Live: Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra at Spiegelworld


Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra
Sunday, October 5

So far as New York venues go, Spiegelworld might be one of the strangest. The elaborate traveling cabaret act has taken over Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport for the third summer in a row, and in addition to two daily variety shows (featuring sword-swallowing, acrobatics, music, burlesque, etc), a number of pretty decent bands are playing the Spiegeltent (Flemish for “tent of mirrors”) this year, even though it feels just like you’d imagine an early 20th century Belgian circus tent to feel—that is, pretty weird.

The Dodos at Speigeltent last week, photo by Jesse Reed

Antibalas (officially Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra), the horn-driven funk group from Brooklyn, seemed right at home with the carnival vibe in the tent last night. With a painted face, dreads, and what looked like a ’70s-era leisure suit, the 12-member group’s lead vocalist and conga player, Amayo, totally owned the ringmaster role, encouraging the crowd to dance and sing along to extended cuts from the group’s eclectic oeuvre.

Antibalas means “bulletproof” in Spanish, and I can only assume that the name refers to the band’s killer horn section, which, if you haven’t heard it, is reason enough to immediately go pick up a copy of Security, their latest album. After opening the show with a lengthy version of “Government Magic,” the title track from their 2006 EP, Antibalas kicked into “Beaten Metal,” which features densely packed, high-pressure aggression from the horns over the rhythm section’s deep grooves. In the middle of the tune, a long trombone solo sent most of the audience into a frenzy. This, in my mind, is one of the reasons they are so essential to have in the margins right now: unlike, say, Kanye, who is regularly too self-conscious for his own good, or Coldplay, a band that paints itself deadly serious but comes up short again and again, Antibalas is earnest in the best possible way. They write and play songs that practically require unabashed dancing and singing, and they’re not afraid to admit it.

That said, there is also something dark and slightly dangerous about Antibalas, some sort of implied violence buried deep in the middle of the the thick clusters of brass that pepper their best songs. This has a lot to do with the group’s politics, which they wear on their sleeves (literally, as evidenced by the “Si se puede!” shirt the bari sax player was wearing) and which are decidedly, vehemently anti-Bush. One of the highlights of the show was “Indictment”, a track from the 2004 album Who Is This America?, where the vocalist screams, with real anger, “Dick Cheney, indictment! Karl Rove, indictment! Sean Hannity, indictment! Bill O’Reilly, indictment! Donald Rumsfeld, indictment! George W. Bush, indictment!” In the strange, Brechtian setting, Antibalas’ rock-solid grooves, African polyrhythms, and palpable political rage made the gig feel more like a demonstration than a rock show. And in our age of lukewarm political correctness, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. —Nick Anderman