In July 2008 guitarist Nathaniel Braddock was backstage at the Pitchfork Music Festival, waiting to go on with his group the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, when he got an unexpected phone call from Samba Mapangala. They'd never met or even talked before, but Braddock knew exactly who Mapangala was. The veteran singer, born in the Congo, had been a major star in Africa for nearly four decades, most of them as the leader of Orchestra Virunga—one of the most revered practitioners of the golden-age African guitar-band music that the Occidental Brothers were trying to re-create. "It was a good day," Braddock says.
Mapangala, who's lived near Washington, D.C., since 1998, was coming to Chicago that September to play the World Music Festival, and because he was going to be in the same town as his Minneapolis-based band for the occasion, he wanted to record a praise song he'd written for Barack Obama, "Obama Ubarikiwe" ("Obama Be Blessed"). Though he used the word produce in the call, mostly he wanted Braddock to arrange studio time. But Braddock ended up as one of the guitarists on the session, and his Occidental Brothers bandmate Greg Ward added saxophone. (An MP3 of the track is posted below the photo of Mapangala to the right.)
Braddock and Mapangala played together again last July in Manhattan's Damrosch Park, when the Occidental Brothers opened for Virunga at a Lincoln Center concert. Braddock sat in on a rendition of "Obama Ubarikiwe," alongside another personal hero, legendary Congolese soukous guitarist Lokassa Ya Mbongo. "That was a delight," Braddock says. "Holy shit!"
Three months later Mapangala returned the favor with interest, filling in for the Occidental Brothers' departed singer, Kofi Cromwell, at a private Minneapolis fund-raising concert for the American Refugee Committee. Then he went one better: he signed on as the band's front man.
Braddock started listening to African music while he was in high school in the late 80s—about the same time he picked up the guitar, and long before Fela Kuti reissues became de rigueur in the collections of broad-minded indie rockers. He soon began dabbling in the music, mostly by trying to duplicate parts he heard on records, but it would be years before he convinced himself he could play it seriously.
One milepost on the road that led Braddock to the Occidental Brothers was a free 1994 show presented by the Equator Club in the lakefront park east of Uptown, headlined by Diblo Dibala, a fiery lead guitarist and one of the most celebrated instrumentalists in the history of Congolese soukous. Dibala's rhythm guitarist was white, and for Braddock, who's also white, seeing a non-African musician operating at such a high level was a crucial bit of encouragement.
These days the Occidental Brothers are one of the most popular and acclaimed American bands playing African music. But while most U.S. groups working similar territory build on the Afrobeat sound pioneered by Fela (Antibalas, Nomo, the Chicago Afrobeat Project) or attempt fusions with American genres (Extra Golden), Braddock and company devote themselves to vintage dance styles like highlife and soukous. He started the band as a lark in 2005, encouraged by students in the African guitar class he'd begun teaching the Old Town School of Folk Music. At first it was an instrumental four-piece without a name, doing stripped-down, rustic versions of 50s and 60s classics from the Congo, Ghana, and Zimbabwe. Now most of the Occidental Brothers' songs are originals, and having earned nationwide recognition they're expanding into the European market—their first overseas tour, next month, includes gigs at prestigious events like the Moers Festival in Germany and the Music Meeting in the Dutch city of Nijmegen.
Born in Michigan in 1971, Braddock grew up in Midland, a small town near Flint and Saginaw that's home to the corporate headquarters of Dow Chemical. "My parents were liberal-arts educated, lived in Europe when they first married, and traveled, while on the whole most of the other families were very conservative," he says. "The culture was one of looking outside of what was immediately there to find your identity." In 1988 he discovered the new syndicated radio program Afropop (now Afropop Worldwide), and it immediately struck a chord. "When I started listening to African stuff I was learning how to play the guitar," he says. "I could identify that it was a different approach to the instrument, and since I felt different I just decided to go with it and see."
His interest in African music was something he pursued mostly in private, though, since few of his friends shared it. He also listened to free jazz and alt-rock, and played bass in a band that had a handful of low-key shows. In 1990 he left Michigan for Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he studied history. "After a couple of years up there this guy came to the school who was ethnically Indian, but who'd grown up in South Africa," he recalls. "He was an ethnomusicology prof at a time when that was still pretty rare." Braddock took two classes with him, one on Indian film music and another on African popular music. "He gave me cassettes, which were already several generation-old dupes, some of which didn't even say what they were." Braddock pumped him for information about African music, including Kenyan benga, which was new to him.
Braddock spent four months in Chicago in 1993, working at the Newberry Library and researching a thesis on the historic town of Pullman, and the welcoming feeling he got from the city's free-jazz community helped persuade him to move here after he graduated the following year. He hung out at the Fireside Bowl and spent a year rooming with Tim Kinsella (Joan of Arc) and Ryan Rapsys (Euphone). He desperately wanted to join a band and pored over the Reader's classifieds looking for opportunities. "I was driving all over the city and suburbs," he says, "and it was all terrible for the most part." Braddock auditioned for the alt-rock band Squash Blossom; he didn't get the spot, but their singer, Chiyoko Yoshida, recommended he contact drummer Tim Stevens and guitarist Vito Greco, formerly of the postpunk trio Table (whose old bassist, Warren Fischer, would soon cofound Fischerspooner). They formed a short-lived trio called Virginia in 1996.