To say the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International plays African music is accurate, but rather vague. Considering that Africa is the world's second-largest continent and contains dozens of countries and countless musical styles, that's a broad generalization.
"That'd be like saying Led Zeppelin plays European music," chuckles Nathaniel Braddock, guitarist and leader of the Chicago-based band. "Or saying someone plays North American music. I mean, you probably wouldn't be a mariachi musician and get up and play with Van Halen."
Braddock says the Occidental Brothers perform only a small portion of African music, and it primarily comes from Central and West Africa—countries such as Ghana, the Congo and, to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe. The band's repertoire features a captivating mixture of styles such as soukous, highlife, rumba and dry guitar.
The Occidental Brothers Dance Band International will visit Tucson for the first time to play Saturday, June 20, at Solar Culture Gallery.
Braddock is a veteran player in Chicago jazz and indie-rock circles—with such acts as Ancient Greeks, the Zincs and Edith Frost—and he teaches African guitar at the city's Old Town School of Folk Music. He says the Occidental Brothers formed naturally from the love of West African music he shares with students and colleagues.
"I had been listening to African guitar music for many years, and I started teaching it, and eventually, a band grew out of my classes," he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Chicago.
"It started out simply, with me, a sax player, a congo player and an upright bass player. We started out doing '60s Congolese music. At first, we mostly did cover versions of the classic tunes, by people like Mwenda Jean Bosco, Franco and Bantous de la Capitale."
The group's self-titled debut album—released independently in 2007 and distributed by Thrill Jockey Records—primarily features that material.
The Occidental Brothers continued evolving, and two native Ghanaian musicians became enamored with the group and enlisted. Singer Kofi Cromwell and percussionist Daniel "Rambo" Asamoah, both members of the popular Ghanaian highlife band Western Diamonds, bring firsthand experience to the Occidental Brothers sound.
"Kofi and Rambo have really helped us change and grow, and they have helped us realize where we wanted to go with this group," Braddock says.
Although the group sometimes grows larger, there are five main Occidental Brothers. The group includes bassist Josh Ramos, who has played with Liquid Soul, and sax player Greg Ward, whose experience includes sessions and live dates with such artists as Hamid Drake, Ernest Dawkins and the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble.
The band had a busy 2008, playing shows with Afropop legend Oliver Mtukudzi and singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, and appearing at many festivals and showcases. The Occidental Brothers also collaborated with Samba Mapangala on the song "Obama Ubarikiwe," a tune praising then-presidential candidate Barack Obama that became a viral Internet hit.
The Occidental Brothers released their second album, Odo Sanbra, in April. Among its hypnotic and sexy West African-derived dance tunes is a cover of the New Order song "Bizarre Love Triangle." Braddock discovered that the chord progression in the '80s modern-rock hit was very similar to that of the older highlife style known as sikyi, so he taught it to the band.
In the music of the Occidental Brothers, one is likely to hear echoes of jazz melodies and Latin rhythms. This is not a calculated move, Braddock says, but a natural result of the cross-pollination that is essential to the way music travels the world.
"African music goes to the New World hundreds of years ago and becomes something else—blues, jazz, rock, Afro-Cuban music—and then is imported back to Africa and influences what has been happening there in the meantime. I mean, (Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer) Fela Kuti is heavily influenced by James Brown."
Braddock, who is in his mid-30s, says he grew up in Michigan listening to jazz artists such as John Coltrane, indie pop acts such as The Smiths (mostly because of guitarist Johnny Marr) and avant-garde rockers like Sonic Youth. "I just wanted to hear something other than the usual Bob Seger," he says.
Eventually, his insatiable musical hunger drew him to Afropop.
He says he found Afropop guitar similar to the music of Coltrane, Marr and Sonic Youth in one important way: "They all approach their instruments and creating music from unique perspectives," he says.
As much as Braddock loves the music of Africa, he didn't visit the continent until he already was an adult. It was a trip to Ghana, and he can't wait to go back, but his current commitments are growing. He hopes to return at the end of this year.
Actually, Braddock credits the Chicago Public Library system with helping to broaden his musical tastes.
"I'm talking about the LP era. When I was going to the library, they had some CDs, but most of their music holdings were all LPs. In Chicago's Harold Washington Library, I found such a rich assortment of music treasures that you can't find even on the Internet. I found some amazing things."