Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra at Neumo’s, Thursday June 21
I’ve noticed that in terms of big underground music scenes in the northwest, afrobeat doesn’t exactly take the cake. Nevertheless, whenever and wherever the Brooklyn-based Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra rolls through, I’ll make it my business to be there, and so will you if you know what’s good for you.
Antibalas (Spanish for bulletproof) has a confrontational, “four-alarm” musical style that will send your ass muscles into uncontrollable spasms. The music is as multi-ethnic as its band members: afrobeat and Latin styles commingle with jazz and funk in most of their tunes. The inspiration for the band came largely from Fela Kuti, the originator of afrobeatóa style that is itself a fusion of West African highlife, funk, and elements of the American free jazz movementóas well as from Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra.
On Thursday, Antibalas sported a spot-on four-piece horn section, two guitars, bass, a full drum kit, 3 congos, a keyboard, and miscellaneous African percussion gadgets: not exactly minimal, but a slightly more reasonable setup than Fela Kuti’s 70 to 80 piece ensembles. Fela was a political musician, another legacy that Antibalas has inherited; these days, their music abounds with political innuendo and, at times, flagrant anti-Bush jargon. To wit: “Filibuster XXX”, “War Hero”, and “Pay Back Africa” constituted three of the scant ten songs they played. The show was, as to be expected, a sampling of the fastest tracks from their new album, Security, including “Beaten Metal”, which has been getting a fair amount of airplay on KEXP recently.
Front man vocalist Amayo, a Nigerian native like Fela Kuti, has gargantuan stage presenceósurely, the face paint and snappy outfits don’t hurt. Stuart Bogie on alto and tenor sax conjured visions of a hopped-up Charlie Parker during his solos; he took on the role of conductor Thursday night. Victor Axelrod’s jazzy keyboard stylings were consistently virtuostic. Baritone sax player MartŪn Perna, who founded Antibalas in 1998, made a point to address political issues and prod the audience a little about acting as opposed to whining. The evening included a couple of covers: Fela Kuti’s “He Miss Road” and a drawn out, quite lovely version of Bobby Marley’s “Rat Race”.
The band came out running and started strong, but its members, particularly Perna, were perceptibly weary from the European tour they just wrapped up. They left the stage after encoring with “Che Che Kule”, a spinoff of a popular African tune (and Antibalas’ only true single to date). Alas, an atrocious mix made for poor sound on this closer. Not the best show I’ve heard, but I’ve also never heard them play a bad show. If you’re a fan of afrobeat or just bi-genre curious, Detroit-based afrobeat badasses NOMO are on tour and will be at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern on Friday, June 29.