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Review: A superb turn by Antibalas at the Echoplex

The Brooklyn-based Afro-beat band, taking its cues from Fela Kuti, whips a sweltering L.A. audience into a frenzy with its hypnotic rhythms and formidable lyrics.

August 15, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Amayo, lead singer and percussionist for the Afro-pop band Antibalas, performs with the band at the Echoplex in Los Angeles.
Amayo, lead singer and percussionist for the Afro-pop band Antibalas,… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

At certain moments in Antibalas' superb Tuesday night show at the Echoplex, it was as if the entire African musical diaspora were parading across the narrow stage.

Wasn't that brother James Brown preaching up a bodacious erotic sermon? (Actually, it was Abraham Amayo, Antibalas' charismatic dreadlocked lead singer-conguero, inviting the sweltering L.A. audience to rip off its clothes.)

And on stage left, a brass section so ferociously committed to improvisational funk that it might've been channeling the irrepressible mid-'70s horn players of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Then there were the vocalists, delivering liberationist manifestoes pulsing with beats that easily could be speeded up into ska, or brought down to a reggae slow burn.

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Since the late '90s, this trail-blazing Brooklyn-based Afro-beat band has been constructing a rich, technically irreproachable sonic vocabulary from the foundational elements of African music: jumpy juju guitar rhythms, spiritual-ancestral Yoruban drum patterns, emphatic call-and-response choruses, ecstatic riffs snaking through hypnotic repetitions.

Antibalas' model is the great Africa '70 band led by Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afro-pop progenitor and social activist whose politically outraged music caused the sub-Saharan masses to sway joyfully and despotic rulers to plot vengefully.

Several Antibalas members recently renewed their devotion to Kuti by serving in the pit band of the Broadway musical homage "Fela!" But their Echoplex engagement served as a reminder that Antibalas is nobody's mere house ensemble.

The concert opened with jocular hometown heroes Very Be Careful loosening up the crowd with an hour's worth of delectably salty Colombian vallenato. Antibalas eased into its midnight-capped set with a relatively relaxed version of "Dilo Como Yo," with guitarist Marcos Garcia taking lead vocals. The band then quickened the tempo, whipping into "Dirty Money" from its latest, self-titled album.

After building the song instrument by instrument around an opening minor-key organ solo by the excellent keyboardist Victor Axelrod, the band unleashed Amayo's formidable free-versing abilities on "Dirty Money" and "The Ratcatcher," another new tune that blends compulsive rhythm with mordant warnings about the world's financial and political predators.

"I'm so happy we're entering a new era of love!" Amayo declared at one point with the sort of barbed uplift that was also one of Kuti's signatures.

As his recent Broadway tribute indicates, Kuti was a virtuoso exhibitionist, a frontman almost capable of making Mick Jagger look like a blushing violet by comparison. Antibalas favors a more democratic approach, in which every band member gets to pick up the talking stick and walk to the center of the fire circle.

Stuart Bogie's gorgeous tenor sax solo propelled the sensuous "Him Belly No Go Sweet." On "Battle of the Species/Beaten Metal," Aaron Johnson's raunchy trombone took the lead amid a swell of cowbells and Miles Arntzen's air-tight drumming. Rather than shout over each other, the band frequently lowers the volume around one of its dozen-plus musicians, framing an idea, allowing a gesture to ripen, permitting a phrase to gracefully take shape.

Antibalas, whose name in Spanish means bulletproof, favors free-flowing jams frequently lasting 10 minutes or more. Closing out with Kuti's "No Buredi" (No Bread) and an ultra-extended encore version of "Opposite People," it left this listener heavily spent — and hungry for more.

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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