The Occidental Brothers' Transatlantic Soul

Finding the sweet spot between West Africa and West Chicago.

The smooth and melodious groove on the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International's debut album, Odo Sanbra, gives off a vintage vibe that belies the group's true origins. While the sounds on the album are distinctly West African, Ghanaian to be exact, the band actually formed playing the clubs of modern-day Chicago. However, talking with the group's founding member, guitarist Nathaniel Braddock, you don't sense they're trying to achieve any sort of NPR-ready version of authenticity.Instead, the relaxed ease with which he and his bandmates peel off everything from traditional highlife songs like "Yaa Amponsah" and their own original compositions to a surprisingly intuitive (and irony-free) cover of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" is a testament to how much fun they're having."I started the group as kind of a smallish combo that would play in clubs in more of a jazzy vein," says Braddock. "We were going to play the old African songs and improvise on them; we weren't going to play jazz, but we were going to take the style and improvise, and maybe some people would dance to it."The group started to be successful, and we played a show with a couple of African bands, and those guys were getting really excited by the repertoire we were playing. So we began to get more African musicians joining our group, starting with Kofi [Cromwell, singer and trumpet player]. It was really that early relationship with Kofi that sort of determined the direction that we went."Odo Sanbra, released this past April, does a great job of capturing the Occidental Brothers' sound, but they're constantly expanding the parameters of their music onstage. Plus, any group with "Dance Band" in their name better be ready to bring it live."Improvisation is definitely still a big part of [the live show]; we don't get much of a chance to rehearse, so we're always making up our arrangements," Braddock says. "We'll get a basic structure together, but we'll make up the arrangements night to night. There's a lot of stuff that we surprise each other with, and I think that keeps it exciting. We're excited because there are always surprises and it's very joyous in that way, and I think that comes through."

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