riginality is overrated. Where is it written that the height of creativity and artistic merit lies in doing something that’s never been done before? Is there not equal value in taking an existing form and polishing it to perfection? We can easily see that this cult of originality is a recent historical development: the ancient Greeks found true beauty in the refinement of stories hundreds of years old, viewing art as an attempt to emulate the mastery of those who came before. Insisting on the radical uniqueness of your work in the Middle Ages was more likely to earn you a fiery death than it was to bring you rosy plaudits. It is only in the recent past that shattering the old in order to create something new has come to be seen as the primary virtue of the artist. Cynics and naysayers deride every new band as a third-generation copy of some superior predecessor, rather than applauding the newcomers for breathing life into a genre heretofore locked away in dusty records.
Antibalas worships at the shrine of Fela Kuti. They hardly deny this, thanking him in their liner notes (along with several members of his legendary Africa 70) and emulating him with a heady mix of Afrobeat rhythms. This 18 member Brooklyn ensemble earned its stripes playing all-night parties in New York dance clubs, developing a reputation as one of the preeminent modern practitioners of Fela’s rootsy, jazz-inflected funk. Indeed, given their credentials, the brevity of Talkatif (their first album on the Ninja Tune label) surprises, clocking in at barely 40 minutes. The positive news, however, is that you’re likely to hit repeat and listen to the album again immediately.
A phased effect starts off ‘Gabe’s New Joint’ and fades into a head-nodding rhythm of basic percussion. Guitar and keyboards slowly enter, establishing the basic melody in a subdued manner. Then, the album is jolted to life by the stabbing entry of the bass, drums and horn sections. The horns begin to engage in a call and response duel with each other, restating the main theme, breaking into a solo, and snapping back into line whilst the rhythm pulses below. An auspicious beginning, but one which is utterly put to shame by the title track that follows. ‘Talkatif’ flies by at a breakneck pace, establishing a relentless rhythm that drives on for 10 minutes without losing its way. Keyboard vamps and saxophone squeals burst out of the speakers, struggling to keep pace with the frenetic tempo, until everything except congos and bass drops out of the mix. The rhythm pounds onward, slowly building layers back onto the song for a roaring finish.
Now, everything described for the first two tracks on the album could easily work to describe anything on the album. Antibalas has found a formula that works, and don’t attempt to stray far from that template. They are unquestionably talented, and have made one of the year’s most exciting and danceable albums. I’ll be interested to see what they do in future, but I’m not going to be disappointed if they make another album as solid as this one.
Reviewed by: Kurt Deschermeier
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01