Within the space of one month, London’s Jazz Cafe plays host for two singular names in the Afrobeat genre: representing the old guard is Tony Allen, one of the foremost figures in the music’s inception. Representing the new generation is the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, a wild collection of New Yorkers with its own niche on the international circuit.

Tony Allen is living history. One of the pioneers of Afrobeat, along with the legendary Fela Kuti, he has been described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”. This towering reputation and illustrious past warranted high expectations of his group when they played a packed Jazz Café on March 27.

As I entered to a stream of pulsating beats and hypnotic basslines, it was disappointing to see only a single brass player on stage. Although he put up a valiant effort, the simulated chorus effect on Nicholas Giraud’s trumpet was a long way from the heavy barrage created by a full horn section which is so vital to the genre.

The band was tight enough, driven forward by Allen’s ever-changing rhythmic variations assimilating jazz, funk, African highlife and other traditional styles. Bassist Rody Cereyon produced the evening’s most memorable solo, drawing screams of respect and encouragement from the Thursday night crowd, and it was clear that all the musicians were sharing this enjoyment.

However, there was something else missing from the performance. Many of the songs began strongly but proceeded to lower in tempo, lacking the verve and bite of Fela’s recordings. The in-your-face bullishness and rebellious attitude which defined early Afrobeat was scarcely detectable. Perhaps Mr Allen has calmed with age – he is nearly 70 – but I can’t help thinking a larger band would have greatly benefited the cause.

The value of numbers will surely be proven when New York’s 12-man Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra invade the same venue in April. Fresh from the recent release of Security, the group has firmly established itself as a leader of the genre by touring extensively in North America and Europe.

In the same way Tony Allen incorporates other music into his unique drumming voice, the Antibalas sound consists of many diverse elements beyond its African core. It is a potent reflection of the cultural melting pot that is New York City: funk, folk, jazz, Latin and soul are all detectable, spearheaded by a five-piece horn section and several polyrhythmic percussionists. Lyrics often display a defiant streak in the fine tradition of Afrobeat itself.

If Antibalas can maintain current momentum, the Brooklyn-based collective will surely continue to draw massive crowds and rave reviews alike. The next few years are going to be crucial in the development of what may well become a seminal force in world music.

Another name currently in the vanguard of new Afrobeat is The Budos Band. Hailing from the slightly more genteel surroundings of Staten Island, NY, this 11-piece unit has released two albums on Daptone Records. The Budos will be supporting Antibalas to complete a mouthwatering double bill on April 19 at the Jazz Cafe.

Published @ Fly, 15/4/08 – click here for original.