In 1998, when baritone saxophonist Martin Perna assembled a clutch of musicians to play at a poetry night staged in a Harlem pub under the name of “Conjunto Antibalas,” expectations were fairly low. The group drew on then-obscure musical touchstones: Latin composer Eddie Palmieri and Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti, the latter of whom had passed away from AIDS the year before with little notice by the western media. It was an unlikely foundation for 11-piece New York band to try and parlay into any sort of success. Yet just over a decade on, the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra found themselves 100 blocks south, playing on Broadway as the live band for the smash hit musical Fela!
For all the international accolades, their fifth studio album (and first in five years) avoids any trace of hubris for what might be their most workmanlike set to date. Tough polyrhythms, always the group’s stock in trade, remain steely on “Ari Degbe” and “Ibeji.” Lyrically, the band eschews the trappings of capitalism (and their newfound fame): See the drowning man having money thrown at him on “Dirty Money.” And on “The Ratcatcher,” there’s a parable of a man stuck in a Sisyphean whorl of work, always needing to catch more and more rats, lest he have “no security.” Needless to say, he winds up in his own cage.