Antibalas – Who Is This America? (2004, 2010 reissue)

Share this:

by Pico

The American Afrobeat movement hadn’t bubbled up from the underground all that long ago, but maybe it isn’t too soon to look back at what have been the key releases from this revival. At least that’s what Ropeadope Records thinks in re-releasing this week Who Is This America from Antibalas only six years after its original release.

And who is this Antibalas?

Antibalas is a very large Afrobeat collective (numbering 14 members in 2004) straight out of Brooklyn, NY that came together in the late nineties. As an Afrobeat outfit, they naturally owe a big debt to the groundbreaking music of the Nigerian Fela Kuti, the father of modern African music. But as an American group with last names like “Johnson,” “McLean,” and “O’Malley,” Antibalas, with its four piece horn section and five piece percussion section, brings a healthy dose of James Brown and jazz to the table. It’s a winning formula that later American Afrobeat outfits like Akoya Afrobeat have adopted. The grooves are multi-layered and amazingly tight coming coming from a band this big.

True to the spirit of Fela, Antibalas posits itself as a voice of the disenfranchised while tweaking the nose of the American establishment in general and Republicans in particular. As Who Is This America? was their third album, the collective was just finding its identity. Recorded in the summer of 2004 just as the American public was turning against the Iraq War and only recently began to recover from the dotcom bust while laying the groundwork for an even bigger bust, Antibalas found plenty to set its sights on. These are topics that remain as poignant today as they did back then.

Not all the tracks have messages (through lyrics, anyway), but Antibalas makes its point well enough on the songs where they do. The percussionist Amayo handles the lead vocals sung in pidgin English and leads the charge in questioning the character and makeup of the USA, making the case for a country where “no people united,” “no pluribus unum.” All the while during this twelve minute jam, the band is laying down a very united groove, deftly incorporating horns, two guitars, bass, clavinet and a wall of conguero, drums and assorted percussion.

The same goes for “Big Man” (video below), which points at the futility of rampant American consumerism with a sarcastic wit. “Indictment” humorously puts us in an imaginary courtroom where everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to the game of baseball is charged with crimes. And finally, the finger is pointed back to oneself on “Sister,” a self-critique of the male narrator’s treatment toward women, implicitly inviting us all to treat the fairer gender with more respect. “Obanla’e” and “Elephant” are Afro-centric tunes more in tune with the Afrobeat of it origins, as both adapted from traditional Yoruban chants.

Chances are, though, the main message that most people would get from Who Is This America? is from the music itself. There’s plenty of things this band does right in that department. Listening to “Pay Back Africa,”for instance, Antibalas constructs and deconstructs a mid-tempo rhythm using organ, funky rhythms guitars, and call-and-response between Martin Perna’s baritone saxophone and the bank of horns. Trombonist Aaron Johnson throws in a jazz-quality solo as well. The horns get sharp and tough on “Indictment,” and on the bonus track “Money Talks,” Victor Axelrod’s percussive and slightly out of tune piano finds a place near the center of that song’s sinister groove.

Protest music with a deadly dancefloor draw isn’t just confined to reggae and hip-hop. Antibalas has shown Yankees the third way that Africans have known for nearly forty years. Coupled with messages especially for Americans, Who Is This America? is an essential document of homegrown Afrobeat.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
Share this:
Close