The 11 Afrobeat enthusiasts who comprise Aphrodesia always have good anecdotes to share. There was the tour they took through the United States in a bus powered by vegetable oil. Or the time they sang to Ghanaian audiences in their native tribal tongue — the first American band to do so. Another first was playing the Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, a venue built by Femi Kuti to honor his late father, Fela (unfortunately, Nigerian authorities recently shuttered its doors, charging Femi with being a political rabble-rouser).
Many of those experiences were absorbed into Aphrodesia's music. The group's third album, Lagos by Bus, was largely about its journey to the root of the Afrobeat genre, and how the members felt validated as a band by their interactions with locals and other musicians there.
Aphrodesia's new record, Precious Commodity, also reflects a journey, not to another continent but to another world — New York, to be precise. That's where bassist and bandleader (and occasional SF Weekly scribe) Ezra Gale moved, midway through the recording process. Two other bandmembers soon followed him to the Big Apple, making Aphrodesia a bicoastal outfit (the other members still live in the Bay Area).
Now Aphrodesia's recent yarns revolve around what Gale calls a "transition/upheaval period" of uprooting himself from the West Coast. He has stories about recording in the same studio as Blue Man Group, interacting with New York's established world music scene, hanging out with the Daptone dudes, and venturing out to see younger Afrobeat bands who, unlike Aphrodesia, faithfully follow Fela's formula. "People's perceptions [are] that we're all just crazy hippies," he says. "They look at us as doing wildly different stuff."
But isn't Aphrodesia a bunch of hippies, after all? "We drove around the country on vegetable oil. God, what do you want?" Gale jokes.
Kuti-esque Afrobeat remains a primary influence in Aphrodesia's mix, and to that template the group adds elements not usually found in Nigerian music, including mbira (East African thumb piano) and Ghanaian and Zimbabwean folk chants. Another distinction comes from the band's female lead vocalists. Lara Maykovich and Maya Dorn inject a healthy dose of estrogen into the highly testosterone-charged genre.
Gale admits it's very unusual to have women play an upfront role in Afrobeat. While Fela reportedly married 27 prostitutes, he never made a song about corporate businessmen traveling around the world and exploiting sex workers, as with "Special Girl" from Precious Commodity.
Longtime listeners will notice a difference in Aphrodesia's sound this time around. It's less global hippie, more urban world beatnik — a byproduct of the musicians' bicoastalism. Most of the album's postproduction was done in New York, where Gale had access to LoHo Studios. "That was an experience we hadn't had yet, doing a record in a studio that had all those toys," he says. This resulted in more experimentation and a "more creative experience overall."
On Precious Commodity, Aphrodesia veered from its tradition of no guitar solos by including lead guitar on three songs, like the fuzztone feedback that informs "Think/Suffer." A waft of ska runs through the horns of "Friday Night," while "Say What" opens with a funky handclap before easing into classic Afrobeat with a hint of highlife. Dubby, echoing hand drums subtly wash over "By the Iron," and "November 5 Parts I & II," inspired by Obama's election, borrows a page from Congolese group Konono No. 1, electrifying Maykovich's mbira. But mostly, Gale says, the album was about "getting back to basics after the whole experience of going to Africa."
For all the group's recent upheaval, Aphrodesia remains firmly rooted in the essence of Afrobeat. The call-and-response vocals, chunky guitar, brassy horns, and loping drums should satisfy African music purists, while the band's willingness to experiment makes listening to Precious Commodity more than just an exercise in repetition.