ntibalas sound sort of like Fela Kuti’s simmering Afrobeat like the Killers sound sort of like Bruce Springsteen like Bruce Springsteen sounds sort of like Phil Spector or the Stooges sound like Little Richard or Sonic Youth sound like the Stooges or digital wind sounds like analog wind. Discussions of influence always reach an absurd vanishing point no matter how much good a sturdy comparison can do. So saying Antibalas sounds like Fela is as boring and accurate as good accounting work.
Security, the band’s fourth studio album, and their first for Anti-, actually sounds less like Fela than they normally do. That’s a good thing, because when you get right down to it, Fela was not the messiah. He was a magnetic bandleader with buckets of conviction. Hoisters hoisting his legacy as an unbelievable, unimpeachable truth of musical purity often operate on a vague assumption that he was democratically vetted the most rockin’ guy of nearly seven-hundred-million people on a continent where everything sounds pretty much the same give or take a yelp. No.
Antibalas still follow literal cues. “Filibuster XXX” is Fela down to the sub-punk sloganeering. For a few minutes, the drunk, misfired keyboard clusters and foggy peals of horn on the title track actually sound better than Fela, but only because Antibalas are ginger enough to hit a pitch between “boil” and “sleep,” and Fela kinda wasn’t. The most arresting portions of Security, though, are where they shake the Afro-funk almost entirely, like the odd, mammoth “I.C.E.,” a nocturne that departs from bugalu to a drumless intersection of horn dissonance, followed by a trombone solo over a hammer dulcimer arpeggio played by producer John McEntire (Tortoise, etc.). Even if they find a Fela facsimile with 75 seconds to spare, we were better off than before; the explorations of Security aren’t exactly shattering, but they’re refreshing.
African music has long incorporated elements of non-African styles. But we’re colonial dolts and we love to keep a The Other at hand, which is why Antibalas’s Afro leanings inspire fear of inauthenticity more often than dancing or, to dabble in their parlance, groove submission. They are not trying to trick us into being African. They’re just trying to uphold a long tradition established by Fela, Funkadelic, and the Latin orchestras on Fania Records before them: the funky big band. Fela used to play every night, all night. Would I have loved to see it? I would have killed a bunny to see it. I haven’t seen Antibalas, but listening to Security, or any other of their releases, I’m struck by the feeling that there’s something crucially missing. No matter how well McEntire pushes the band together in the mix on Security, collectivity can’t be simulated on CD. Critic Robert Christgau once wrote of Fela that, while he “always claimed the marathon duration of his songs as authentic Africanism, many note that it smacks too of authentic weedism…Epics went on all night because people didn’t have much else to do”—more of a liability on record than it is live. I listen to Fela Kuti on CD because Fela Kuti is dead; “I.C.E.” and isolated moments aside, I’d take a block full of white dudes with dreadlocks and well-fucked yuppies and club-footed lyrics about Dick Cheney in concert any day before bothering too much more with Security.
Reviewed by: Mike Powell
Reviewed on: 2007-03-16