Nathaniel Braddock, Greg Ward, Samba Mapangala, Joshua Ramos, and Makaya McCraven
Nathaniel Braddock, Greg Ward, Samba Mapangala, Joshua Ramos, and Makaya McCraven Credit: Jim Newberry

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.

Braddock continued to nourish his love of African music, checking out shows around town, copying records from public libraries, and slowly absorbing what he was hearing into his own playing. In the Ancient Greeks—his first group as a leader, started in 1998—he often played with a sweet tone and fluid melodicism that reflected the influence of African guitar-band music, even though the songs were unambiguously indie rock. He used a similar sound as a sideman in the Zincs for most of the aughts. He began teaching guitar at the Old Town School in 2004—the same year he played a series of sold-out New York shows with the local Butcher Shop Quartet, performing their “rock” version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—and in 2005 he started the Old Town School class on African guitar styles.

The first lineup of the African band included Greg Ward as well as bassist Kyle Hernandez. They set up a couple low-profile gigs that fall at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Charleston, and Braddock had so much fun he booked more.

In January 2006 the group, by then christened the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International—a playful reference to Nigerian highlife institution the Oriental Brothers International Band—played HotHouse on a bill with the Chicago-based Ghanaian group Ghanatta, led by singer Dan Boadi. “After we were done, a couple of the Ghanaian guys cornered me, including Kofi [Cromwell], and he was essentially saying, ‘I’m going to play with you,'” says Braddock. “They recognized in what we were doing something they had grown up with back home. That’s one of the reasons my group has succeeded with certain African people that have heard us, because we’re not going for the modern thing. We’re going for this real music of this golden era, and you really can’t hear it anywhere.”

Cromwell and his Ghanaian friend and bandmate, drummer Daniel “Rambo” Asamoah, began frequenting Occidental Brothers gigs, attempting to insinuate themselves into the lineup. “What pulled me in was really Greg Ward—I loved his saxophone playing and I really wanted to play with a saxophonist,” says Asamoah. “I also liked the way Nathaniel picked the guitar—he really understood African music. But they didn’t have the solid African percussion, and I thought I could bring that to the band.”

In the 90s, before moving to Chicago, Asamoah and Cromwell had both played in the Western Diamonds—at the time one of the best-known highlife bands in Ghana—and the vintage style of Braddock’s group appealed to them in a way that Ghanatta’s more contemporary sound didn’t. Though Braddock says the enthusiasm of native-born Africans is the most single important kind of encouragement he’s received, he held off on asking Cromwell and Asamoah to join—he didn’t want to overhaul the Occidental Brothers’ lineup before capturing the group’s carefully rehearsed instrumental sound in the studio.

When the band recorded its self-titled debut in February 2006, the lineup was Braddock, Ward, Hernandez, and the latest of several percussionists, George Lawler (Mucca Pazza, Lamajamal). Doug Brush replaced Lawler shortly thereafter, and Cromwell and Asamoah came aboard officially—Cromwell as their first front man and Asamoah as their first full-kit drummer. The repertoire shifted away from Congolese soukous, which has its roots in Afro-Cuban music, and toward Ghanaian highlife, an ebullient style that sounds more like calypso. Braddock and Ward also began writing original material, improvising on classic African tunes until they’d developed enough new ideas to displace all remnants of the song they were using as a template.

The Occidental Brothers started landing higher-profile bookings: Andrew Bird picked them to open a couple dates at Logan Square Auditorium in November 2006, and they supported him again at a Millennium Park show in September 2008. The band had turned into Braddock’s main gig—he’d broken up the Ancient Greeks in 2006, and the Zincs called it quits in 2007. Samba Mapangala learned about the band from his de facto manager, CC Smith, a longtime radio DJ and former editor of the defunct world-music and reggae magazine The Beat. Smith, who’s been working with Mapangala for about three years, became a fan of the Occidental Brothers after she happened across their first album in a record store. “It blew my mind,” she says. “I played it on my first available radio show, and I was telling everyone I knew.” She was the one who suggested that fateful phone call during Pitchfork 2008.

Mapangala’s World Music Festival shows in September of that year would be his first in Chicago—though he’s based in the States, he still tours Europe and Africa most often. Born in 1955 and raised in Matadi, the capital of the western province of Kongo Central (formerly Bas-Congo), he went to school in the early 70s in Kinshasa, where he started singing in nightclubs for groups like Super Bella Bella and Saka Saka. In 1975 a concert promoter from Uganda saw one of the bands Mapangala was fronting and gave them a leg up. “We were playing in a town near the Ugandan border, and a guy there told us how beautifully we were playing,” says Mapangala. “He said he wanted to bring us to Uganda. He got us passports, and we spent one year in Kampala. This was Idi Amin time.”

In Uganda, where they made their first recordings, this group became known as Orchestre Les Kinois (“The Kinshasans”). In 1977 they moved further east, to Nairobi, Kenya, and had even greater success. In 1981 Mapangala started his own band, Orchestra Virunga, whose early LPs stood out by combining the fluid, ringing guitars of soukous with the dry, stripped-down bass-and-drums sound of Kenyan benga. Over the next decade and a half Virunga made many more albums and toured all over the continent, eventually traveling as far as Europe and North America.

It was on North American tours in 1996 and 1997 that Mapangala began thinking of leaving Africa. “I lived in Kenya for 20 years, and in the early 90s I was not selling many of my records because of piracy,” he says. “People would buy my music, but I wasn’t earning anything from it. I thought about going to England, but when I toured in the U.S. and Canada I saw that a lot of African musicians were living over here, and I spoke with some of them and they said it wasn’t bad.” He lives in Jessup, Maryland, with his wife and four kids.

“Obama Ubarikiwe,” the song Braddock and Ward played on during Virunga’s first visit to Chicago, became a minor Internet hit. But it’d be almost a year before Braddock and Mapangala would cross paths again, when their bands shared the bill in New York last summer.

Meanwhile, in early 2008 Braddock spent more than a month in Ghana, where he met Asamoah’s family, traveled the country, and spent an intensive couple of weeks learning from former Western Diamonds guitarist Anthony Akablay, an expert in the old acoustic folk style called palmwine and one of the most sought-after musicians in the capital city of Accra. By the time the Occidental Brothers played Pitchfork they’d recorded their second album, Odo Sanbra, with Braddock and Ward plus Cromwell, Asamoah, and bassist Joshua Ramos, who’d joined in February 2007. In spring ’09, after trying fruitlessly to find a label, they ended up releasing it themselves. They did, however, land a booking agent—Eric Selz of Chicago-based Red Ryder—and that summer they spent five weeks touring the U.S. and Canada, playing the New York show with Virunga as well as the Vancouver and Montreal jazz festivals and Milwaukee’s Summerfest.

But Asamoah, who has two young children, couldn’t afford the road life—the Occidental Brothers, still a relatively DIY outfit, couldn’t take care of him like the Western Diamonds had. “When the tour was over and we got home, the money we made wasn’t as much as we were told it was going to be,” he says. “I had just had my second child, and I had to bring my mother-in-law to Chicago from Holland to help take care of him when I was on tour—it ended up being very expensive for me.” He quit the band shortly after they got back to Chicago, and Cromwell—who’d already been planning to return to Ghana for an extended visit—took the opportunity to make his own exit. The Occidental Brothers are on good terms with Asamoah and hope to work with him again occasionally, but Cromwell quit less amicably. “Kofi had an ego thing, I think,” says Braddock. “When he said he was leaving, he said, ‘I’m leaving. I don’t even like this music anyway. You’ll see—I’m going to start my own band.'” (Cromwell is in Ghana and couldn’t be reached for comment.)

The band had gigs booked in late September at the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana, and though they were prepared to play without a singer, Braddock had to scramble to replace Asamoah. At the last minute he lined up local jazz drummer Makaya McCraven—son of Stephen McCraven, who’s drummed for heavies like Marion Brown and Archie Shepp. The band didn’t have time for even one rehearsal with him—fortunately Ward and Ramos had played with him in other settings—but according to Braddock the shows went great.

Next on the schedule, though, was the fund-raiser in Minneapolis for the American Refugee Committee. The Occidental Brothers had been offered a pretty generous paycheck for the concert, and they didn’t want to play it as an instrumental band. Braddock called Mapangala, looking for advice or suggestions—and with the thought that, just maybe, he would agree to fill in himself. Which of course he did.

“I was very impressed with their music,” Mapangala says. “When Nathaniel called me I had already been thinking about recording something with them, but I hadn’t talked to him about it.”

“The band learned a couple of Samba’s songs and he learned some of ours, and the relationship was good with everyone,” Braddock says. “He saw how we were together—Makaya, Greg, and Josh and I are very close—and he commented on it, that we rely one another and have fun. And that comment had an impact on me.”

“Like family,” adds Mapangala.

Over the next few months they had several discussions to sort out the details of Mapangala’s participation in the band: what his cut of the total take would be at gigs, who would cover his airfare under what circumstances, and so on. He also agreed not to arrange shows of his own that might compete with his Occidental Brothers bookings. They’ve agreed to give the arrangement one year and then see how it’s working.

After that Minneapolis fund-raiser, Mapangala and the Occidental Brothers played next at New York’s Winterjazz Festival in January, then made their Chicago debut in February at a Lincoln Hall benefit to help Walter Payton College Prep send a few students to Ghana. Mapangala wasn’t around for the band’s tour of Evanston schools last month, so their second local show together is this Saturday at Schubas.

Because Mapangala’s music draws heavily on Congolese soukous, Braddock has recruited a second guitarist, Antonio Carella—a former student of his who leads a relatively new local group called L’Orchestre Super Vitesse, in which Braddock also plays. In Ghanaian styles it’s not uncommon to have a single guitar, but soukous depends on the complex rhythmic interweaving of high and low parts. Though Braddock has learned how to approximate this effect himself (and Ward sometimes plays lines that suggest a second guitar), he felt that by actually using two guitars the band could better respect their new singer’s classic material. Carella joined in December, and has played a couple of shows with the group so far.

On Friday and Sunday, before and after the Schubas concert, the Occidental Brothers and Mapangala are going into the studio, where they plan to record some songs they’ve written together.”For me it’s a good experience to combine,” says Mapangala. “In Washington I don’t have a group that I can sit and compose with.” In fact Mapangala doesn’t have a band in Washington at all; Virunga is actually two groups, one based in Minneapolis and the other spread out along the east coast, and the musicians function mostly as hired guns, not as creative units generating new material. “Nathaniel has a group and it’s a good opportunity, and I think this collaboration is going to bring something new,” he continues. “I want to do something different with American musicians. It will not be Virunga or the Occidental Brothers, but hopefully something different and good.”