Occidental Brothers Dance Band International explores popular African musical styles such as Congolese soukous and Ghanaian highlife.
Government budget slashers threatening to eliminate funding for public media outlets might want to hear the tale of guitarist Nathaniel Braddock, who grew up in a small central Michigan town in the '80s.
"Most of the people in the town were families working for Dow or Corning, but my family didn't, so I had a bit of an outsider identity," he recalls. "We had this assortment of freaks listening to underground kinds of music, so I was getting into Sonic Youth and retuning instruments, because I'd just started playing guitar."
Braddock's life was irrevocably altered by a syndicated public radio program called "Afropop Worldwide," which is still on the air 20 years later. He heard an intriguing guitar technique from Africa, and is today the leader of the Chicago-based Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, which explores popular African musical styles such as Congolese soukous and Ghanaian highlife.
The saga came full circle recently when Braddock was interviewed for Guitar Player magazine by Afropop Web site editor Banning Eyre.
"I'd had my first exposure to that type of guitar playing when I was 13 years old," he recalls, emphasizing the appeal of a style not based on strumming chords. "They play two parts with one guitar and create this motion out of single note lines. It's got more rhythmic propulsion and is more sophisticated than strumming, but also has harmonic movement and melodic content -- it's really driving and invigorating."
In Chicago, Braddock played in a handful of indie-rock bands, including Thrill Jockey, label artists The Zincs (with U.K. ex Pat James Elkington, who has since joined The Horse's Ha with Freakwater's Janet Bean), and was involved in the city's extensive improvised music scene. But the African bug kept biting, so he formed a side project to explore his interest.
"The band was meant to be just for the love of it. But the group did really well, so we added more members -- the guys from Ghana. The group was getting bigger audiences than any rock band I'd ever played in, so it eventually became my full-time gig."
The "guys" are vocalist/trumpeter Kofi Cromwell and drummer Daniel "Rambo" Asamoah, who found success with a band called Western Diamonds, located in the city of Takoradi in western Ghana.
"It was quite a large group with several singers, drummers, and horns," Braddock relates, "and they traveled abroad with the president of Ghana. But a couple of guys decided they wanted to stay in the States. Kofi and Rambo had been in Chicago for a while, and we played a show that they were on. What we did was a bit more jazzy, and in addition to highlife, Kofi was interested in African jazz such as Hugh Masekela. So he started singing on a couple of tunes, and that's when the group took its new direction."
The Occidental Brothers have since become a supercharged dance party, thanks to Asamoah's frenetic percussion with its fluid Ghanaian form and tendencies towards improvisation. According to Braddock, there's a significant distinction between Asamoah and the famed Tony Allen, who worked with Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti.
"Tony set up a sophisticated groove, but stayed in that pocket, but Rambo is more in the moment -- things change a lot more. Now we've got less of the early '60s Zairean rumba sound [on their first album, the band covered Congolese greats Mwenda Jean Bosco and Franco] and more of the high-energy highlife."
This sonic shift is evident on the OBDBI's sophomore release, "Odo Sanbra," whose title is spelled for ethnological accuracy with the unique vowels of the Twi language, spoken by the Akan peoples of Ghana. On the album, Cromwell sings in a blend of English and Twi, while saxophonist Greg Ward (a veteran of Chicago's avant-jazz community, having worked with Hamid Drake and Ernest Dawkins) intertwines with Braddock on what would otherwise be a second guitar line, occasionally letting loose for a passioned solo.
The group is joined on two tracks by a celebrity guest -- violinist Andrew Bird. "He's a Chicago guy who came out to a lot of our shows," says Braddock. "We played with his group, and he had a real love of the music, so when it came time to do the record we thought it'd be nice to include him to add another voice to the mix."
The new album is heavily informed by Braddock's travels to Ghana last year. "I took an acoustic guitar and hooked up with Anthony Akablay, who was a guitarist with Western Diamonds. He's probably the most in-demand guitarist in Accra today, and a big student of the old palmwine [acoustic folk] style that he learned as a boy. So I gigged with his band, did recording sessions with them, and spent time sitting on the front porch of his house, learning to play the old styles. It was really fantastic."
One of the most amazing experiences for Braddock was meeting Kwame Sarpong, who had amassed an enormous record collection of his country's music in a cultural center outbuilding.
"He was a retired member of the Ghanaian navy, and had a real drive to preserve their cultural history. Among other projects, he set up this archive, including a huge stack of old 78s and records that had no other extant copies."
Previous to arriving in Ghana, Braddock had been preparing a version of palmwine classic "Yaa Amponsah," which appears on the album. Sarpong just happened to have a 1928 recording by the Kumansi Trio.
"It's a well-known traditional piece, one of the songs which I went to learn to play. So it was pretty moving to go to the source and actually see that original record."
Although that might sound like the kind of crate-digging today's klezmer or Dixieland fans do in their search for authenticity, the Occidental Brothers are by no means stuck in an idyllic African past. They wrote a song for the recent presidential campaign called "Obama Ubarikiwe." The album's front cover depicts some Ghanaian street toughs with bikes and loudspeakers, and the track "Circle Circle Circle" celebrates Nkrumah Circle -- a photo on the inside tray shows a traffic jam of vans in that location.
"It's a place in Accra where everyone has to pass through, so you run into all sorts of people. One day, there was a soccer rally for the African Cup. It became a central point in my experience, even though it wasn't the neighborhood that I lived in."
To bring things even more up to date, "Circle" features Twi rapping by Yao Osofui, a proponent of "hiplife" (a combination of hip-hop and highlife). There seems to be no better proof of the universal message of hip-hop than Osofui giving shout-outs to the Accra bus drivers who wend their way through Nkrumah Circle. "It's the sound younger people are into right now in Ghana."
Meanwhile, the OBDBI's other main concession to Western modernity is truly bizarre -- a highlife-inflected version of New Order's synthpop chestnut "Bizarre Love Triangle." Keep in mind that this is a song that only two audiences would recognize: 40-something New Wave fans from the '80s or the ironic 20-something hipster contingent that frequents current '80s retro nights.
"Certainly, no one else in the band had ever heard it," Braddock says, "but harmonically it works like a Sikyi tune [a type of brooding Ashanti highlife] and fits with our element. We got asked to prepare a cover for Chicago Public Radio, so I taught the guys to play it, and we banged it out in an African style."
Braddock adds that African audiences enjoy the tune, but the response is more overwhelming when OBDBI plays for a younger, mostly white audience such as at Chicago's Pitchfork Festival.
"Being in a lineup that features other kinds of music means a situation where we might be on after some rock band. But we immediately do something different and draw a big crowd. People get joyful and start dancing, even though what's being played is an unfamiliar style."
Although it has received a share of critical praise from both indie-rock and African press, OBDBI hasn't yet been invited to be on those Putumayo world music CDs that pervade the Whole Foods aisles. But recalling how influential the unprecedented Original Music anthology series (compiled by John Storm Roberts, who also wrote the World Music chapter of the All Music Guide) was on his development, he sees nothing wrong with a wider segment of the public discovering African sounds, even in a diluted supermarket form.
"I think it's great to have a well-educated audience exposed to a diverse [selection] of music. Sometimes, you have to put it the place where they're not expecting it, because they're going to like it and learn more about where the music comes from. There's a lot of good that can come from that."
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