Feb 10, 2011

Aphrodesia: From the heart to the heart

"African music is the deepest music in the world. It's the foundation of all the other music I love - jazz, Cuban and Brazilian music, everything," enthuses Ezra Gale, bassist and co-founder of Bay Area Afrobeat juggernauts Aphrodesia. "I also love that it's such a part of life and it's inseparable from dancing. In our culture so much music is background. We're bombarded with it all the time to the point where we don't even notice it sometimes. And yet with so many West African rhythms and songs, there are specific times of the day and uses for them, and specific dances that go with them. It's connected to people's lives in a way that I think we could learn from here in the U.S."

Backing his words up with action, Aphrodesia embarks on a month-long tour of Ghana in early February. Their heady, body rockin' interpretation of African music mixes in gutsy '70s funk with contemporary African currents like Konono No. 1 and Tinariwen for a full-throated, pleasantly glazed onslaught that recalls both the JB Horns and the legendary Etoile de Dakar. Located on Africa's Gold Coast along the Western shore, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain its independence in 1957.

"The rich cultural diversity all over Africa is mind blowing," states lead singer and co-founder Lara Maykovich. "I remember at the end of my year traveling, hitchhiking through Mozambique, thinking that even if I took ten more years I would still only know a small part of Africa. I really loved Ghana because I felt so welcome there, and the people were just amazing and so open. Ghana got their independence pretty early on so there are not the same tensions that still taint some of the other African countries. The Ghanaians really feel that they are free, and this allows them to keep their hearts open. Ghana houses over 65 tribes, each with their own language and music and drum forms, so it is incredibly diverse within itself. Ghana also really supports the traditional arts and strives to keep them alive and to share them with others."

Things begin at home with a raucous kickoff party/benefit at SF's Xeno Drome on Saturday, January 28th. Besides Aphrodesia, performers include Eric McFadden, Sila, Soulsalaam, DJ Vinnie Esparza, and DJ Oaty Love. There'll also be Ghanaian and Brazilian drumming, ladies' veggie oil wrestling (seriously), and a kissing booth (yes, seriously). The performers are playing for free, and all the proceeds raised will go to support the tour.

Though many shows are likely to happen through word-of-mouth at makeshift music halls all over the country, Aphrodesia does know how the trip will begin.

"The first show we play there will be the Bob Marley Africa Unite Festival (which also features Stephen and Ziggy Marley, Culture, and Morgan Heritage) for probably the biggest crowd we've ever seen in our lives - of probably almost all Africans. So yeah, it's going to be interesting to see people's reactions to us to say the least," Gale states. "I think there will be a huge curiosity factor for sure, since we'll be white people playing African music in Africa. After that, we have no idea - they might love us, they might throw things at us. But in a way, we're going specifically to get our asses kicked. I want someone to come up to me and say 'No no no, that is not the way you play that. Let me show you how you play that.' I think putting yourself through something really demanding always makes you better in the end, as a person and as a musician, and I'm overjoyed that we're going to have that experience as a band."


The oil wrestling at the benefit isn't entirely random. Aphrodesia uses a biodiesel tour bus and plans to use one while in Ghana. Guitarist David Sartore, who Gale describes as their "veggie oil mechanic/guru/evangelist guy," explains, "For the last two years, we've been touring in a bus that runs on biodiesel and recycled vegetable oil because we want to demonstrate an alternative to our country's dependence on petroleum as a transportation fuel. When we decided to tour West Africa, it seemed natural that we would at least try to do this there as well because the environmental and political effects of the oil industry in West Africa have been devastating. However, there is not really the infrastructure for biodiesel in Africa that there is here, so we might be lucky to get 50 gallons of biodiesel on this trip. We really don't know, but we are going to work with the Ghanaian Commission of Energy and the Department of the Environment on education. We will have a demonstration kit on how to make biodiesel and its effects on the environment at each show. Our representative from the Clean Fuel Caravan, Zach Carson, will be demonstrating this aspect."

Most Americans still think of Africa as "the dark continent" and treat it with fear. It's almost universally seen as a dangerous place, but that view comes mostly from an ignorant picture of Africa gleaned from old Tarzan movies and shock-obsessed news coverage.

"All I know is the people who have said to us recently, 'Be careful over there,' are white, and the people who have said, 'Oh, Ghana is a nice place. Nigeria is a nice place. You're going to have a great time,' are African," remarks Gale. "In the end, we will see for ourselves if many Americans' images of how dangerous Africa is are overrated or accurate. But we prefer to see for ourselves and not to let fear and misconception keep us under our bedcovers the rest of our lives."

Maykovich continues, "I don't really allow fear much input in my decisions. I think there are still a lot of misconceptions about Africa stemming from colonial mentalities. I lived in Africa for a year, and it was one of the most incredibly heart-opening times of my life. I find the concept of having and thus needing to protect what you have very draining. The African people were the most generous, open people I have ever met, and because they had so little, they were free to have so much love and presence. They had themselves, rather than a small part of themselves weighted under mountains of possessions and responsibilities."

Anyone who attended last year's High Sierra Music Festival can attest to the sparks between Aphrodesia and Ghana's African Showboyz. Wandering by their shared campsite at all hours of the day, one was swept up by their combustible energy. The Showboyz will be playing the whole month of shows in Ghana with Aphrodesia, and they couldn't be more excited about it.

"The Showboyz are kind and amazing artists," comments Sartore. "I got to spend time with the leader of the group, Napolean, in his house in Ghana. He takes care of his whole extended family by traveling the world and playing music. They're definitely struggling, but his strength is amazing. He is intent on keeping roots music alive and thriving. In West Africa, live music is dying. It's not what I expected before I went there, but we hope this tour wakes up some of those roots that have been under the ground for the past decade."

"I'm excited about completing the circle of the Afrobeat legacy," continues Sartore. "It started in West Africa and has taken root in the U.S. and in Europe over the past ten years pretty strongly. Now, we're honored to take it back there and to show the people how it has influenced our music. I'm also excited about confronting and breaking down some race and cultural issues. We don't even need to talk about this stuff. The language of music spells it out clearly. There is no 'us' and 'them.'"

In no small way, Aphrodesia travels to Ghana as musical ambassadors – showing Africans that all Americans aren't the mindless, imperialist blobs that television and presidential politics make us out to be.

"Music is the one thing in the world besides food that literally every human being on the planet has a relationship with. Even if you've taken a vow of silence and live in a cave, I guarantee you're hearing music in your head," enthuses Gale. "So yes, I see us as ambassadors because every culture has music, and people have more of a familiarity and a bond with music and musicians than they do with politicians or tourists or soldiers. I think America has a very complicated image and history in West Africa. Many people want to move here to have a better life economically. Yet, I'm sure we're also seen as materialistic by many people, and I'm sure our politics and our wars and our history of racial inequality are not popular with many people over there. So who knows - if people over there meet these white Americans who have taken the time to learn their music and to travel to their country, maybe it will put a more human face on all of us. Or not."

Maykovich is a bit brighter in her assessment, "I am really proud to be finally returning to Ghana. I feel it is the full circle of a 12-year cycle from when I first started performing African music, to going there and learning an incredible catalogue of music and dance, from creating a most interesting collage from my own resources and finally collaborating with Aphrodesia to make an even more unique music that certainly has some roots in Ghanaian music. I will be happy to give back something to a culture that I received so much from, and I'm also very interested to see the Ghanaians' humor and excitement in receiving this reflection from us."

She continues, "Africa holds a cauldron of ancient forms of magic and ritual that make it a supernatural place where the interaction with spirits and forces of nature are almost commonplace. In that way, African spirituality is so close to the earth that it feels as if you just might brush by a ghost in the marketplace. It is a very wild place. In African music, it is the fundamental rhythms, the most basic building blocks of music, that remind the listener that he or she is really a part of the musical experience. The music holds so much vitality and energy that listening, dancing, and participating really become a transformational experience. African music comes straight from the heart to the heart and thus creates a community experience for everyone."

jambase.com, written by Dennis Cook

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