Antibalas were the perfect choice of house band for the off- and on-Broadway runs of the Fela! musical, based on the life of afrobeat progenitor Fela Kuti. The 12-strong New York collective has spent the last 14 years spreading Fela’s afrobeat gospel across the globe with all-singing, all-dancing shows packing more energy than most musicals, let alone garden-variety indie bands.
But although they’ve performed plenty of Kuti covers, their own material has proven Antibalas to be much more than a tribute band. While there’s no shortage of bands capturing the sound of afrobeat, few have also captured its fury. Yet Antibalas’ previous albums, such as 2002’s Talkatif and 2004’s Who Is This America?, carried a righteous ire within their riotous grooves.
And this is a trait that, pleasingly, hasn’t been quelled by their brush with Broadway. The English lyrics of Dirty Money and The Ratcatcher, as well as the equally impassioned-sounding Yoruba words of Ari Degbe, indicate that the band’s fires are burning as brightly as ever on this fifth album.
Their Fela! experience has had some influence, though. Musical director Aaron Johnson might have talked about the difficulty of translating Kuti’s 20-minute tracks into five-minute snippets for the stage, but it’s a process that seems to have resulted in the leanest and most focused Antibalas album yet.
They still only get through six tracks in 45 minutes, but whilst the horns of Him Belly No Go Sweet are as blazing and jubilant as ever, they’re driven by a much tighter rhythm section. On the nimble breakbeats of Sáré Kon Kon, this element bears more than a passing resemblance to drum ’n’ bass.
Yet Antibalas’ release feels timely for more reasons that just the resurgence of interest following Fela!. Beyond their lyrics, and the video to first single Dirty Money, Antibalas’ music embodies the principles of grassroots revolutionary movements like Occupy as the disparate voices of guitars, brass and organ all move in one unified direction; each having their say without drowning out their companions.
Antibalas is musical democracy in action, and an inspiring example of a band practicing what they preach.