March 29, 2017

African Musical Fusion in a Globalized World

African Musical Fusion in a Globalized World

Fingerpicking his acoustic guitar, musician and composer Nathaniel Braddock explored the crossroads of Central and West African musical roots with modern American melodies on March 17 at Georgetown University, as part of its free Friday Music Series.

He was initially drawn to the strum-less African music he heard on the radio after first picking up a guitar at age 15 and could not seem to shake its unique sound and complex harmonic arrangements.

“The political and social context of it was so fascinating that I just kept listening to it,” Braddock said about the style of integrating traditional sounds from Mali, Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria, and the United States. Simply by listening to it, he explained, the “buoyant, angular” melodies began to emerge in his own compositions.

A Look at Friday Music Series

The event in McNeir Auditorium was Braddock’s first at Georgetown, to which he was tapped for the gig by longtime friend Ben Harbert, assistant professor in the university’s Department of Performing Arts. According to Harbert, the Friday Music Series began as a way to enhance the music curriculum and connect students with local and global artists, provide a space for musical exploration outside the classroom, and serve the local community with free art events.

“It engages all styles of music and people with backgrounds from all sorts of cultures,” Harbert shared. “We aim to host people who help to expand our world through music.”

Braddock was selected to perform because Harbert thought his unique style of music aligned with the interests of many students at Georgetown, particularly the large guitar-playing community on campus that wished to dabble in genres other than classic rock. Braddock offered a master class after his performance to teach his techniques and style to fellow guitar enthusiasts and to “stretch students’ understanding of what the instrument can do.”

Finding a Sense of Place in Music

To Braddock, the appeal of studying and blending global genres is to embrace the beauty of humanity through diverse musical selections, to learn to respect “otherness,” and to provide a sense of place in the world among so many rich traditions and cultures.

“It’s important to remember that we’re citizens of the world—one that’s filled with incredible, unfathomable complexity,” he remarked.

Globalization and Preservation

Now, Braddock tours internationally and performs in venues ranging from festivals and underground art spaces to the Kennedy Center with his group, the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, playing “high-energy soukous, rootsy Ghanaian highlife, and African jazz.” He has also taught courses at the Passim School of Music and Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music for over 10 years. His students, he said, were the ones who urged him to start a band years ago. Braddock currently works to digitize classic vinyl records that are at least 40 years old in order to preserve them for future musical study and appreciation.

“As we shift toward globalization and to more homogenous cultures," Braddock explained, "it’s important to me to preserve what’s great about individual cultures and music."

With his unique rhythmic blend of African roots music and modern melodies, he urges the importance of appreciating the beauty of music to respect and preserve cultural diversity and history, particularly when “it’s uncomfortable for some people to hear music they’re not familiar with” in an increasingly global world.

A Conversation of Inspiration

Between songs at the event, Braddock spoke about the inspiration and significance of each of his compositions. Unlike typical experiences at large venues, audience members who craved to learn more had a direct, informal conversation with the composer about how his travels to Ghana and the Ghanaian language inspired his musical selections.

“[Braddock’s] cosmopolitanism resonates with student and faculty interests of West Africa in general—some might study the history and politics and traditions of these places and are drawn to how their musical components play a role in the culture,” Harbert said.