Feb 8, 2011

Aphrodesia - Frontlines


Afrobeat is one of my favorite musical styles. Highly danceable and politically charged, the genre possesses a rough-edged potency that's impossible to ignore. Still, I admit to being skeptical of Aphrodesia, an 11-piece Afrobeat group from San Francisco. It seemed unlikely that a mostly white, American act could tap into the polyrhythmic protest of vintage Afrobeat. To my surprise, they come pretty close.

Aphrodesia's latest, Frontlines, borrows the grinding pulse, gritty horns and spidery guitar licks of traditional Afrobeat for its own political agenda. Instead of protesting corrupt African regimes, they're bemoaning our own. Lyrically, the group focuses on protecting both the environment and the rights of people worldwide.

The band, which features ex-Burlingtonian David Sartore on guitar, is as tight as they come. Musically, they've got all the bases covered: buoyant low end, interlocking melodies and a percussion section that won't quit. Aphrodesia recently made history as the first American act to perform at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, an indicator of their authenticity.

Vocalist Lara Maykovich is the band's energetic ringleader. The two years she spent living in Ghana and Zimbabwe in the late '90s likely affected her worldview, both musically and politically. "There's a war on drugs, a war on crime / A war on poverty, war all the time," she sings in the incendiary "Mr. President." "Well, I don't believe and I never did / My indoctrination as a kid," she continues, as blaring horns punctuate her melody.

"We Never Sleep" incorporates Cuban rhythms into a vibrant tune about a decidedly un-vibrant subject: death. "Snack Nation," finds Maykovich railing against consumer culture. The lyrics are decent, but her delivery -- a decidedly goofy half-rap -- leaves something to be desired.

The hypnotic ballad "Flat Tire" finds the singer on more familiar (and convincing) melodic territory. With its ringing, bell-like percussion and evocative bass line, the song shimmers like ocean waves reflecting sunlight. The disc wraps up with a modified version of Fela Kuti's "No Agreement." Featuring spoken-word samples of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the tune paints a chilling picture of governmental hubris. "Bring 'em on," taunts the Commander-in-Chief over a slinky beat. "No agreement today / No agreement tomorrow," is the band's defiant reply.

Aphrodesia uphold Afrobeat's musical and spiritual tenets without resorting to mimicry. By fusing its own observations and experiences with traditional motivations, the band makes a solid impact.



San Francisco's Aphrodesia Pick Up a Busload of Beats in Africa

We all know how great an Internet cafe is for travelers trying to make or change plans on the go. That was certainly the case last year for members of the band Aphrodesia -- without even using the Internet.

The San Francisco-based group was on a trip to Ghana, home to much of its musical influence and where singer Lara Maykovich had lived for a time a decade ago. Thanks to Maykovich's contacts, in part, the band was having some remarkable experiences, playing shows at local clubs and events, being feted by the women of a small village where the singer had lived. Bass player Ezra Gale and guitarist David Satori headed one day to check e-mail and were regretting that after coming all the way to Africa, they weren't going to be able to visit the home of another hero: Nigerian Afrobeat emperor Fela Kuti. Lagos, where the New Africa Shrine honoring the late icon is located, is not really close or convenient to Ghana.

But the Internet café supplied a fantastic resource about the shrine -- a notable Nigerian musician with some serious contacts. "We sat next to a guy named Orlando Julius in an Internet cafe, and David starting talking to him and said we wanted to go to the shrine in Lagos," Gale recounts. Julius, it turned out, knows Fela's son and musical heir Femi, as well as Fela's daughter Yeni. "And he said, 'I can call Yeni, who runs the shrine, and make sure she knows about you. You should call her tomorrow.' And we did, and she said, 'Sure, I know about you. Why don't you come out here and play on Saturday.'"

That invitation, though, was just the start. The group had no way to get to Lagos -- with two nations of relatively rough terrain lying between Ghana and Nigeria -- and no real clue how to go about getting there.

"There was a lot of soul-searching," Gale says. "As white musicians, we were told that this trip was like going to Mordor from 'Lord of the Rings' or something. But we decided, 'We're invited to play at the shrine, and we're going to go.' We found a bus and a bus driver to go, and at the last minute even lined up shows in Togo and Benin, the two tiny countries in between, and made it across the border."

For any setback along the way, something good seemed to happen instead. Two planned shows in Benin with the terrific Gangbe Brass Band got canceled, but an associate instead talked the band's way in as a last-minute addition to the bill of an outdoor festival that happened to be going on at the time. And they made it to the shrine, where they opened for a Femi Kuti show. The once-in-a-lifetime trip is at the core of Aphrodesia's new album, 'Lagos by Bus,' explicitly in such songs as 'Bus Driver' (which includes some audio samples recorded on the trip) and implicitly in the overall approach to the music, which sees the accomplished band galvanized into a sharp unit that has internalized the collective experience and transcended the Afrobeat models to become a truly distinctive ensemble.

"It was a really special experience," Gale says. "To be able to travel like that as musicians meant we were relating to people more than if we were tourists. We were accepted into places we would never have been otherwise. At one time, we went to the north of Ghana to the home village of a group called the African Showboyz that we had met, a tiny village. They slaughtered a couple of goats for us, we had to go greet the chief, and they invited musicians from the next village and played all night. We didn't know what to expect in terms of reaction. I remember talking before we left, whether people might be pissed off to see white Americans play the music there. We didn't know. But people were really flattered and touched that we put so much effort into it."

Even Maykovich, despite her time living for nine months in Ghana and three in Zimbabwe in 1996 and '97, was a little wary about the trip, for some reasons that proved justified. It's always hard traveling in group situations, she notes. And though she had the most knowledge of the territory, due to cultural conventions regarding gender, she was not allowed to take an outward leadership role and in public had to defer to the men in the band. But that didn't spoil some truly magical occurrences.

"It was really emotional for me," she says. "I had stayed in one village for seven months and made a real connection with the women there. They used to make me omelets and sing, and later I learned they were all sister-wives of this one man who had left them. So this community of women, seven wives and their kids, totally remembered me. When we arrived on this trip, they came out saying my name. One of their daughters had even been named for me!

"We had a wonderful experience." she added. "We ended up playing music in situations we never had dreamed of." In truth, Gale did dream of such a trip, if not the full adventure that it ended up being. He recalls, "That's one of the things from when the band started: I can remember the first time we played in the shack in my back yard saying, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if we could take this band to Ghana?' "

But at that point it was a long shot. The group started when Gale and Maykovich (who had been in Afro-Caribbean drum and dance ensembles before and after her Africa stay) met while playing in an Afro-Cuban band. "It was just a serendipitous thing," Gale says. "I was really getting into Afrobeat nonstop and realized that she had this incredible repertoire in her head of African songs."

After a year or so of fine-tuning the concept with various other musicians in Gale's shack -- hence the title of the group's first album, 'Shackrobeat' -- the project took shape. With Maya Dorn joining to share vocals, the band took on a distinctive, often playful sound. Gigs started to mount around the Bay Area in clubs and festivals, one of the latter in 2005 proving a big window to the future adventure when they performed on the same High Sierra Festival bill with the African Showboyz.

"We became friends with them, played music with them, cooked chicken," Gale says. "At one point they said, 'You've taken care of us in your country, you must come to our country.' It was very vague and sketchy, but I realized this was our chance. So we jumped on it and really worked hard in planning. Basically, we had two gigs that were actually supposed to happen before we left, neither of which actually happened. But in the month there we must have played 18 or 20 gigs. That's the way it worked. As soon as we hit the ground, everyone knew there was this band from America, and within days we were on morning TV, then on radio, everyone saying, 'You must come play my club.'' You have to be open, take whatever comes. The things that happened to us, we'll never forget any of it as long as we live."

The 'Lagos by Bus' album is a big part of that. "That was the idea," he says. "It's a mix of thing either written during the trip or after, with a little written before we played there."

But it is not merely a musical travelogue and certainly not a pale imitation of their African heroes. While there are parts that very much reflect the Fela Kuti influence in the baritone sax-anchored horn arrangements and insistently burbling rhythms, the experiences are filtered through a sensibility that is distinctly American and, within that, San Franciscan. The song 'Holy Ghost Invasion,' for example, uses proverbs ("All you have is all you need," "You don't have to suffer") taken from posters and street signs seen in Lagos but given a context that is very applicable to the band's home cultures. Gale sees personal and political relevance as essential to the music that inspires him.

"Afrobeat is a very conscious and political style of music, and the outspokenness and the message that's inherent in the music and lyrics of Fela Kuti speaks to a lot of people right now," he says.

"This is the traditional able to come alive," says Maykovich. "If you have studied the traditions, the function of the music is used in ritual and used to facilitate healing in a community. That is really alive in our music now. We need a lot! Hell yeah! We need it more than the Africans right now!"



There's no end of worthy targets on this Afrobeat assault. George W. Bush, pharmaceutical companies, and the just plain lazy all get a well-placed rhythmic kicking. And while it would be easy enough to bask in the long shadow of Fela Kuti, Aphrodesia drops in all manner of strange bits on the fringes. They've got Fela's full lung sing-a-long thing down but woven together with a '70s funk-soul thread reminiscent of Donny Hathaway, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Fred Wesley's Horny Horns. They also kick up dust similar to modern African artists like Tinariwen, showing this large group has their collective ear on the Serengeti's contemporary developments. So many politically charged bands end up teetering off their soapbox pretty quickly (I'm looking at you Spearhead). Not so with Aphrodesia, who jangle our bones and let the ideas seep into the bloodstream through active transport.



Aphrodesia, the Bay Area’s premier Afrobeat outfit, return with a fresh blast of Fela Kuti-inspired funk with their sophomore release, Frontlines. For those unfamiliar with the band, some have called them the Left Coast answer to Brooklyn’s own Antibalas. But while that’s high praise indeed, it doesn’t quite capture Aphrodesia’s unique sound, which owes as much to singer Lara Maykovich’s extensive studies in West Africa as it does to bassist Ezra Gale’s digging through old crates of African records. On Frontlines, the band is tighter and more polished than ever, with the rhythm section laying down a relentlessly percussive groove that Tony Allen himself would be proud of. The horn section, too, really comes into its own on this record, alternating between aggressive charts and gutbucket solos. Meanwhile, Maykovich puts across the always politically-charged lyrics with both sweetness and the occasional snarl. Standout cuts include “Progression/ Destruction,” “Mr. President” and a cover of Fela’s classic “No Agreement.”



1 Frontlines 6:31
2 Trouble 9:33
3 Mr. President 4:52
4 Rebel Motion 7:52
5 We Never Sleep 8:33
6 Snack Nation 5:56
7 Flat Tire 5:01
8 No Agreement/MLK 10:24

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