Having come back into fashion a decade ago, afrobeat isn’t so much resurgent as it is enduring. These days it might even more popular than it was in the 1970s — setting off dance parties, blasting over café speakers, occupying whole sections at record stores, and even influencing indie-rock records. Its immersion into the global mainstream is in large part due to the revived interest in Fela Kuti, the Nigerian afrobeat rebel whose life is chronicled as equal parts musical innovator and controversial social activist. Over the years protégés of Kuti’s Africa ’70 band have exploded everywhere from San Francisco to London, but none may have been more instrumental to afrobeat’s second coming in the States than the Brooklyn-based ensemble Antibalas.
Antibalas’ self-titled fifth studio album is a collection of raw afrobeat tunes presenting the group at full force for the first time since Security in 2007. In the meantime, individual members have kept busy with countless guest spots and side projects, including scoring and playing the arrangements for the Broadway musical Fela! So maybe it’s no coincidence that the new tunes have Kuti written all over them, with tracks staying over the six-minute mark and the whole band stepping in time to Yoruba chants, call-and-response dynamics, eruptive horn lines, signature funk-guitar riffs, and dense, rhythmic patterns.
Returning to Daptone Records’ legendary House of Soul Studios to write and record, Antibalas once again enlisted Daptone co-founder, resident producer, and engineer Gabriel Roth, who might best be known for his production work for Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones. The reunion of the band with Roth is important in appreciating why this record works the way it does. Anyone who has seen Antibalas live knows that it can dish out serious grooves, and capturing its raw quality on record is what Roth does really well.
The up-tempo “Dirty Money” opens the record, recorded live on eight-track tape, with a sense of urgency; African polyrhythms bounce off fuzzed-out key lines and sharp, tight-knit horn phrases bite eagerly to drive the song forward. Similar to the balance found on 2001’s Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1, there’s an exciting throwback feel that doesn’t come off as “retro.”
But the connection to Kuti and his landmark Africa ’70 ensemble is always present, especially when lead singer Abraham Amayo is thrown into the mix. Much like the Kuti, the British-born, Nigerian-raised singer is a powerhouse on the mic, a storyteller using his voice as an instrument to contextualize the sociopolitical aspects from which the genre originated. With the call-and-response dynamic that has come to distinguish afro-styled grooves, Amayo’s fiery vocal performances on tracks like “The Ratcatcher” and “Him Belly Go No Sweet” serve as reminders that Antibalas addresses a range of social and cultural themes.
By the same token, Antibalas is simply one of the few true collectives out there that has the chops to offer such precise, technically savvy grooves. The band locks into a hypnotic calypso-esque rhythm on “Sáré Kon Kon,” and it doesn’t let go for 10 minutes. That’s quite a feat for a group comprised of 11 or more members of different nationalities and ages at any given time. Yes, the vision may appear to be singular, maybe even predictable, but ears familiar to Fela’s original sound recognize that the reward of afrobeat, much like jazz, is in the interplay between musicians. In Antibalas’ case, the chemistry is still there — stronger and more focused than ever.