Nathaniel Braddock spent his college years fawning over the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Then, one day, he heard some African guitar tracks being played on his local public radio station. "I already had my ear kind of bent toward the obscure," says Braddock. "So when I heard this stuff, it became natural for me to explore."
Braddock, 38, spent the rest of his 20s learning African guitar. Eventually, he began teaching others how to play traditional styles like soukous and highlife at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music.
Today, Braddock is busy introducing indie rock fans to African dance music as founder of the Chicago-based Occidental Brothers Dance Band International.
The band played the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2008. They recently performed live in-studio on KEXP, the flagship indie-rock radio station based in Seattle. Pitchfork endorsed the group's 2009 album Odo Sanbra with a favorable review.
The Occidental Brothers formed four years ago as an instrumental quartet after Braddock returned from an extended trip to Ghana. He had spent a month playing gigs and sessions with Anthony Akablay, who is "one of the hardest-working and most in-demand guitar players in that country," says Braddock.
"I wasn't really trying to learn to play it back then as much as learn how to listen to it," he recalls. The Occidental Brothers added vocals and started writing their own songs when Ghanaian singer and trumpeter Kofi Cromwell joined the band.
Braddock says he hasn't been surprised by the band's appeal. "These African styles are the most exciting forms of guitar music I've ever heard," he says.
Last year the Occidental Brothers began working with the same agent who books national shows for Andrew Bird. That, says Braddock, has significantly increased the group's exposure. When they appear at the Memorial Union Rathskeller on Jan. 30, the group will be fronted by the legendary Congolese vocalist and bandleader Samba Mapangala.
Braddock thinks his band's world sound is a natural for younger audiences who gravitate toward alternative rock. "Those indie rock kids, they have big ears," he says. "People are more open-minded now."