ANTIBALAS performing as part of the EXCLAIM! 10th Anniversary Party with the HIDDEN CAMERAS, Bobby Wiseman, MANITOBA, I AM ROBOT AND PROUD, WILL MONRO, DEE JAY NAV and BLOW UP's DAVY LOVE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Saturday (April 6). $13 advance. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
the idea of a new york afrobeat band might sound like the equivalent of Swedish reggae, but for the 18 members of Antibalas, performing the music defined by Fela Anikulapo Kuti seemed like the natural way to go. Not only did Afrobeat combine the best elements of funk and jazz, providing an open framework for group improvisation within a dance band context, but it was an incredible kick to play, too.
That delirious excitement drenches their ripping new Talkatif (Ninja Tune) disc, which rolls tight with a significant upgrade in groove quotient from their hard-pounding Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1 (Ninja Tune) debut and a corresponding jump in production levels.
No longer is Antibalas recreating the sound Fela set in motion 30 years ago. The outfit has a whole new perspective on Afrobeat, building on the legacy of Fela's Afrika 70 and Egypt 80 ensembles.
"We'd only been playing together for about four months when Liberation Afrobeat was recorded," explains drummer Phil Ballman from his Brooklyn office.
"By the time we were ready to record Talkatif, we had a much better sense of what we were trying to accomplish as a group and individually -- we were doing three gigs a week non-stop then.
"Also, the work on our new studio was finally complete, so we could take all the time we needed to record things right."
According to Antibalas's guitar-riffing producer/engineer, Gabriel Roth, the improvement in sound was a conscious decision. Just as intentional, he claims, as it was to make the Liberation Afrobeat sound dirty and raw, similar to the funk recordings on his Desco and, more recently, Daptone labels.
"There has been some talk of a technological step forward with this record," chuckles Roth from his New York apartment. "But that's not accurate. On the first album, we were going for a rougher feel, much like the Daktaris album we released on Desco. For Talkatif we wanted something that was a bit cleaner.
"The horns were recorded together in a bigger wooden room using just one microphone, which resulted in a more natural sound of a horn section. And with this album I tried adding some tape delay for a bit of slap-back echo, which isn't really used any more, but it worked surprisingly well. You'd expect that would make the sound muddier, but instead it gave the drums an eerie crispness.
"For a long time now I've been criticized for making records that sound old. But the concept of old or new isn't important as long as it sounds cool."
Suspect fidelity has been the least of the criticisms levelled at Antibalas since they began bashing out extended Afrobeat jams. The notion of an American group working within an essentially African form raised racial issues of authenticity.
"There's a great misconception that Afrobeat is purely African music. It's not. It's a very cosmopolitan music profoundly influenced by American music. Before Fela and his band were stranded in Los Angeles in 69 and hooked up with Sandra Isadore, he was playing a jazzy style of highlife and singing primarily about girls and spicy food.
"The whole back-and-forth dialogue between African and American music is fundamental to the American musical culture and an essential part of my background. It's only natural that as a drummer I'd want to study and play African rhythms."
The other point of controversy is that Antibalas is seen by some to be stealing Fela's music. It's an understandable misconception; since Fela was Afrobeat's creator and best-known innovator, the music created by anyone working within the form is bound to have some similarities to Fela's joints.
But that doesn't mean Antibalas should be dismissed as merely a repertory group, much less copyists or thieves.
"Wynton Marsalis has made a nice career for himself leading the Lincoln Center Orchestra, and much of their activity is preservationist -- keeping older forms alive by playing Duke Ellington tunes. I'd argue that those recreations are much more slavish in their devotion to the details of the original music, right down to the period instruments, than anything we're doing.
"It's funny. You'd never hear anyone criticize a pianist playing a Beethoven sonata for just copying the music of "some German guy.'"
For Roth, who had to deal with similar biting accusations surrounding the release of the Daktaris album, the questions of originality and authenticity must seem like déjà vu.
"When we put out the Daktaris album," he remembers, "we got a lot of calls from journalists and musicologists trying to find out who made the music. They wanted to know if they were Africans from Africa, African Americans or otherwise. It was like they were reserving judgment on whether the music was good until they determined the colour of the artists' skin.
"With regard to originality, there are specific things that happen melodically, harmonically and rhythmically in Afrobeat -- like the way the bass, tenor and rhythm guitars work in unison -- that would make it difficult to play Afrobeat without sounding like Fela.
"I don't know that the goal of every musician should be to create something that no one has heard before. We all know that originality has never been a big issue in pop music.
"Maybe making huge departures from what Fela did wouldn't be the best thing for Afrobeat anyway. There's plenty of room within the framework that Fela set down to compose exciting, original music."firstname.lastname@example.orgEssential Fela
In the past year, there's been a welcome deluge of classic long-out-of-print Fela Anikulapo Kuti reissues, thanks to the growing interest in Afrobeat. Antibalas drummer Phil Ballman recalls the Fela tracks that changed his life.
Zombie "The first Fela tune I heard and the first one I fell in love with." From Zombie (Celluloid)
J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop) "Recorded with the Afrika 70 band, this is Fela's all-time dance-floor killer." From J.J.D. (Barclay/Universal)
Trouble Sleep "It's just so melancholic and beautiful." From Fela Singles (MCA/Universal)
J'Ehin J'Ehin "A wonderfully sweet groove." From Fela's London Scene (Stern's)
Confusion "The amazing improvisational intro is unlike anything else Fela recorded." From Confusion (Barclay/Universal)TP