There is a proud and humorous tradition of courtroom jams in black music, stretching from Jamaican "Judge Dread" rude boy tunes to N.W.A.'s "F--- tha Police." But I'm reasonably sure no band before Antibalas has charged a sitting U.S. President with unspecified crimes by calling such "witnesses" as "the Saudi Royal family," "the game of baseball," and "the people of Iraq." The funniest song on the third album from Brooklyn's 17-piece homage to Nigerian Afrobeat, the rousing "Indictment" reveals the limits and strengths of reverent Third Worldism: Who is this American band to speak for Iraq's citizenry, and in the acquired musical lingo of Fela Anikulapo Kuti no less? And why am I dancing?
One thing Antibalas (which means "Anti-Bullets" or "Bulletproof" in Spanish) do better than Fela: end songs. The bright horn charts and hammock-swing guitars of "Pay Back Africa" give way to a startlingly abrupt coda that the master would never have let pass--a series of single, echoing guitar jabs that rapidly loop, accelerate, and crash into the next song. I don't quite buy the group's protests that they owe as much to Tito Puente and James Brown as to Fela, or take them for the next Clash of Afropop--musicians boldly cutting a third path between faithfully copying, and carelessly copping the styles of, international music. But their new twist isn't slight, given the complexity of styles and ideas in play. Let your mind object: Your ass argues for jury nullification.
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