I’m having a deep listen to Strut’s new reissue of African Rhythms 1970-1982, a collection of classic tracks by Oneness of Juju. The Richmond, VA, based band is led by saxophonist/flutist James “Plunky Nkabinde” Branch, with its roots in the early ’70s avant-garde jazz community of San Francisco and the NYC loft scene. As part of the former, he met and collaborated with South African exile Ndikho Xaba who introduced Plunky to the concepts and philosophy of African music. Inspired, Plunky incorporated these concepts with his jazz influences and developed a ‘music as devotion’ mindset. He brought these ideas to New York, where he worked directly with Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. A move back home to Richmond stirred more ingredients into this already flavorful stew as Plunky sought to build a music for the people:
“In the Richmond, Virginia, area, there was not as much of a market for avant-garde jazz as you might think,” Plunk says with a laugh over the phone. “So we incorporated some R&B elements, and a drummer playing a drum set, and a guitar, and added a female vocalist. We had to meet our audience halfway. We started bridging this line between R&B and funk and avant-garde jazz. I was conscious of trying to find an audience for the message we had in our music, and trying to serve the community and make a living, which is how we ended up with this convergence of styles.”
Richmond’s vicinity to Washington, DC, allowed frequent performances by Oneness of Juju in the nation’s capital. DC’s audiences were receptive to the diverse stylistic palette the band offered. Plunky thinks this is because “all these embassies and people coming from all over the world for various reasons … different parts of their culture were based in DC.” And these performances often took place at protests rather than concert venues, exposing a political subtext to Oneness of Juju’s cultural mixture. Again, the band sought to provide the music of the people:
”… all of those dudes, Gil Scott, Chuck Brown, Oneness of Juju, Experience Unlimited, a big part of what we did in those days was not just parties and nightclubs, but also participating in demonstrations. There were any number of other community-based activities in the public parks; summer-long festivals and weekly concerts that all those acts would participate in. They started out as street concerts and would get thousands of people to come out. And music was the drawing card.”
Plunky’s mission to deliver his people’s music continues to this day. Since the beginning of The Strange Times, he’s given impromptu concerts on the porch of his Richmond house nightly for neighbors who require musical relief.
African Rhythms 1970-1982 is a spirited listen, its songs moving effortlessly from funk, afro-rhythms, disco, rock, spiritual jazz, and in between tangents. The supercharged disco of the Larry Levan favorite “Every Way But Loose” will probably ring a few bells, as will the undeniable classic “African Rhythms,” famously sampled and reworked by none other than J Dilla. I’m also taken by the collection’s ‘unreleased version’ of “Bootsie’s Lament” which sounds not too far off from a lost Sun Ra Arkestra nugget. Percussive jazz workouts like “Sabi” are also here and extraordinary, as is the slow, night jazz of “Space Jungle Funk” — a classy instrumental made strange via some wild stompbox effects on Plunky’s saxophone.
In its physical form, the collection is a triple vinyl album, featuring over two hours of music. Despite the variety of sounds and influences, these 24 tracks distinctively belong to Oneness of Juju. Listening from beginning to end is an illuminating and coherent journey — you can hear Black music’s history and its future steps. Uplifting and combative, audacious and resilient, African Rhythms 1970-1982 is the music of a turbulent past and suitable — while optimistic — for our stormy present.