Oneness of Juju
Oneness of Juju was the second incarnation of the Afrocentric creative jazz group Juju founded by saxophonist, composer, and producer James Plunky Branch in San Francisco in 1971. The original group sound was rooted in spiritually and politically conscious vanguard jazz. The band moved to New York and issued two albums for Strata East during the early '70s, Message From Mozambique and Chapter Two: Nia. Along with Plunky's return to his hometown of Richmond, VA, in late 1974, he enlisted new members and included vocalists. He chose the name Oneness of Juju as the music began to reflect more populist R&B elements. This incarnation, as documented on three Black Fire recordings, 1975's African Rhythms and Space Jungle Luv in 1976 and 1977's Bush Brothers & Space Rangers (the latter was unreleased until 1996), offered a sound more akin to the Ohio Players and Kool & The Gang. By 1977 they were called Plunky & Oneness of Juju as reggae and smooth jazz were relfected on the album Make A Change. The 21st century saw 2001's Got To Be Phunky also incorporated hip hop into their mix; it was followed immediately by Got To Move Something in 2002. In 2006 a final incarnation of the band issued Live In Paris. In 2020, Now-Again re-released Chapter Two: Nia, and a year later the U.K.s Strut re-released Make a Change as part of their catalogue reissue program. After graduating from Columbia University during the mid 1960s, Virginia native, saxophonist, composer, and arranger James "Plunky" Branch headed west and settled in San Francisco. There he met and began playing with exiled South African drummer Indiko Slava, who awakened the Virginia export to African music inspired a new purpose in his craft: That Black could at once be a political and spiritual force, and provide communities with social, cultural, and educational resources. Plunky equated what he was learning to what Black musicians such as Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp and others were attempting with their own music. In 1971 he formed JuJu, a collective that included Babatunde Lea on congas and drums, Ken Shabala on bass, Lon Moshe on vibes and woodwinds, Al Hammel Rasul on piano, and Jalanga Ngoma on timbales. Everyone in the band helmed percussion instruments. They relocated to New York City in 1972, arriving as the Loft scene began to flourish. With a sound deeply rooted in spiritual and vanguard jazz, poetry and percussion instruments, they signed to the artist-centered Strata East label and issued Message From Mozambique in 1973, winning acclaim from their peers as well as from some critics. They followed with Chapter Two: Nia in 1974. Though still abstract, the set reflected the influences of Fela Kuti's emerging Afrobeat, the spidery funk of James Brown, modal improvisation and more. (Decades later, Japan's P-Vine released an archival live document from Ornette Coleman's Soho loft, titled Live at 131 Prince Street, followed by Live At The East, 1973 from Now-Again in 2020.) The group had aligned itself with Coleman and Sun Ra, and often shared stages with them. Further, Plunky worked as a sideman with Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Change was afoot, however. Later that year Plunky relocated the band from New York City to his hometown of Richmond, VA and discovered quickly that the spiritual jazz was a tough sell as R&B and gospel dominated its Black music scene. The band changed its name to Oneness of Juju, and with it came an evolution in sound. Lea, Rasul and Moshe all made the move to Virginia. Plunky added his brother Philip Branch (who had taken the African name of Muzi Nkabinde) as one of two bassists with Philip "Pee Wee" Ford, singer Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis (aka Jacqueline Holoman), drummer Ronnie Toler, and balafon player Reggie Brisbane. Their populist meld of jazz funk, spiritual soul and R&B offered the dexterity of Kool & the Gang, the forward-thinking musical ideas of Herbie Hancock, and the social consciousness of Gil Scott-Heron all rolled into one. Since it was difficult to find club gigs for a band of that size, they often played concerts at political rallies where their message of empowerment and self-realization registered. They signed with Jimmy Gray's independently distributed Washington D.C.-based, Black Fire label, and released African Rhythms in 1975. Given the label's limited reach, the set didn't chart but did garner critical acclaim. That said, its tracks were played on radio often and the title track became the theme song for Howard University's news show, The Daily Drum. They signed with the Black-owned booking agency Charisma Productions, and opened shows for Roy Ayers, Chuck Brown, Lonnie Liston Smith, Norman Connors, and Gil Scott-Heron. 1976's Space Jungle Luv went even further. Pianist Joe Bonner replaced Rasul, and Oneness of Juju's evolving sound wed the sounds of funk, African highlife, Latin grooves and the emergent smooth of Grover Washington Jr., Ayers, and George Benson, creating a musically expansive yet thoroughly accessible brand of dancefloor jazz. Their influence can be heard in the 21st century music of Kamasi Washington and Nubya Garcia. Oneness of Juju recorded Bush Brothers & Space Rangers in 1977 with the Midnight Band's Brian Jackson on piano. It went unreleased at the time due to distribution and financial difficulties for Black Fire. It was eventually released on P-Vine during the mid-1990s. By 1980, Plunky and changed the band's name, its personnel, and its musical focus yet again. Only Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis and brother Muzi Nkabinde remained in the lineup, which had expanded to include second lead vocalist Virtania Tillery, three backing vocalists, two keyboardists, and two guitarists. The sonic shift revealed the influences of reggae and rock alongside alongside jazz funk and R&B. Despite getting the opportunity to tour Europe and open for acts such as Ray Charles, Gil Scott-Heron-Brian Jackson, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, Frankie Beverly & Maze, and more, the recording sold only marginally. They toured the northeast and played festivals all over the world. In 1984 they issued the hard funk, post disco, Electric Juju Nation / Keep It Moving on N.A.M.E. with Tillery claming the lead vocal spot. In 1988, Plunky issued Tropical Chill as his first solo album, depsite it being perfromed by Oneness of Juju. The group continued to tour, sometimes as headliner, other times as support for top tier artists and still at others as Plunky's personal backing group. Under his own name he released the solo outings Move Into The Light in 1990, and One World One Music in 1992. In 1996 Plunky & the Oneness of Juju released X Marks The Spot for Soulciety Records in 1996 with Desiree Roots on lead vocals. That same year P-Vine presented the first offiical issue of Bush Brothers & Space Rangers, while their Strata East and Black Fire recordings were being reissued in Japan and Europe. While mounting tours of Europe and Asia, the newly renamed Plunky & Oneness re-entered the studio and released Got To Be Phunky in 2001, and the double-length Got To Move Something for N.A.M.E. Brand in 2002. The latter date included a new studio album as well as a bonus live disc recorded in Atlanta. While the band continued to tour, their fortunes were dwindling while Plunky's career had taken on the added responsibility of teaching. They released Live In Paris in 2006, as their final recording with audio and video releases. Plunky issued a pair of solo outings, Cold Heat and Drive It, for N.A.M.E. in 2006 and 2008. Across the 21st century, Oneness of Juju's Strata East and Black Fire recordings have been reissued several times. In 2020 Now-Again delivered the previously unissued Live At The East from 1973 alongside a glorious reissue of Chapter Two: Nia. The U.K.'s Strut label has been particularly diligent about keeping the band's first two Black Fire outings, African Rhythms and Space Jungle Luv in print. In 2021 Strut remastered and re-released Make A Change.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
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World - Released September 21, 2018 | Strut
From a trailblazing band featuring members well-versed in jazz, funk, gospel, and African music, the debut album by the Oneness of Juju displayed a group playing with the dexterity of Kool & the Gang, the forward-thinking musical ideas of Herbie Hancock, and the social consciousness of Gil Scott-Heron. The title track is fiercely kinetic, with vocal choruses prodding listeners to dance and Plunky's echo-drenched saxophone floating serenely over the top of a funky space-jazz backing. Elsewhere, the band lapses into a few dated mid-'70s arrangements (reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders, Lonnie Liston Smith, etc.), but the playing is always wonderful -- Plunky especially distinguishes himself in many different modes -- and the production is crystalline. "Don't Give Up" and "Liberation Dues" are two other highlights, with positive-minded chants and funky arrangements. [In early 2002, the British jazz/funk/world reissue label Strut brought African Rhythms back from the brink, with two bonus tracks: an instrumental version of "Liberation Dues" and the single version of "African Rhythms."] © John Bush /TiVo