To look at Aphrodesia's 11 members, the last music you might guess they play is Afrobeat. Their mosh-worn Doc Martens, black jackets, and ties suggest a ska band. What attitude they do wear on their sleeveslike so many art-punk lefties plucked from St. Marksis matter-of-fact green politics.
Aphrodesia are, in fact, a powerful showing in what has come to be a full-blown, New Yorkspawned Afrobeat revival. The funk-saturated, jazz-informed big-band sound created by Nigeria's Fela Kuti, who died in 1997, has resurged in popularity since 2000, thanks largely to local Afrobeat Orchestras like Antibalas, Kokolo, and Akoya. Add to the mix Aphrodesia, now mainly basing themselves out of the Bay Area but founded and fronted by East Villager Ezra Gale: "Growing up in the city, you're exposed to a million different influences. It's constant stimulation." Gale trained in jazz guitar with legendary multi-instrumentalist Yusuf Lateef and played jazz and funk around the country for years. While leading a salsa combo, he and guitarist Chris "Mully" Mulhauser met singer Lara Maykovich, a dance instructor who had immersed herself in traditional song and voice in Ghana, and Aphrodesia's sound followed suit.
On stage, they're exuberant and playful: A slinking bass might emerge from a dub beat, then get accented by a Miles Davis-like riff, followed by an explosion of highlife horns and drums. Mulhauser says, "it combines a lot of stuff that usually isn't combined." Or, as Gale quips, It's pan-African mash-up." Their CDs, Shackrobeat Vol. 1 and Front Lines, will soon be joined by a third.
That Afrobeat is itself a hybrid and was born as protest is part of the plan. Aphrodesia's musico-political merger is honest, elegant, and righteous. In 2004 they crisscrossed the nation in a biodiesel-powered (vegetable oil!) bus emblazoned with the words "Just Vote," registering voters as they went. "It was worth proving that it could be done," says Muhlauser.
And they've just returned from Africa, where in addition to successfully conducting the groove in villages and at festivals, they endured passage into Nigeria to play at the genre's home base. The Shrine, in Lagos, is Femi Kuti's continuation of his father Fela's seminal club. Femi himself leapt onstage to playeffectively anointing them.
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