Like America itself, Antibalas (Spanish for “Bulletproof” or “Anti-bullets”) is a vast and multi-ethnic superpower. This fourteen-plus musical collective is a tight union of Latinos, whites, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Africans who all call New York their home. Their music moves like a burning spear launched from the heart of Mother Africa to skewer the Big Apple with its funk. Every Friday night Antibalas brutalizes grateful New York audiences with AFRICALIA, a ferocious concert series touted as “America’s only live Afro-beat party.” In every way, the group pays homage to their source of inspiration, the Black President, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Their sound and message closely follow that of Fela, whose radical politics and electrifying Afro-beat shook world music and Nigerian politics until his death in 1997.
Musically trained in London and schooled in the club scene of mid-’60s New York, Mulatu Astatke stands as the exceptional musical innovator of the Ethiopian groove. Starting in 1969, he created the first bands independent of the military, which had previously dominated the country’s music scene. Having immersed himself in Caribbean music, funk, jazz and Latin grooves during his lengthy stint abroad, Mulatu returned to his native land to give rise to a brand new sound.
An album of instrumentals, Ethiopiques Volume 4 is a case study in the inventive blending of influences that comprised the Ethiopian groove. Strains of funk and reggae timings permeate the thick and chunky bass lines, which are pushed prominently forward in the mix. Multiple saxophones swirl with the hypnotic, snake-charming sounds of the East, while at the same time resonating with jazzy tones reminiscent of John Coltrane and Lester Young.
If the name sounds familiar, it may be because Astatke was heavily featured on the Ethiopiques album series (Volume IV is always on heavy rotation during the summer months here at musthear.com HQ). The third record in Strut’s “Inspiration Information” studio collaboration series features a pairing between one of Africa’s great bandleaders, Mulatu Astatke, with the British-based Heliocentrics collective.
Fortunately, this is one “old meets new” project that truly captures the sound of mutual respect. One of Ethiopia’s foremost musical ambassadors, Astatke (he was the first African student at Berklee College of Music) helped create a particular Ethio-jazz sound that flourished during the “Swinging Addis” era of the late ‘60s. No slouches themselves, The Heliocentrics have become one of the UK’s most prominent collectives of musicians, inspired by everyone from Sun Ra and James Brown to David Axelrod.
It’s the rare group of musicians who can put together an album this good in a mere ten days.
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Fela Kuti was the Nigerian born purveyor of funky tribal beats which continue to shake the world’s foundations. A recent casualty of the AIDS virus ravaging all of Africa, Kuti lived and played hard. Like Bob Marley, his music had strong consciousness raising power mixed into its heavy afro-funk rhythms. His political messages were not lost on the Nigerian military dictatorship he often sang about, and Kuti was imprisoned on several occasions. Still, he never lost sight of the fact that the music was as important as the message, and his bands were always tight and talented enough to muster much groove.
Born and raised in the hell of South African apartheid, Hugh Masekela triumphed over oppression by wielding what Fela Kuti referred to as the weapon of the future–music. The young Masekela was first introduced to the trumpet (his future weapon) by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston. In a few short years, Masekela had developed into a raw but powerful player. Beginning in the mid-’50s, he was one of the most sought after musicians in all of Africa, partnering up with such luminaries as pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand) and singer Miriam Makeba. Finding solidarity and a spirit of resistance in their music, Masekela and his contemporaries took inspiration from America’s more politically outspoken black artists, particularly Miles Davis and Paul Robeson.
When Peter Gabriel started the Real World recording label in the late ’80s, he created an important new outlet for the distribution of the world’s foremost musical talents. At least, that was the idea. Like any other business venture, Real World has had its share of hits, but a lot of what comes out on their label is garbage, regardless of what continent the music hails from. Some discs, though, like this one by Kenyan musician Ayub Ogada, are absolute treasures.
Ogada plays the lyre-like Nyatiti, an instrument integral to the rituals and social customs of his Luo people. The music floats out hypnotically, inducing trance: plucked notes circle in soothing, drone repetitions, bathed in sleigh bells and some lightly rhythmic percussion. These are not the complex, pulse-accelerating rhythms of say, Afro-funkster Fela Kuti or Prince Nico Mbarga. Rather, this is an unhurried, playful music, perfect in its sparseness, that goes down easy.
Living up to the promise of its title, Pharoah Sanders‘ Wisdom Through Music delivers just that. Although he made a name for himself as a fiercely expressionistic, almost anarchic tenor saxophonist in John Coltrane’s later bands, the music on this album is guided by gentler passions. More reflective of Pharoah’s Eastern-looking musical collaborations with Coltrane’s widow, Alice, Wisdom Through Music manages to soothe the soul without sacrificing any of the intensity that defined his earlier work as Trane’s apprentice. Much like his previous Impulse! LP, Black Unity, this 1972 offering finds Sanders and his group weaving together cosmic musical mood collages in front of which the occasional solo peaks out. What makes this record so unique is the strong emphasis on song over solo.
Today I went back to the Amoeba Music store in Hollywood and gushed my gratitude to Lance the clerk for strongly recommending that I pick up a copy of Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970s Funky Lagos. He smiled knowingly and gestured towards the sky: it just so happened that it was this very album that was blasting out from the speakers above. I gave him his props, then turned to survey the store. The African music section was thronged with the curious, ears ablaze, their eyes eagerly searching out the source of these throbbing grooves. The eternal music pusher, I handed a stranger this gem-packed two-disc anthology of funky Nigerian music from the 1970s, and pointed upwards. “Is THIS what they’re playing?” he asked excitedly, studying the eye-catching cover photo of an African funkster posing proudly in knee-high white platform boots. I nodded gravely. “Wow,” was all he could say. As I left the store, I noticed that only a few copies of Nigeria 70 remained on the shelves. Los Angeles record buyers are full of surprises.
The Funk goes native on this heavy back-to-Africa collection of rare Afro-grooves from around the globe. Ouelele is an eclectic mixture of African and African-derived music from 12 different artists who deliver some of the heaviest rhythms known to man. Nothing hits harder than the hardcore Afrobeat of Smahila & The S.B’s epic “African Movement,” a 19-minute Fela Kuti derived groove that keeps you spellbound with its endless energy. Soul-jazz meets South Africa in Letta M’Bulu’s swinging cover of Hugh Masekela’s “What’s Wrong With Groovin’.” All the intensity of free-jazz is channeled into the percussion heavy groove of Philip Cohran & The African Heritage Ensemble’s “Unity,” a tribal-funk jam built around a hypnotically droning violin line and a wall of drums.