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Talkatif – Antibalas

Ninja Tune Records 66

Any discussion of Antibalas' sophomore recording Talkatif must first be prefaced by a mini-analysis of the man who invented the socio-political sound world that Antibalas calls home. Nigerian musician Fela Kuti is, was, and continues to be a complex individual to say the least. His vast recorded output deserves serious study by any aficionado of groove, improvisation, and the notion of "life as art as protest as life".

Despite his dozens and dozens of recordings – most of which have been
recently released in two-LPs-on-one-CD format – it's his extracurricular
exploits that partially steal the thunder of his groundbreaking Afrobeat
concoctions. Highlights include: marrying 27 women in a simultaneous
ceremony (the singers and dancers in his band Africa 70); railing against
injustices perpetrated by the Nigerian government; declaring his compound,
The Kalakuta Republic, a sovereign nation that wouldnt answer to the
Nigerian law; running for President of Nigeria; being exiled to nearby
Ghana; and – most importantly – surviving numerous beat downs by the
Nigerian Army — including round the clock surveillance and harassment,
incitement of riots at concerts, the destruction of his homes on numerous
occasions, and the brutal murder of his elderly mother at the hand of the
Nigerian guard (she was physically thrown out of a window). Fela was
renegade, rebel, rabble-rouser and Afro-funk musician beyond compare. If
Saint Bob Marley got up in your face and turned his screw face to a scowl,
his intensity may equal about 1/10th of Fela's.

Musically, Fela cross-pollinated African highlife, James Brown funk, Black
Pantheresque politics, power-to-the-people sermons, world-wise Afro-unity,
big band and combo jazz. His grooves were deeper than the valleys of
despair he endured; his jams were as long as his politics were heavy. All
these elements were masterfully mixed into 30 minute long hypnotic social
sermon symphonies that usually included graphic descriptions of Fela's
dealings with the Nigerian authority, calls for empowerment, naming names
that needed to be named, and threats of revolt.

Talkatif the latest recording from self-described "AfroBeat
Orchestra", Antibalas (which, according to their website, translates as
"bullet proof" or, literally, "anti-bullets"), is
pretty much a sonic tribute to the late great Fela Kuti and, in theory, a
continuation of the Afro-beat sub-genre. There isn't much in
Talkatifs seven tracks that Fela didnt already do, and there isn't
much here that says what Antibalas actually is, other than a tribute to Fela
Kuti. Felas sound is reproduced to amazing detail. Honking horns,
polyrhythmic chicken scratch guitars, Tony Allen inspired manic grooves,
solid percussion, call and response vocals, scrunched analogish recording,
groove breakdowns, it's all here. Even Fela's spiky keyboard solos are
replicated to near perfection. Pulling off reconstructions of one of the
strongest and most loved voices in African music is an extremely perilous
task. One has to deal with purists who will scrutinize every nuance in
comparison to the original. Antibalas, however pulls this task off with
class, style and love.

That's not to say that Talkatif dosen't have detractions. What's
missing is clearly evident in Fela's "Coffin For Head of State", a requiem
mass for his deceased mother; an emotional description of her murder at the
hands of the Nigerian Army. There's true life or death struggle in Felas
music. Passion abounds in every saxophone wail, lyrical call to arms,
structural breakdown, and album cover. Fela's dramas are sewn with the
thread of real struggle, real blood, and real fire. Antibalas's
Talkatif is an achievement in its replication of the style of
Afro-beat, but – to some degree – it's an empty victory.

Yes, the grooves are as punishing as anything Fela may have done, the
arrangements are tasty, the playing is impeccable, and – in a live setting – I'm sure these tunes will expand to Fela-ish epic proportions causing mad
amounts of shake-ass to erupt. The recording's seven tracks seem like more
of a sampler plate mostly due to their relative brevity. Yet there is
something missing. The wisdom of the master, the fearlessness of the rebel,
the – dare I say it – eye of the tiger. Fela was a master storyteller in
song, deed and word. When he screeched, "That's my mama that you killed /
the only mother of Nigeria," you feel his pain, and the huge horn section
breaks that follow underscore his rage to epic effect. You become one with
the injustice, one with the sorrow, one with the struggle. You dance with
tears streaming down your face, feeling the passion down to the deepest
parts of your soul.

Antibalas's struggle has yet to become clear, but – with critical attention
to dramatic architecture and a fearless approach to lyrical content – they,
too, could have their phones tapped by the FBI, their finances mangled by
the IRS, their gigs raided by the NYPD, their passports revoked by the INS,
their mothers killed by the CIA and homes destroyed by the U.S. Marine
Corps. More importantly, they may add bricks of their own design to the
wall of change pioneered by their hero Fela Ransome Anikulapo Kuti.

Antibalas = Anti-Bullets.

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