Nick Bollinger lends an ear to an Afrobeat fable from New York ensemble Antibalas.
Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician, activist and inventor of Afrobeat, was a unique force and his likes will not be seen again. Which doesn’t mean that when Fela died in 1997 the music died with him. Not only do at least two of his sons lead bands dedicated to performing Fela’s music, but Afrobeat bands have sprung up all over the world, and not just in Africa. There’s even been New Zealand Afrobeat. But one of the music’s best known, and most enduring exponents, is a group from Brooklyn, New York.
Founded the year after Fela Kuti’s death, Antibalas started out playing clubs and parties around New York and soon came under the wing of Gabriel Roth, founder of the Daptone label, who produced their first few albums. Their profile was lifted further when they appeared for several seasons on and off Broadway as part of Fela!, the musical celebrating the life of their hero and inspiration.
On their latest new album Fela’s inspiration can still be felt in its grooves, with other influences as well.
Fela Kuti’s music was famously political, dealing very specifically with the corruption and hypocrisy he saw in the Nigerian government, and Antibalas seem to take from Fela the idea of music as a vehicle for social agitation. Given the current political climate of the United States, and the fact that several members of Antibalas are immigrants, there are plenty of obvious targets. But while the album is political, the politics take the form of a fable.
It starts with singer Duke Amayo depicting a world of greed and exploitation, not dissimilar to the one Fela Kuti preached about. But things take a turn for the cosmic, when emissaries arrive from a utopian intergalactic island to teach a lesson in unity and harmonious coexistence. Meanwhile the grooves just get deeper. I’m not really sure about the whole cosmic operetta. Unlike Fela, whose words always had a rhythmic urgency, Amayo’s singing sometimes seems to be holding back the beat. But the story is, in a way, just a framework for Antibalas to build their grooves around, and when they cut loose in the long instrumentals between vocals, the grooves are spectacular.
Eventually, another lead voice enters the proceedings: that of Belgian Afro-pop queen Zap Mama, cast here as some sort of spiritual goddess. By this point I’ve pretty much lost the thread of the narrative, which doesn’t stop it all from building to a satisfying finale.
Antibalas’s Where The Gods Are In Peace might make a lot more sense on stage than on record. As I say, it’s pretty much an opera or a musical. But narrative aside, it’s full of great ensemble playing and tightly knitted polyrhythms. And it’s a long way from being a mere Fela tribute. On Where The Gods Are In Peace, Antibalas have effectively created their own utopian island, and this is its joyous soundtrack.
Where The Gods Are In Peace is available on Daptone