‘Bulletproof Afrobeat from Brooklyn’
When you’re inspired by greatness you can’t be faulted for wearing your influences on your sleeve – or your CD cover for that matter. Ghariokwu Lemi, who designed the majority of the album art for the late, great Fela Kuti, created the look of ‘Talkatif’, the sophomore release from Brooklyn’s keepers of authentic Afrobeat, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.
On ‘Talkatif’, Antibalas (Spanish for Bulletproof) pay unabashed homage to Fela, the father of Afrobeat and confirm their ironclad dedication to the preservation of this music’s soul. “We consider Fela to be the inventor of the genre of Afrobeat, in terms of his orchestration, instrumentation and compositional strategies, so we definitely stay close to the model he put forward because over the course of his very long, prolific career, he really refined his music to such a degree that now, it stands as a viable vehicle on its own.”
Antibalas were in a vehicle of their own, somewhere in Ohio when I caught up with drummer, Phil Ballman by phone. He calmly laid down the band’s manifesto for me. His relaxed manner betrayed only by a quiver in his voice, which I would later find out was due to a particularly bumpy stretch of highway. “So, we’re just trying to learn Fela’s style for ourselves just like another musical outfit might be really inspired by one of the originators of salsa or something like that.”
An originator to be sure, as James Brown did for soul, George Clinton for funk and Bob Marley, reggae, Fela Anikkulapo (Ransome) Kuti defined and pioneered a distinct musical style. The rhythmic hybrid of jazz and Nigerian highlife would be distinguished by the blaring horns, antiphonal vocals, percolating guitars and smoldering grooves that he dubbed, Afrobeat. Through over fifty releases he refined his sound as he defined himself a political radical; outlaw to many, hero to many more. Before he became weakened through complications from AIDS which eventually ended his life on August 3rd of 1997, Fela’s performances became truly, the stuff of legend. His issue-charged vocals underpinned by relentless, massive grooves amounted to nothing less than a full frontal attack. Those lucky enough to have seen him live, never stood a chance. They had been indelibly branded ‘fans of Afrobeat’.
Obviously, as Phil attests, Antibalas still proudly wear the scars. “We as musicians were so excited by it, we loved it so much that we just wanted to play it. Rather than dilute it for the sake of making it ‘updated’ by adding synthesizers, drum machines or in other ways trying to modernize it, we felt that in its natural state, Afrobeat was its most vital. Our main goal is to preserve that excitement for both the performer and the audience.”
Keeping sight of their goal, the band seems to have developed a code to maintain the integrity and soul of the music. Their motto; “Afrobeat is best made when the musicians are not trying to see who has the biggest dick.” Words to live by if you perform in a large, groove-based ensemble where certain lights might try to outshine others. Phil, while somewhat embarrassed by the quote, nevertheless reinforces the logic. “Particularly in this kind of music it’s about the collective groove. Each instrument has a specific role and rhythmic niche to fit in. If people are not disciplined and they do not cue to their role, the overall sound becomes muddy. There is room for individual expression, for everyone to do their thing but it’s within given parameters. It’s important and it took us a while to find that out ourselves.”
The group has learned their respective roles. On their latest release, Talkatif (Ninja Tunes, 2002), the performances are tight as a drum. The sounds are pristine; bulletproof you might say, reproduced with much love and respect for the music. No small feat for a large ensemble (their ranks swollen to seventeen contributing musicians for the Talkatif sessions according to the album credits), even more of an accomplishment considering where and how the disc was recorded. Phil explains.
“We had a longstanding, weekly gig at a place called No More. Our party was called Africalia, which went for eight months, every Friday night and we were able to draw a steady crowd. So with the money from that we were able to build a studio in the basement of our Williamsburg, Brooklyn rehearsal space literally from nothing. There was a dirt floor and open ceiling beams but we put in the whole thing along with all the wiring and stuff. Our guitar player and engineer, Gabriel Roth is a very accomplished engineer and producer. So he just took all his gear and we put it in there. With our own studio in place, we had the leisure to record at our own pace, take our time and really do everything right.”
“Talkatif was very methodical. We did tracks group by group like the rhythm section first, then the congas, then we’d do a pass with the guitars and a pass with the horns and finally, the vocals. There’s lot’s of separation that way and everything sounds really clean.”
Cuts like Gabe’s New Joint, the conversational title track and Hypocrite bubble with Afrobeat authenticity. The band’s single-minded obsession with the music no doubt keeps them true to the spirit but one can’t help but think that the Antibalas D.I.Y.
approach also karmically suits Afrobeat’s original roots in struggle. The message in the music hasn’t been overlooked on Talkatif as emphasized in the album’s closer, N.E.S.T.A. 75. “That tune was written by our sax player, Martin Perna and the acronym stands for ‘never, ever submit to authority’. It’s an alternate mix of a tune which appeared on our first album, and this version was meant to have that 1975 kind of feel to it.”
That’s not to say that respecting your influences means having to dwell on the past, stuck in a time warp like some kind of tribute act. Whether we choose them or they choose us, good influences simply better prepare us for facing the future. Antibalas have chosen well and their message is a model of forward thinking. A quote on the inside liner says it best; “Talkatif is dedicated to people all over the earth who create positive change by changing themselves.” Phil gives the dedication a personal spin.
“For myself, music has been a path of spiritual and intellectual development. Actually, the music itself has been the teacher. If people can listen to our music and hear something that gives them strength, nourishment and hope, then maybe that’s a beginning.”
Vancouver gets its chance to hear Antibalas live, June 26th when the band performs for the first time in this city at the Commodore Ballroom alongside fellow New Yorkers, Sex Mob as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
Cal Koat is a freelance, world music broadcaster living in Vancouver.