Oneness of Juju - African Rhythms 1970-1982 Music Album Reviews

A landmark anthology originally released in 2001 documents how James “Plunky Nkabinde” Branch and his groups connected jazz, R&B, and funk through Afrocentric rhythms and spirituality.

For much of the COVID-19 quarantine, James “Plunky Nkabinde” Branch—the saxophone- and flute-playing founder/leader of the Oneness of Juju, and through line of the recordings featured on African Rhythms 1970-1982—has been performing 10-minute concerts every evening from the front porch of his Richmond, Virginia home. What started as a familiar salute to essential workers of Plunky’s hometown has become a nightly meditation on global kinship. As the Black Lives Matter protests began to be felt especially strongly in Richmond, with its avenue of Confederate monuments, Plunky’s nightly repertoire has come to feature Oneness funk originals such as 1980’s “Make a Change,” which resonates acutely in a year when radical reconsideration has become central to public discourse.
Plunky Branch’s career as a social sage and connector of Black American music is one of the subtexts of African Rhythms 1970-1982, a reissue of the classic Strut compilation. It originally dropped in 2001, as Oneness of Juju and Plunky’s other groups were being “rediscovered” by Afrobeat DJs and hip-hop beatmakers. (Dilla covered the comp’s title cut the same year.) But it feels newly relevant, given Plunky’s role in many of the ongoing, fruitful discussions of our moment: about African roots and American lives; the interlocked musical traditions sometimes known as “jazz” and “funk”; and Black culture’s economic self-sufficiency and capitalism’s voracious need for content. With the flames of “spiritual jazz” rising higher on multiple continents, its reappearance is right on time.

African Rhythms 1970-1982 documents a crucial chapter in the history of Black American music and the movements it soundtracked. There are links to the era’s anti-war and anti-colonialist political activism (Plunky had an FBI file), South African musical exiles (members of Juju played on Ndikho Xaba and the Natives’ 1971 Afro-jazz-funk masterpiece), and post-Black Arts Movement New York loft scene (Juju lived in Ornette Coleman’s rent-free). The DIY spirit of Black independent music labels and distributors—particularly trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell’s legendary Strata-East, which released Juju albums, and D.C.’s Black Fire, which Plunky helped found (and which is the subject of its own upcoming release)—was a major influence. The continuity and interconnectedness of the diaspora’s localized rhythmic intricacies captured here are shown to be as fluid as night turning into day. And the presence of fabled figures such as Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Gil-Scott Heron, and Hugh Masekela can be spotted just off stage, whether in the liner notes (by Chris Menist) or via one degree of separation through the players involved.

The early selections on African Rhythms focus more on the drumming foundations of Plunky’s groups than on their deep free improvisations of the period. The compilation forgoes chronology in favor of vibe and flow, while at the same time sketching a cultural timeline of the era’s evolving styles. A 1971 triptych of sexually and spiritually hungry feminist spoken word by Bay Area poet Roach OM, read over the Natives’ Afro-Cuban groove (the oldest recording on the compilation), offers a glimpse of the lyrical and musical longings of youthful, budding revolutionaries. On the New York (1972-73) and Richmond (1974) recordings of Plunky’s first band, Juju, featuring the ex-Natives vibraphonist Lon Moshe and drummer/percussionist Babatunde Michael Lea, that formula pairing spoken word with rhythm comes into sharper focus. Percussive layers (up to five instruments at once) are supple and unrelenting, and Plunky’s sheets of sound are also in service of the beat. Yet they could also touch transcendence: On the epic “End of the Butterfly King,” which features Ngoma Ya Uhura reading verses of a hopeful poem called “Things Comin’ Along” (“There is no time—only rhythm and change”) Juju fly in breathtaking angles behind him, Plunky’s thorny soprano lines rising and Al-Hammel Rasul pounding his piano, McCoy Tyner-style, through a simple and gorgeous melody. It’s free jazz as dance music.

Oneness of Juju made their debut in 1975, building on that dance while taking it in the direction of Afrocentric R&B, as played by a percussion-heavy jazz group—one that now featured a female vocalist (Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis) and a more funk-minded bassist (Plunky’s younger brother, Muzi Branch). The “African Rhythms” single was Black Fire’s first release, and the shift in musical strategy proved a commercially prudent one, just as the group’s audience evolved from art spaces of New York to the clubs of the Mid-Atlantic; yet the group’s musical and cultural message, that African rhythms equated to “the truth,” remained steadfast. Here too, Branch and band demonstrated how global Black rhythms represented continuity between the past and the future. Much of Oneness and Branch’s later ’70s contributions slot perfectly between Manu Dibango and Parliament tracks, tailor-made for the disco of Larry Levan and David Mancuso. There’s a full-on house music-meets-Egypt 70 vibe on 1982’s “Black Fire Mix” reimagining of famed Ghanaian percussionist Okyerema Asante’s “Sabi,” originally recorded in 1976-77 as a pure Afro-disco groove (sample lyric: “Get up on your feet and boogie”). Meanwhile, Oneness also fed a distinct environmental consciousness—1977’s “Be About the Future,” a percussion-driven funk number, featured Muzi-penned lyrics that presented ecological needs (clean water, saving resources) well ahead of the headlines.

By the time of 1982’s “Every Way But Loose,” built around Muzi’s lightly bumping bassline and another lyrical riff on the epistemology of rhythm (“Ain’t nothing but the truth gonna turn you loose”), had finally scored the group an actual hit (#62 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs), Plunky & Oneness were also seeing D.C.’s go-go pick up their percussive mantle. (In 1977, Black Fire had released Experience Unlimited’s Free Yourself, among the first go-go recordings.) Eventually, “rhythm and change” caught up with him, as hip-hop and house—a machine-driven bridge too far for Plunky to cross—took up the beats of their elders. Not that Plunky ever stopped—his N.A.M.E. Brand label continued reissuing older recordings, while Plunky & Oneness still drop new ones.

African Rhythms 1970-82 wonderfully sums the sound James Branch and his colleagues plugged into in the late ’60s, which harkens to the one that poet/critic LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) predicted as “Unity Music” in his 1966 essay “The Changing Same”: a “Black Music which is religious and secular.” Jones foresaw …“a social spiritualism” that would resolve all the “artificial oppositions” in Black music, and include “all the rhythms, all the yells and cries, all that information about the world, the Black ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, opening and entering.” Plunky’s still playing it on his Richmond front porch. Go check him out.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Oneness of Juju - African Rhythms 1970-1982 Music Album Reviews Oneness of Juju - African Rhythms 1970-1982 Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Monday, July 27, 2020 Rating: 5

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