Live in Chicago, Day 3: The Occidental Brothers Dance Band International

photos by Jeremy Farmer
review by L. Manheim
interview by Jim Beckmann

If you are looking for classic Central and West African dance music or just a raucous good time Chicago’s Occidental Brothers Dance Band International fits the bill. The band specializes in soukous (a style akin to Rumba), Highlife (a genre characterized by jazzy horns and multiple guitars), and Dry Guitar (a distinctively Kenyan style), among other genres. Peter Margasak, a music writer for the Chicago Reader, has declared Occidental Brothers to be the Best World Music Band (and their self-titled release a “top 10″ for 2007). The band was featured in Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music’s Afrofolk series and the quintet has performed alongside such acclaimed artists as Oliver Mtukudzi and Andrew Bird. Guitarist Nathaniel Braddock, a teacher of African guitar at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, leads the group and is joined by Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Kofi Cromwell on trumpet and vocals, Daniel “Rambo” Asamoah on traps and hand drums, Josh Ramos on upright bass, and-occasionally-congero Jean LeRoy. As band members explain, Occidental Brothers began by covering the songs of “Congolese greats” Mwenda Jean Bosco, Franco, and Bantous de la Capitale. Now, however, the group is “writing original songs that incorporate their mastery of the old style with the singing of Ghanaian Kofi Cromwell.” Their monthly gigs at Chicago’s Charleston have become legendary dance parties. This also attracted the attention of Chicago Public Radio who recently showcased the band performing an in studio cover tune of the hit New Order single “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Presently, the Occidental Brothers are working on a new album and in addition the performance today will be playing at Chicago’s Clark Street Festival (for free) on 7/13 and at the Pitchfork Music Festival

Jim: So how long have you been a band? I read it has only been about a couple years?

Nathaniel: We started three years ago, but it was a really different thing. It was upright, congos, me and Greg. We did that for about a year and playing small places, and just really really jazzy.

Greg: And nobody really dancing. Or nobody really listening.

Nathaniel: Well some people liked it right away, but it kinda took a lot of me. We had some extra percussion and that really opened it up. And then Kofi started playing with us we met him at a show we played at Hot House. He was playing with a great Ghanaian band in Chicago called Ghanata.

Jim: At that time, were you performing African style music as well?

Nathaniel: Yes.

Jim: Or was it more jazz based?

Nathaniel: We were always doing classic African tunes, but Greg and I as the main tonal voices were improvising around with it, trying to improvise in the style. But it was more like jazz because there was just blowing and blowing and blowing, and continuing to develop ideas and push it. So that’s what may have given it that African jazz.

Jim: And you teach African guitar as well?

Nathaniel: Mmm-hmm.

Jim: But your other bands are quite different [Ancient Greeks, Edith Frost, and The Zincs].

Nathaniel: Yes.

Jim: So what drew you to this style? To these sounds?

Nathaniel: When I was a kid growing up in a small town in Michigan, I was listening to The Smiths and Sonic Youth and stuff like that. And just looking for that other kind of stuff than what was typical in late ‘80s Midwest town. I heard a couple bits of African guitar music on a radio show and knew it was different and liked it for that reason, and started paying attention to it and listening to it. And continued listening to it for years and years. It slowly crept up into my playing even though I wasn’t playing that style. Then actually one of my students told me to start a band. I obey orders.

Jim: From your students? It’s supposed to work the other way, right?”

Nathaniel: They do pay the bills. So sometimes you have to.

Jim: Joshua, how did you get involved?

Joshua: Well, Greg is my best friend and when the bass player had other obligations he recommended me because we played together before and I am interested in the music. It’s right up my alley.

Jim: Have you been in other bands before?

Joshua: Yeah a few different other bands. A jazz band. I play in this band called Liquid Soul. I play music for a living so I freelance.

Jim: So what styles do you guys play specifically?

Kofi: West African music combined with East African music.

Jim: And there are a lot of bands right now who are doing, using African influences and crossing them with Western rock. For instance, Extra Golden played last night at the free [Music Without Borders] show at Millennium Park last night.

Nathaniel: Yeah, they’re cool.

Jim: And of course there is the leaning way more west like Vampire Weekend or something like that. But how authentic is the music that you play? Do you find that you’re blending Western influences into this?

Kofi: Yeah, I think so. We have our own sound. So when we combine it with the Western music and have it together it is great.

Jim: It was interesting to hear when we had Extra Golden play a few weeks back at the station in Seattle and they were kind of concerned that if they went back to play for their home audiences what people would think because it was such a hybridization that some of the traditionalist would be a little bit upset. Do you tend to lean more towards, seeing for instance that you teach guitar, to lean more towards the traditional styles?

Nathaniel: I think inevitably my different background growing up and Greg’s. We’re coming from a different place. Greg has worked really hard to learn to play. He plays the role of the second guitar player a lot of the time. And I’m trying to do that because I don’t want to hit a distortion pedal to give it that, that’s not what this band is about. We’re about trying to have the classic, sound of the golden age. So no effects, just guitar straight in sometimes two bands kind of breaking up a bit. Just that classic ‘70s sound. And I spent a month in Ghana working with guy that really tried to get into those rhythms a little bit deeper. So that is what we are trying to do. But inevitably our backgrounds—Josh, Marcus, everyone, we’re putting ourselves to it.

Jim: You seem to have a jazz style improvisation. Is that typical of Eastern and Western African music, the improvisation?

Kofi: Yeah. I listen to Nathaniel. I listen to him all the time, this is exactly what he is doing.

Joshua: A different type of improvisation. I think even when we are all trying to play something appropriate and we start listening to correct. Like Nathaniel said he is not using the distortion pedal in order to be more authentic to the music. Still we are not playing traditional African solos. We’re incorporation different harmonies, more of a jazz harmony for some of the songs. We’re trying to mix that in to make sense, not be silly.

Jim: Right, it definitely wasn’t silly, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.

Nathaniel: Yeah.

Jim: So you are playing the festival on Sunday. I hear your live shows are well attended and very exciting.

Nathaniel: It’s a great party.

Jim: We’ll definitely be there! Thank you very much for talking and thanks for stopping by.

Nathaniel: Thanks for having us.

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