a lot of lessons and information. Personally, music really opened me up to a lot of different kinds of truths. I think a lot of people can relate to that."
I certainly can, sharing with Ballman that it was the Clash and a certain sociology professor, in that order, who largely inspired my early concern with issues of social justice. "Yeah," jabs Phil, "but ultimately I think it's the musical thing; if the Clash weren't such great musicians and songwriters, nobody would care that they talked about the Sandinistas and all that stuff."
Which brings us back to the musicality of Talkatif. Where previously my personal jury was still out on the issue of how deeply I was feeling their recorded work, this album has sealed the deal. The title track in particular is a nine-minute stunner, almost explosive with its lustrous horns, up-front organ, locked down grooves and wicked percussion. Immediately one of the band's most popular live pieces once added to sets, "Talkatif" is also one of the album's only vocal pieces, making reference to "Empty promises" and repeatedly asking "Can you walk that talk?" Tellingly, the questions were self-directed.
"That was at the point when we were really trying to find our own way organisationally, dealing with the political ramifications of what messages we were putting out there," shares Ballman. "As much as to anybody else, it's a reminder to us that if you say you're going to do something, do it. It's really important to follow through and to not be a bullshitter. There's too much at stake."
My sense is that the band like many humans is still struggling with how to turn its questions and statements into action, as Antibalas bring us songs with titles such as "Dirt and Blood," "Uprising," "Hypocrite," and "World Without Fear." "Mouthing platitudes" some critics may say, but personally I think we're all hypocrites to some degree. I much prefer artists who at least care to think about and comment on the state of the world, and invite others to do the same.
Take the Talkatif song "War Is a Crime." Though hardly a profound or revolutionary statement, the timing of the title reminds that this is far from a popular sentiment within blood-thirsty America at the moment.
"That's actually one of the criticisms we all have," the drummer admits. "We all like the tune, but we are a little worried that that particular lyric and song can come off as naïve. At the same time, the intention behind it was to say that with the moment we're living in right now, it's really not cool to say I don't support war,' I don't support the war.' I don't agree with what's going on.' Taken in that context, I think it has a lot more impact."
This conversation is heightened by the fact that Phil and I spoke the day after George W. Bush's now infamous "axis of evil" State of the Union address. We have no shortage of thoughts. "My personal feeling," remarks Phil, "is if the Bush administration wants to say that terrorism is going to be a thing of the past, well I can totally support that as long as they include American terrorism in there. It's well documented that and I don't care what kind of jingoistic, right wing person says that I'm anti-American because it's a lie it's a fact that America is a notorious terrorist country, has sponsored terrorism around the world for a very long time, and continues to do so. It's really tricky because suddenly you get into What is terrorism exactly?' If you put down a rebel movement in your country and some people die, then are you a terrorist? Or let's say those rebels are living under a military dictatorship and they're rebelling against a truly repressive situation and resort to violence to free themselves is that terrorism?
"Also, what about the whole point of oil? Nobody talks about that, but why do we have such a special relationship with the Saudis and the Israelis? Mostly, it's to protect our interests in the region, and one of our primary interests is access to oil. The thing that really galvanised bin Laden and turned him into a virulently anti-American person was the Gulf War, which as we all know, was a war fought to defend American interest in the Gulf, namely access to oil. So my question is why is it that we're seeing very few people talking about the need to conserve energy and the need to research alternative fuel sources? Both bin Laden and Bush come from oil families, and it's kind of like the white elephant in the corner that everyone pretends to ignore." He laughs, "Business as usual."
And there you have Antibalas. A collective of talented musicians who also have strong thoughts, opinions and, undoubtedly, dichotomies. They've learned well from the great Afrobeat master, working to translate the music and thoughts of Fela Kuti into a sound and politic that is relevant to the worlds and communities in which they live.
"We're not politicians," offers Phil Ballman. "We're just putting things out there and if someone can see the band, maybe hear something that reverberates in them, feel uplifted and have it as an afterglow from our show, that's really the greatest thing we can hope for. If we can just give people some inspiration, nourishment, maybe an opportunity to hear something different and explore something different inside of themselves, we've contributed. Ultimately that's the kind of politics we're talking about."
African Grooves Reissued
Subtitled Jazz, Funk and Fusion Under Apartheid, this quality compilation shines a much appreciated spotlight on South Africa's jazz underground, focusing on artists recording in that country during the 1970s and 80s. If ever there was a question as to how much African music has influenced American jazz, blues, funk and soul and vice versa this collection answers it. Jazz-funk abounds, with the likes of drummer Dick Khoza and his 12-piece band demonstrating their versatility with the hypnotic vocal funk of "Chapita" and the rough dance floor jazz of "African Jive." Tenor sax player Zacks Nkosi and his band are clearly influenced by Blue Note and James Brown alike, keeping it raw while swinging happily between funk and jazz on the Hammond-filled "Half n' Half" and straight-up busting out the funk with "Wilderness." Jabula's super-tight "Thunder Into Our Hearts" takes the fusion to another level, with South African jive at the root. Here, jive guitar meets its funk counterpart, their interaction playing out over rock steady acoustic bass and serious percussion, resulting in one of the most memorable songs I've heard in ages. On a different tip, Pacific Express dip into the space-fusion with the deep, chunky and deliciously huge "The Way It Used to Be" while Soweto trio Harari trip on a heavy dose of Curtis Mayfield to concoct the seriously fresh, tightly wound soul-rock of "Musikana." Above all, however, Movement In the City's "Lament," eleven minutes of moving instrumental magic, tells a story in a way few words can. The pain shared by the alto and tenor saxes, hope heard in the touch of keyboardist Ismael Pops Mohammad, and thoughtfulness of a slow, steady beat and thick pondering bass speaks loud and clear. Afrika Underground shares truths about creating from the soul in a way no made-for-TV movie about apartheid ever could. Not to be missed. (Counterpoint, 28 Wellington Square, Hastings, East Sussex TN34 1PN, UK/ Fusion 3, www.counterpointrecords.co.uk)
As if the supreme quality of reissues from Strut couldn't get any better, Nigeria 70 once again raises the bar on what is possible with a compilation. The level of research into this set is so outstanding that this collection could serve as primary source material for future research into Nigerian society, from independence (1960) to the early '80s. It fleshes out the cultural context that produced Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade and set them onto the world stage, also giving important due to artists such as Sonny Okuson and Gaspar Lawal, who are still going strong. The 24 tracks collected here are beyond rare many were unreleased in the '70s, while others were strictly locally pressed. Nigeria 70 illustrates the range of culture and the motivations of artists in interpreting those cultures in a fascinating period of Nigeria's history. There are breaks galore, if that's what you came for the first four bars of Tunji Oyelana's "Ifa" could support a whole night of freestylin'. "Allah Wakbarr," by Ofo & the Black Company, is surely the hardest rocking praise to Allah ever recorded. The highlight of this set is an hour-long documentary disc of the Lagos scene, musically economically and socially, as narrated by key participants, including a hilariously dishevelled-sounding Ginger Baker, who built the first 24 track studio in all of Africa. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a compilation of African music and culture so well put together. This is an essential document for anyone interested in post-colonial West African society. (Strut/Fusion III, 2 Hargrave Pl., London, UK N7 0BP, www.strut.co.uk)