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“This is Africa music,” vocalist Kofi Cromwell proclaimed last night, moments after taking DC9‘s stage with the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International. There was something didactic, maybe even ambassadorial, about the Chicago quintet’s hour-long set—the singer often shared nuggets about his band’s songs and their Ghanaian roots—but mostly, Cromwell and Co. just wanted the small audience to lose its shit and get down.

Which, often, was very much the case. Whether playing to 15,000 festivalgoers or a half-empty room, Cromwell assured, the Occidental Brothers always give the same—which is to say, their all. For some audience members, the result was some nervous shaking of the hips; at the other extreme was a well-dressed fellow with his power tie fastened around his head, who with his dance partner literally caused the floor to shake.

The Chicago-based band plays a slightly stripped down, jazzier take on the West African Highlife genre. Last night, studied chord changes often gave way to call-and-response breakdowns. Greg Ward’s alto sax often slithered around choruses and harmonized with band leader Nathaniel Braddock’s chiming guitar, before orbiting off into an Ornette Coleman-esque caterwaul. Toward the end of the set, the rhythm section—drummer Daniel Asamoah and Josh Ramos on electric upright bass—slipped into a sinister, fusion-style vamp (think of a moody Weather Report) while Ward’s sax and Cromwell’s flugelhorn cantered into a sunny, juxtaposing fanfare.

Above all, the group—particularly Cromwell, dressed toes to shoulders in white—had energy and charisma. Several times, Cromwell commanded the venue to “say ‘yeah,’ say ‘yeah yeah!'” During one song, he pointed at one audience member furiously shaking his butt, and laughed approvingly. Often, he juggled  his shekere like he was playing hot potato. At the mic, he sang in English and Mwi with a gravelly vibrato, striking a timbre similar to Extra Golden singer Onyango Wuod Omari’s.

Cromwell and Asamoah are transplants from the Ghanaian group Western Diamonds, whilethe other three are mainstays of Chi-Town’s jazz and rock scenes. And if they lost my attention once or twice last night—and, well, they did—I’m inclined to give them a pass, and say simply that I should have brought a  dance partner.

(D.C.’s The Moderate, aptly named, opened up, and played a woozy, slackerish Americana that worked best in its most unapolagetically country moments.)

Occidental Brothers complied with the audience’s demand for an encore, easing through a cover of New Order‘s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Strangely, the empathetic synthpop classic was of a piece—thematically, anyway—with the rest of the set, which sported songs whose titles translated to “Let’s Go,” “I Miss You,” “Welcome” and “How Love Is Beautiful.” Simple thoughts, electrifying execution. And the take-away? “Go home,” Cromwell said, “and make a beautiful love.”

Photo by Ben Freed