African dance band gets community on its feet

Kristi Ruff

While everyone was gearing up for the first weekend back at school, a fabulous show took place in the new campus center the night of Friday, Sept. 18. The Julie Esch Studio and Hurvis room jointly provided a great space for students to jam to the West African beats of the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, brought to Lawrence by the Band Booking Committee, the Student Organization for University Programming, and the Afro Caribbean Club.
The band, an amalgam of musicians from various African countries, has been gathering quite the following during the last few years. The increased following has been due to the band’s amazing ability to unify traditional African music, jazz and underground rock to produce an irresistible dance beat.
The performance Friday night certainly lived up to past reviews from such reputable sources as The Beat and the Chicago Tribune, which hailed the band as the “greatest African dance band on the planet.”
Lawrence student Nidal Kram added her own praise, describing the group as “exhilarating, and a breath of fresh air.”
While all of the songs featured a distinct African sound, each one varied in terms of texture. For example, the first few songs had a very relaxed smooth-jazz feel to them, whereas subsequent tunes were more upbeat.
One particularly interesting piece had a rather mariachi-esque sound, featuring similar instrumentation, but with a subversive African jive underlying the usual Latin groove. This “really funky fusion,” as it was dubbed by LU student Diana Sussman, created a truly unique listening experience.
Another piece focused on the weave of sound created by mixing Greg Ward’s saxophone line with Kofi Cromwell’s voice, creating a haunting melody sung in the Ghanaian native tongue.
The variation between the songs was inventive, but a more remarkable aspect was that the band managed to retain its innovative signature style despite all of the variations in sound.
Sussman commented on the group’s “togetherness” as presented through the music. Each of the four musicians clearly contributed different aspects to each song, but they were “in tune” with each other on a level that seemed to surpass just “being in a band together.”
While Cromwell and Ward’s exceptional musicianship was evident throughout the performance, it was the cohesive background rhythms of guitarist Nathaniel Braddock, bass player Josh Ramos, and percussionist Daniel Asamoah that really unified the sound and tied it together.
The mutual give and take exhibited by these creative musicians was indicative of a group that is united not only through a band name, but through a loyalty to their native country and the propagation of their culture through the powerful medium of music.
Throughout the group’s performance, the lead singer, Cromwell, encouraged audience participation with responsive singing and chanting. One especially nice aspect of the performance was the presence of nonstudents. Many other members from the community had come to enjoy the performance.
Though it is easy to believe that the majority of LU students present were dancing and moving to the music, it is perhaps surprising — and a testament to the validity of the group’s name — that many middle-aged — and older — people from the Appleton community also found it impossible to remain motionless.
More information about Occidental Brothers Dance Band International can be found at the group’s Web site, http://occidentalbrothers.com. The site offers track samples and purchasing information for the group’s CDs.

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