CHICAGO’S OCCIDENTAL BROTHERS DANCE Band International play a blend of West African palm wine and highlife, Congolese music, and jazz. Guitarist and bandleader Nathaniel Braddock still chuckles at the band’s name, a twist on the vintage Nigerian highlife act Oriental Brothers. Braddock’s Ghanaian collaborators— vocalist and trumpet player Kofi Cromwell and drummer Asamoah Rambo—played in a popular ’90s highlife band called Western Diamonds. So “Occidental” covers the African players’ roots in western Ghana, and the American players’ roots in the other West.
“I started the band around 2006 as a side project,” explains Braddock, who also plays in the Ancient Greeks, the Zincs, the Butcher Shop Quartet, and Chicago Javanese Gamelan. “Most of my performance had been in indie rock and the experimental scene.” Braddock had studied classical guitar while in school in Midlands, Michigan, but his tastes soon ran to Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and then the Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, the Smiths, the Pixies, and— Afropop? Braddock became fascinated with the public radio program Afropop Worldwide, in particular an early episode called “Guitar Greats,” which he can still recite portions of from memory. “Me and my brother were kind of odd men out in Midlands,” recalls Braddock. “We were always looking beyond what was immediately available and African music caught my ear and became a path for me.” That path led to Chicago, and a teaching gig at the Old Town School of Folk Music. After Braddock was nudged into offering an African guitar class, his students said they wanted to hear the music, so he put a band together and booked some gigs.
During the years between the band’s self- titled 2006 debut and its 2008 Odo Sanbra CD, the Ghanaian members joined, and Braddock made his first visit to Africa. He had picked up some Ghanaian highlife and palm wine picking along the way, but when he sat down with the Western Diamond Band’s former guitarist Anthony Akablay in Ghana, a deeper education began. “Aka studied with a lot of the great old players, such as Konimo and King Onyina,” says Braddock. “I think he even worked a little with Kwaw Mensah, who is really the starting point for Ghanaian guitar.” Mensah picked up guitar in the early 1900s, probably from the Kru, Sierra Leonean sailors who worked on Portuguese ships and disseminated guitar music to African port cities. Mensa’s kwaw is a fingerpicking style that generally moves between two chords—typically Em and F—and it established the basis of palm wine and highlife music.
Palm wine evolved to include other variants, notably Yaa Amponsah, which started as a praise song to the woman who carried the palm wine from the bush to the bar. “If you’re playing a Yaa Amponsah song it’s like saying you’re playing a blues,” says Braddock. “It becomes a style, with certain conventions, harmonic progressions, and rhythms.” The basic chord progression is II7- IV-V. Braddock plays a nice variant in C: C-C7-Dm/F6-C-Dm/F6-Gsus-G-C. Of course, the real trick is the rhythm. “It’s close to what they call ‘3/2 clave’ in Caribbean music,” says Braddock. “But if you are an American guitarist and you’ve done some fingerstyle playing, it’s confusing because the role of the thumb is very different: You don’t play on the one. You are on all these off beats and in-between beats. The thing I’ve learned by listening and working with people is that part of playing rhythmically in this style is about muting—left-hand muting and right-hand muting. Rhythm is not just where a note starts. If you don’t end it in the right place, you’re not playing the right rhythm.”
Braddock still prefers picking on nylon strings, but he teaches using a $300 Blue Ridge steel-string. When it comes to electric, he’s recorded with his ’54 Gibson ES-125 archtop, but on stage prefers his old Fender Telecaster, customized with over-wound Lindy Fralin pickups. Braddock has thick nails on his picking fingers, and favors heavier strings. “I’m using GHS Boomer strings gauged .012- .050s with a flatwound G string right now,” he says. “For me, the string has got to push back a little. It needs to have a lot of character, or else you can’t play the complicated rhythms. Even when flat-picking with .011s, it was just falling apart.” Braddock’s stage amp is a Carr Rambler. “Fender Twins are great,” he says. “But they are too loud for a festival stage. We use a lot of dynamics, and we have acoustic instruments such as upright bass, alto sax, and trumpet. The Twin doesn’t wake up until the volume is set on 2 or 3, and then it’s too much.”
The Occidental Brothers are likely the only U.S. band to specialize in classic Ghanaian and Congolese styles. At a time when this older music is scarcely played anymore in Africa, Braddock and his musicians are evolving it, creating new hybrids with other dance styles and jazz. As the crowd stepped out recently at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night’s Swing, it was clear that Braddock’s “side project” has legs. His real African adventure may be just beginning.