A term like “destiny” is great fodder for the faithful, but when you live fully in the moment and surrender to wherever a path might lead you, destiny seems to be far from a predetermined commodity. It’s certainly a fitting metaphor to describe Aphrodesia’s adventurous trek across the unpredictable terrain of West Africa.
“You have to be pretty flexible in your plans,” says the band’s founder and bassist Ezra Gale. “We went to spend a month in Ghana, invited by [Ghanaian roots group] African Showboyz. Nothing we had prepared ourselves for came even close to happening, so everything we ended up doing was completely unplanned. We were constantly exorcising our expectations and just taking what comes along
and rolling with it.”
Galvanized by the experience, the band rolled right out of Africa and into Oakland’s Guerrilla Studios to record Lagos By Bus (Cyberset), the Bay Area collective’s fourth album. But as the title suggests, Ghana was just one of many inspirational stops along the way. A chance encounter in an Internet café in the Ghanaian capital of Accra carried the band through Togo and Benin, where they performed spontaneously and sporadically before reaching the kingdom that Fela built. After arriving in Lagos, Nigeria, they were honored with a rather majestic rite of passage: opening for the Afrobeat legend’s son Femi Kuti at the equally fabled New Afrika Shrine nightclub.
Now, to be straight, Aphrodesia is not, and never was, an exclusively Afrobeat band. Gale formed the outfit in 2003 with an obvious nod to Nigeria’s sonic staple, but immediately began incorporating elements of Afro-Cuban and highlife music into the mix, as well as funk and jazz. Even so, Aphrodesia have surfed the Afrobeat wave in America, with its musical dexterity—as first demonstrated on the style-stretching 2003 debut Shackrobeat Vol. 1—giving it an edge that other like-minded bands have often lacked.
When the band members convened in early 2006 at San Francisco International Airport to embark on their African odyssey, it’s possible they were already mulling the implications of a stop in Lagos—after all, such a visit would, in a sense, cement their status in the Afrobeat scene. And as it did on so many occasions during their journey, destiny ran its course: the fortuitous meeting with one of Fela’s former musicians at the café in Accra led to a phone call to Femi’s sister Yenni. It turned out she had heard of Aphrodesia, so she invited the group to play that coming Saturday. “There was some frantic planning and soul searching, because going to Nigeria is no easy prospect,” Gale says, “but we decided to go.” Five days and a few random shows later, they were in Lagos.
Unquestionably nervous, Gale and his crew knew that the trip wasn't the only obstacle. With the prospect of a group of white Americans stepping into a notoriously dangerous city to play the music born there, thoughts of misread intentions and colonialist guilt crept into the tableau. As Gale recorded in his journal at the time, he had already imagined how the headlines would read in the Nigerian papers: “White Afrobeat Band With Elephant Balls Travels To Lagos, Worships At Birthplace of Afrobeat”—not an easy pill to swallow (so to speak). As it turned out, his concerns were unfounded. With the exception of a few bribes paid to policemen at the Benin-Nigeria border—more an act of courtesy than any notable conspiracy—the band had no run-ins or problems whatsoever.
There was only one more hurdle to clear once they entered the Shrine. “There were several hundred people with arms folded,” Gale recalls. The band was anxious, but musicianship quickly overtook any initial flutters. “Femi came out in the middle of the crowd and started dancing. Everyone saw it and followed. Then he came on stage and played three or four songs with us on saxophone, and from then on it was a party.”
That rite is com