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Oneness of Juju: African Rhythms

A forebearer of today’s modern Afro/world-beat jazz gets a second spin with the rerelease of two ’70s-vintage platters by Oneness of Juju. The brainchild of activist-musician J. Plunky Branch, Juju produced music infused with the politics of the moment as well as thematic and musical elements that persist in today’s jazz hybrids-on both the hip-hop and organic world-beat sides. The earlier of the two reissues, African Rhythms (Strut), is a funky, hard-bopping trip, with deep bass, hopping sax and splashy, prickly guitar layered across African percussive foundations. The album’s title track sets the stage with its party talk and irresistible call, “African rhythms will make you dance/African rhythms will make you clap your hands.” Political messages weave through the ringing, hopping phrases of “Kazi” and dancing congas of “Liberation Dues.” Gospel-trained vocalist Jackie Holoman-Lewis soars over restless, knuckling rhythms and raging horns as she sings of truth and freedom on “Don’t Give Up.” This souped-up arrangement was clear inspiration for soulful pop outfits like the Doobie Brothers as well as future jazz denizens. From the traditional, harmony-laden “Chants,” layered over jumping tribal rhythms, to the bebop horns and swinging piano of “Mashariki,” Juju holds its strong Afro-centric core in powerful settings.

The second Juju reissue, Space Jungle Luv (Strut), sheds some of the hard-shell exterior in favor of a more mystical, spiritual approach. The funky rhythm section and Afro-beat percussion remains, but there’s a softer approach as the band experiments with “spacey” tones and echo effects. This lighter take means more gentle guitar work on pieces like “River Luv Rite” (with a light strum and percolating rhythm echoed by Paul Simon’s Graceland years later) as well as universal, hopeful messages in the “come together and learn how to love” vein. This collection also showcases Holoman-Lewis’ stirring vocals-utilized to particular effect in the Fifth Dimension-style soul harmonies of “Soul Love Now” and ethereal lines of “Follow Me,” in contrast to a striking big horn vibe. Even in this more mystic-tinged collection, there are many threads of influence-from the quick-hit guitar and old-soul horn bustle of “The Connection” and seashore swell of “Love’s Messenger” to the quasifuturistic melodrama of “Space Jungle Funk,” which dabbles in the squishy keyboard effects still in use today.

Originally Published