These days it seems like every city in America has its own Afrobeat combo, if not two or three. We have the Chicago Afrobeat Project, which tomorrow drops a new album, What Goes Up, featuring a guest appearance by the legendary Tony Allen—the drummer who helped create the style in the 1960s as the musical director of bands led by Nigerian agitprop-funk hero Fela Anikulapo Kuti. But once upon a time, Afrobeat was a rare commodity in this country—formed in the late 90s, powerful Brooklyn ensemble Antibalas were the first to popularize it here. Despite all the new competition from younger bands in the U.S. and abroad, they remain largely without peer, even as it’s become less special to be able to hear Afrobeat played live in the States.
In fact, it’s been five years since Antibalas dropped their most recent album, but a couple weeks ago they made a welcome return with Where the Gods Are in Peace (Daptone). It’s impressively succinct and fat-free (we’re talking about a genre that normalized songs as long as LP sides), balancing funky fundamentals with an expanded timbral palette that deftly mixes psychedelic guitar and atmospheric textures.
The album opens ferociously with “Gold Rush,” which condemns the violent displacement of Native American tribes—many of which the song names as it creates a roll call of the victims of expansionist greed, demands reparations, and pleads for healing. The plush polyrhythms certainly summon the spirit of Fela’s music, with typically probing baritone saxophone from group founder Martin Perna and soulful, hectoring lead vocals from longtime member Duke Amayo. Guitarists Marcos García and Timothy Allen add a new and thrilling twist with their deft interplay and fuzzed-out tones. You can check it out below.
The album’s production includes familiar contributions from Daptone house engineers the Brothers Mann, injecting tell-tale elements that blur the line between Antibalas and the Dap-Kings—the bands have both drawn on the same pool of musicians, and they both use a viscerally thick, bottom-heavy horn sound. The three-part epic “Tombstown” is chilled out, at least by Antibalas standards, with sensual backing vocals by Zap Mama; it paints a portrait of a utopian land of plenty, in a sort of inversion of “Gold Rush.” Antibalas perform at Thalia Hall on Friday night.
Gallo & the Roosters, Todo Chueco (El Gallo Rojo)
Anna Makirere, Tiare Avatea (Little Axe)
James Blood Ulmer with the Thing, Baby Talk (Trost)
Gavin Bryars, Vita Nova (ECM)
John Zorn, Sacred Visions (Tzadik)