Jun 9, 2010

Aphrodesia returns to Afrobeat roots

Aphrodesia returns to Afrobeat roots

"I'm very attached to these boots. They've been with Aphrodesia since the beginning," says singer Lara Maykovich, wrapping duct tape around a pair of high-top black leather shoes with lug soles that have seen better days.

In the Bay Area's funky, urban environs, women wearing big, heavy boots don't raise many eyebrows. But when she arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, Maykovich recalls Femi Kuti's dancers telling her, "Take off your boots. You are in Africa."

Aphrodesia - a San Francisco world-beat band, which includes 10 to 15 musicians on any given evening - has been known to tour in a vegetable-oil-fueled bus. The group has made a commitment to alternative energy, bassist-bandleader Ezra Gale says.

More recently, Aphrodesia made a commitment to deepen its sound by returning to the music's roots. While touring West Africa in a lime green and purple bus (gas powered, unfortunately) last year, the band became the first American group to play the New Afrika Shrine, Kuti's combination compound and performance space in Lagos. And with the release of its new album "Lagos by Bus," Aphrodesia has staked its claim as not only the area's most original Afrobeat outfit, but also as one of the leading proponents of the genre's resurgence.

These days, Afrobeat - an intoxicating mix of funk, jazz and traditional African music - is more popular in America and around the world than it ever was in the heyday of Fela Kuti, Femi's father and the genre's founder, who died in 1997. Yet, back in 2002, when Aphrodesia started out, "it was us and Antibalas," says Gale, referring to the popular Brooklyn Afrobeat orchestra. Recently, he's discovered that "every city we go to has an Afrobeat band." However, most of those bands end up "sounding like Fela, all taking from the same blueprint."

Not Aphrodesia. "We're not strict Afrobeat," explains Gale, who says the genre is a "living, growing style of music." What sets the band apart from similar groups is its diverse musical influences - and the fact that the group is probably the only Afrobeat outfit around with female lead singers. Before co-founding the band, Maykovich spent a year abroad studying traditional folk vocal chants in Ghana. Vocalist Maya Dorn went to Cuba to learn the finer points of Afro-Cuban music. And Gale was previously in the Miles Davis-inspired, jazz-fusion outfit Bitches Brew. "We've played jazz. We've played metal. It's not just Afrobeat," he says.

That cultural training came in handy in Ghana, where the group won over native crowds with its original songs, sung in English along with traditional Ga and Ewe folk melodies. Singing to Ghanaian audiences in their own tribal languages earned Aphrodesia a level of respect rarely granted to Westerners. Maykovich recalls being told, "it is very hard for a white girl to sing in Ga." The Ghanaian excursion, she notes, was her favorite part of the trip.

For the band members, touring Ghana and Nigeria was a dream come true. "The first time we got together - four, five years ago - we said it would be great to go to Africa," Gale says. An invitation last year by the African Showboyz (a Ghanaian band Aphrodesia met on tour) to join them in their homeland provided the opportunity. "Details were sketchy, but we decided to go for it," Gale says, with a smile. After playing Ghana, their plan was to make a pilgrimage to the Shrine - a venue dedicated to the iconic Fela - to "soak up from the source," as Gale puts it.

The band members were surprised to find gas prices were roughly the same in Nigeria as in the United States. It took them 12 excruciating hours to make it past the Nigerian border, one checkpoint at a time. Along the way, musicians witnessed soldiers apparently beating and robbing people at random, a fate Aphrodesia escaped by handing out cassettes to the border guards.

"If you want the Africa of gazelles and zebras, you don't go to Lagos," Gale says.

"It's pretty crazy," Maykovich adds.

Although they had never met before, Kuti's manager and crew helped them make the border crossing, Gale says. "These people put their lives on the line for us," he marvels.

Once in Lagos, whose estimated population ranges from 8 million to 25 million depending on whom you ask, the band encountered the extreme disparities of wealth one would expect in a developing nation, but also a certain kind of genuineness from the Nigerian people. "The warmth we encountered was incredible," Gale says. "It was awesome playing with Femi," Maykovich adds.

The band found many positives to its African journey, but "the level of poverty is shocking," Maykovich says. It didn't take long for the band to realize the role music plays in an upside-down society still plagued by the greed and corruption Fela famously railed against, yet with a deep spirituality largely unknown to the West.

"The people, they need music to survive," Maykovich says. As Gale explains, "there's a level of survival there we don't really deal with (in America). ... It gives them the strength to get by. I think that feeling carried over."

The time in Africa had a profound effect on the band. Since returning, "we're more connected," Maykovich says. "It made it more relevant for everyone."

Most, if not all, of the songs on the new album were directly inspired by Aphrodesia's African experiences. Maykovich jotted down seemingly syntax-challenged phrases from street signs in her journal, like "Holy Ghost Invasion" (a commentary on African Christianity). Several other new tunes grew out of the sights and sounds the band members encountered on their way; the drive into Lagos, for instance, resulted in "Bus Driver," one of the album's most anthemic tracks.

While not a travelogue per se, Gale says the album flows better on the whole than anything the band has done in the past. Previous efforts were somewhat of a hodgepodge of various influences and styles, yet both the songwriting and playing on "Lagos by Bus" seem more focused. "This album's a bit more thematic," he says. "It made more sense this time."

It was hard to argue that point during Aphrodesia's album-release party at San Francisco's Independent nightclub last month; all night, the band remained locked into a super-funky global groove. Originals from the new album such as "Every Day," "White Elephant" and "Ochun Mi" showcased the band's strengths: a powerful rhythm section, vibrantly brassy horns and strong call-and-response female vocals. And though excursions were made into Ghanaian and Zimbabwean sounds and melodies, the group also paid its respects to traditional Nigerian Afrobeat with covers of Fela classics "No Agreement" and "Mr. Follow Follow."

Any initial shock from seeing white women singing and dancing like natives of Africa quickly subsided. The band proved as fluid in its playing as the vocalists did in their harmonies and their dance steps. As a front woman, Maykovich seems absolutely fearless, whether telling the audience "in our hearts, we are free/ in our minds, we are free" or plucking traditional melodies on an mbira (African thumb piano). No one seemed to mind her taped-up boots, maybe because they were too busy dancing.

With its emphasis on complicated polyrhythms and seemingly ritualistic quality, African music can seem overly exotic and difficult to appreciate for Western ears. But in Aphrodesia's hands, it comes off as more universal than alienating. As Maykovich explains, "What we give people is not just an opportunity to dance, but to connect."

By Eric K. Arnold, Special to The Chronicle, January 7, 2008

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