I became aware of the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International (OBDBI) through an engineer friend of mine, Kris Poulin. We were having a conversation about how I wished bands could just set up in a room, play music and have the space be captured in such a way that the moment was complete without overdubs or extra production. He said “Well, you’ll have to check out this album that I did,” and he stuck the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International on the stereo. It took about 5 seconds before I needed to find out more about this amazing band and album.
Occidental Brothers Dance Band International is the brain child of guitarist Nathaniel Braddock of Chicago. He apparently became so interested in the music of Ghana that he intensely absorbed the sound, created a band to play some of the culture’s best pieces, and eventually even moved there for a time to study. While there he absorbed the music and played with the local musicians, attempting to decode the Ghanian guitar styles. Although, not well-known outside of Chicago, they filled local venues and enjoyed strong support from their hometown music scene.
Of the music I heard, my favorite was the self-titled 2006 album. This one was all instrumental and consisted of 2 percussionist, electric guitar, tenor saxophone and upright acoustic bass. All the musicians loaded into the famous Steve Albini-owned Electrical Audio, recording studio B. A large live room suited the spacious organic sound of the band. There’s clearly a good chemistry with the players, as you can even hear them cheering each other along at times during their solos. The melodies are clearly African-inspired with buoyant, angular melodies. There’s a cheerful, light-hearted feeling to compositions with a playful afro-cuban rhythm section support. At times the band reminds me very much of the Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Pozitanos records. Another slightly warped and wonderful interpretation of a geographically distant influence is the instances that recall the music of legendary Cuban guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez, another highly recommended recording…
It’s interesting to think about the rhythmic and melodic diaspora from West Africa to the Caribbean, via the slave trade hundreds of years ago. From the Caribbean, this music entered the United States and influenced American Jazz, the precursor to rock and roll and popular music. Then you have these American musicians traveling right back to the source to learn about West African music. Along the way, things get filtered and mutated and of course the original Ghanian music has also adapted to modern times and sensibilities. A full circle indeed. Or perhaps a spiral would be a more accurate description of this transformation. There’s never a way to truly return to an origin, we can only only interpret into our own history and experience that which came before us. I digress…
The Occidental Brothers are on to something great and their music is easy to spend a good deal of time with. The unclouded production created a time-less recording that transcends the potential dating 20 or 30 years from now. It’s a group of 5 people in a beautiful sounding room, enjoying playing music with one another. Pure and simple.
Q & A with Nathaniel Braddock
MF: I play mostly rock music but do a jazz / afro-beat inspired project as well and the feeling of playing improvised music is unbelievable. So fun! That’s the vibe I got from the Dance Band International Album.
NB: The OBDBI became a high-flying, festival-playing African dance party, but the group started as a side project and at the request of my students. I booked the first gig without a band, in fact, or band name. The same student that came up with Occidental Brothers (as opposed to the Oriental Brothers) also suggested Code 419, which is the Nigerian legal code for fraud–which I thought appropriate.
I called together a handful of Chicago players and taught them about the music. We treated it like jazz in the sense that there was a melodic “head”, improvisation, head and out, but I always wanted to keep the explorations in the style as much as possible–nothing could be worse than some music school kid trying to get all his licks in while we’re trying to establish a vibe. However, improvisation within structure is essential to African music. This group got steam during a steady gig at Chicago’s great (defunct) Charleston. We’d go and play 3 sets, the girls would dance, and the dialogue therein taught us the real history of music. There is nothing like playing for rooms full of dancers to teach you how to listen and improvise.
MF: It sounds like good players in a good sounding room having fun playing music. That vibe just doesn’t get captured in a multi tracked/layered/overdubbed recording situation. I guess it’s a Rudy VanGelder Vs. Rick Rubin deal. Both good, but one is magical. I guess, if you had a couple words to speak on that topic that would be great.
NB: The group had only ever played live sets in rooms of people, and aside from certain structural milestones, most tunes required a lot of eye contact and ears to make them come alive–note that there were several tunes this day that we didn’t use on the record!
My favorite studio for mics and fundamental room tone is Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, and while the A room is the best you could ever want, I really love Studio B. The main room is two stories of acoustical tile and drums sound amazing in there! Just listen to that first strike on the congas on the first tune, Marion Brown’s “Bosco”–huge! timeless! It could be 1953. You also need the right engineer, and Kris Poulin was the smart choice, as always. We went to 2″ tape, and used the smaller headstack. Hands down this is the best sounding session I ever did, though I’ve grown as a player since.
The performance isn’t perfect, but “perfection” is a faulty concept and usually leads to bad art. There is no editing on this first record. We hear Miles Davis’ flubs and they make us cry. There is a difference between a fuck-up and expressing your humanity.
MF: Also, I was curious about your travels to Ghana. How did that come about?
NB: I had been listening to music from all over Africa for some years, with a particular affection for music from Zaire/Congo, though I had one amazing record on the Original Music label of Ghanaian highlife guitar called “I’ve Found My Love”. So simple, but so completely confusing to the American player.
After starting the Occidental Brothers I started to be approached by African guys who recognized the sounds of their childhood and wanted to join the band–a very flattering thing. I was very fortunate that the first of these guys was the great trumpet player, and later singer, Kofi Cromwell. He helped me draft the unparalleled drummer Asamoah Rambo, and we were off and running. The first OBDBI record was recorded right after meeting these guys, but they are on the 2nd, not the 1st, record. They helped me make my first trip to Africa, and connected me with musicians and family that I remain close to to this day.
MF: Do you think it’s important to pay respect in a traditional representation to the West African music or do you think putting an American spin on it is more important for you? Was there any struggle with that concept in the band?
NB: To me, music never exists out of it’s context. I wanted to recreate as much as possible the sound of Bantous De La Capitale, and other bands because the the confluence of guitars, amps, creativity, civic awareness and more are central to why the music is brilliant. Please remind me to tell you the Dr. Nico story. That’s what I strived for. However, this can not be recreated, and only a fool would think so. Whatever I play, it comes through my own Dinosaur Jr/Jim Hall/Marc Ribot/Dr. Nico/1980’s Michigan thing, and as psyched as African guys are at how I play, this other thing is still there. Which is okay, because that African music was always about creating new things, too.
We at Monofesto are all very interested to hear the “Dr. Nico story” ASAP!