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Published: 2004/07/29
by Brian Ferdman

Who Is This America? – Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra

Ropeadope Records 51533

Who isn't pissed at Bush? These days everyone has something to say about the leader of the free world. As the approaching Presidential election descends upon us, the chorus of criticism gets louder and angrier. Artists of all mediums are focused on making political statements, some profound, some horribly infantile. Thankfully, Brooklyn's Antibalas isn't new to this game.

Having formed in 1998, the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra occasionally swells from 14 to 20 members, representing a broad cultural cross-section of races, cultures, and ethnicities. Singing in three languages (English, Spanish, and Yoruba), Antibalas' musical vocabulary is readily inspired by the works of late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Employing trance-like rhythms and a wash of percussion, Kuti used his expansive music as a launching pad for explosive but simple lyrical statements. Antibalas has ably picked up the torch, running forward with a sound that is as reverential as it is caustic.

With a barrage of percussion and an expansive rhythm section, Antibalas creates several hypnotic grooves that captivate the listener for lengthy periods of time. Thanks to an aggressive and talented horn section, these long stretches of music never grow dull or tiresome, regardless of the fact that a guitar solo is nowhere to be found. It's a tight and tenacious ensemble sound, but if one man stands out, it's the decidedly retro-sound of Victor Axelrod's haunting electric piano that adds plenty of chilling subtext to the album.

Lyrically, Antibalas is at their best while employing Kuti's technique of simplicity. On the opening "Who Is This America Dem Speak of Today?" the singer repeatedly asks about the current state of this country. In a particularly inspired moment, several three-letter acronyms, such as CIA, FBI, IRS, NRA, ATF, SEC, HMO, NFL, NBC, etc., are rattled off in tribute to the bureaucracies and commercial conglomerates that have become synonymous with America. Later, a profound anti-globalization tale is depicted in the simple story of "Big Man." As small man repeatedly thanks big man for the privilege of working 80 hours a week for miniscule wages, one gets the sense that this song could be found on page one of a WTO Protest Handbook.

Those who loathe politics and those who view Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a personal hero shouldn't be afraid of this album. Truthfully, the lyrics only account for about ten percent of the disc. However, America's current political situation has clearly influenced the instrumental music, giving the grooves of Who Is This America? a decidedly ferocious intensity. I guess George W. Bush has proved to be inspirational after all.

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