When your radio and television have become front lines in the battle for hearts and minds, and Howard Stern and Janet Jackson pass for revolutionaries, what do true radicals do for entertainment? Re-enter Antibalas and Ozomatli. Like the master planners they are, both are releasing their Year of the Monkey albums just as the activist convergence centers gear up for the Demopublican conventions. With multilingual slogans, brass-monkey horn fanfares, and fist-pumping anthems, Street Signs and Who Is This America? declare apathy a boomer lie and protest season open. A nation of black-bandanna’d barricade jumpers boogie on their buses.
Like the gremlins of Samuel Huntington’s worst imaginings, Ozomatli and Antibalas emerged in the late ’90s brimming with the multilingual, polyrhythmic anti-globalization ferment of Seattle, Porto Alegre, and Genoa. The Bakunin-quoting, Bushwick-based Antibalas (they fled Williamsburg when the electroclashers moved in) declared themselves a one-world collective and Clinton and Albright war criminals while supporting a floating Afrobeat army of seven to 19 musicians. Their songs, especially the new “Pay Back Africa,” tell us that debt forgiveness and reparations aren’t exclusively political concepts. There are cultural debts and reparations too.
In Afrobeat, Antibalas believed they had found a genre that could encompass their members’ diverse political concerns and musical interests. The band has not exhausted the genre, but they are capable of more. Who Is This America? is overshadowed by the band’s crucial 2003 12-inch “Che Che Cole,” a syncretic slamdance from Willie Colón’s catalog that recalled the singular ’70s moment marked by Manu Dibango and the Fania All-Stars, Cortijo’s Time Machine, and Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive. But while Antibalas are avid students of the rhythms of vodun, Lukumi, and dub, only “Obanla’e” and “Elephant” hint at the band’s potential to forge a new Black Atlantic sound. Their message, on the other hand, is right on time. The album transports Fela’s “Who No Know Go Know” into the latest world war, convicting a new set of war criminals with ridicule and groove. “Indictment” ‘s deliciously twisted beat gives way to a courtroom scene worthy of Prince Buster involving Chomsky, Cheney, and the Saudi royal family. It’s music to make 10-foot street puppets by.
In 2000, Ozomatli’s world-party serenata to Al Gore’s Los Angeles coronation ended with batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Last March, Ozomatli led a nonviolent conga line out of their SXSW gig and straight into another police riot. What makes the cops so rabid? Ranchera, merengue, rock en español, bolero, salsa, reggaeton, hip-hop, all freshly tinged with Arab textures. Or maybe it’s the way they do it all at once, with Colón-sized genre-bursting abandon and Santana’s arena versatility and chops. One minute they’re playing Latin jazz with Eddie Palmieri, next they’re attacking Blaxx and Vendetta’s Egyptian riddim with Jurassic 5 founding member Chali 2na. “Ya Viene el Sol” opens with a screwed-and-chopped soca beat, escalates into a samba parade, and climaxes in a flurry of turntable scratches. Imagine abusive cops and prison contractors subjected to hours of Ozo at high volumes in lockup: They might learn to dance.
Since 2001’s Embrace the Chaos (released on 9-11), the street-fighting band has moved from rebel-without-a-pause toward revolutionary romance, searching for a midpoint between Selena and Subcomandante Marcos. Here’s one chorus: “Cuando canto mi canción quiero inspirar a mi gente con una solución” (“I’d like to inspire a solution in my people with my song”). The sweetest track is “Santiago,” a bossa-washed tribute to the common man: “Sobrevives con amor, sobrevives con honor, sobrevives con tu gente” (“You survive with love, you survive with honor, you survive with your people”). These are words that can resonate equally in Baghdad, Bell Gardens, Bushwick, or the streets of New York City and Boston this summer.