Since the mid-1960s, The Mamas and the Papas' song California Dreamin' has been an anthem for the state of California, an exercise in wistfulness and romanticism ("I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.") that helped create a musical aura around the country's most populous state. The San Francisco group Afrolicious has taken that song's title, and affixed it to a completely different sound, one with lots of horns, lots of beats, and lots of lyrics (like "can't find a job" and "the cost of living is going high") that suggest California is no Shangri-La. There's little room for nostalgia here, but lots of room for funk-driven postulating and debate about the state's cultural and economic climate.
Afrolicious released the song "California Dreaming" and the accompanying album, which has the same title, in March, and the ensemble will perform music from the album during its first-ever "Afrolicious Review" at the Great American Music Hall on Thursday, December 28.
"California is way too dynamic to make it out to be this fairytale place," says Joe McGuire, who co-founded Afrolicious with his brother, Oz McGuire. "Everything you can ever dream of can happen here. And then there's the beauty of the place. And how fertile it is for the arts. They put that in the song, but it's very romanticized. I wanted to show that people are struggling here. There's Hollywood. There's the tech industry. But there are people who are just trying to make it. I've always thought I could go way deeper on those lyrics."
As its name suggests, Afrolicious incorporates the full panorama of African-influenced sounds, whether it's African-American music, Afrobeat, or genres like Latin music whose linkages to African music are less obvious. In Afrolicious' songs, you can hear the echoes of myriad groups from the recent past, including Sly and the Family Stone and Fela Kuti, the Nigerian singer and saxophonist who was influenced by jazz and the Black Panthers. Afrolicious has many black members. The fact that Joe McGuire is white, and that he grew up in the midwest, and that he co-founded Afrolicious with his older brother, Oz McGuire, is a testament, he says, to the way African music has deeply touched people of all backgrounds. It's easy, for example, to forget that rock 'n' roll music owes much of its foundation to blues music.
"I wanted something to reflect this larger picture that I was seeing of musical movement, cultural movement, migration, and this whole history of music that inspired me and created the modern-day platform for which pretty much all music is based around," says Joe McGuire, 32, who plays guitar and piano, and also sings and writes music. "By all music, I mean the hybrids of culture -- so the mixing of Afro and European, where blues and soul and jazz comes from. If you look at Latin music, a lot of it is a mix of Afro, European, and indigenous cultures. The original idea was to spotlight the Afro in music, which gets overlooked a lot. We wanted to spotlight the fact that there weren't enough (music events) that highlight that, even though it permeates our culture and is everywhere. If you grow up in American culture, unless you live in a vacuum, you're going to be influenced by Afro."
Anyone who's gone to San Francisco's Elbo Room knows the music of Afrolicious, which has played at the Valencia Street club for six straight years, and performs there virtually every Thursday night. The Afrolicious concept started out with McGuire as a DJ -- a chance to play music before a live audience, featuring the breadth of music he'd play as a radio DJ. His DJ name is "Pleasuremaker." McGuire first spun music at the University of Kansas before making his way to the Bay Area with his brother, 35, who is also a DJ (and goes by the moniker "Senior Oz"). The DJ sets turned into something bigger when the McGuires added live drumming, horn players, and a roster of other musicians. What was once an event of spun music evolved into a party scene that celebrated the roots of African music. Afrolicious has become an incubator of experimental music and a proving ground for instrumentalists, exemplified by Will Magid, a young trumpeter who got his start with Afrolicious before establishing himself as a musician of note. Magid will perform with his trio at the Great American Music Hall concert, which gathers many of Afrolicious' past and present members under one roof for the first time.
Before "California Dreaming," Afrolicious released several singles, including "Thursday Night Kinda Swing," the kind of infectious song that you play on repeat 50 times. California Dreaming, the group's debut full-length album, is also an upbeat affair, even with the title track that paints a realistic picture of the state. In the song "Never Let No One," the lyrics shout out, "Never let no one ever hold you back. If you should fall, just get back on track." People go to an Afrolicious gig to let loose and be transported by African music.
"We're trying to highlight the more danceable, soulful, polyrhythmic, funky side of African music," McGuire says. "Even within African music, I wouldn't play everything that's African in Afrolicious. I wouldn't play like extremely mellow, less danceable music per se. There's definitely a dance component to the whole mindset."
Afrolicious performs Thursday, December 28, 8pm, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit afrolicious.org.