Small towns don't have to be stultifying -- if you can find an outlet. Just ask Nathaniel Braddock, leader and guitarist of the Chicago-based Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, which specializes in Afropop musical styles, such as soukous and highlife.
"I grew up in a small town in Michigan in the '80s and was listening to anything off the radar," says Braddock. "So I dug in the library for jazz records, then I discovered an Afropop radio show. These guitarists weren't strumming -- no one was playing like an American."
Braddock started OBDBI with saxophonist Greg Ward, a fixture in the Chicago avant-jazz scene. They worked out their own version of the '60s African style, covering songs by Congolese greats such as Franco Luambo and "Dr. Nico" Kasanda. Then they played a show where some Africans were in attendance. "One Congolese friend couldn't believe we did these songs," recalls Braddock. "He said, 'How can you play like this?'"
At that same gig, they met Ghanaian trumpeter Kofi Cromwell, of highlife band Western Diamonds, who began playing and singing with them. Then another Diamond, "Rambo" Asamoah, joined the group. "They really know the Ghanaian style, but they also know pan-African stuff," says Braddock. "In Africa, these guys would play for six hours straight, with several singers."
Although Afrobeat -- the genre invented by Nigeria's Fela Kuti -- has grown popular, Braddock explains that the Occidental Brothers' music has a different emphasis. "Afrobeat mixes American soul with Yoruba rhythms, it's sung in English, and sometimes it's just one chord for 20 minutes. But the Ghanaian musicians, although based on a drumming tradition, come from an old style called 'palm wine' -- they were the first practitioners along the coast to work with the guitar in its acoustic form. So you get more rhythmic variation, and it's more melodically driven. There are chord progressions, and counterpoint within guitar parts."
OMDBI have generated some Internet buzz, thanks to both its unusual version of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" (recorded for a Chicago public-radio station's cover-tunes project) and a song called "Obama Ubarikiwe," in praise of the hometown presidential candidate. The band have also signed to Chicago label Thrill Jockey, home to Tortoise, Trans Am, and Braddock's previous indie band The Zincs.
Braddock doesn't mind hipster attention ("as far as I'm concerned, that just means people who are curious about music"), but notes that African styles have resurged in waves. Just like the Ethiopiques compilations sparked interest in Addis Ababa, so the more recent reissues on London's Stern Records by the likes of Franco and soukous pioneer Tabu Ley have turned ears towards Kinshasa, even as the Congo makes the news for its incessant internal strife. Says Braddock, "A lot of people are being turned on to styles beyond just Afrobeat."
Occidental Brothers Dance Band International with Akrasia and Thirteenth Rune. 8 p.m. Tue., Jan. 6 (doors at 7 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $7. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com