Let the record show that Oneness of Juju founder James “Plunky” Branch fostered charismatic musical ambitions. With varying degrees of success, Branch attempted to reflect the radical politics and spirituality of Black Nationalism via African polyrhythms, avant-garde jazz, and funky ’70s rhythm & blues. In San Francisco, he was mentored by Sun Ra’s saxophonist John Gilmore and turned down future Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers’ request to join the band. In New York, Ornette Coleman flipped him the keys to his loft and home studio while Coleman went on tour for six weeks. And long after Branch had returned to his native Richmond, Virginia, the late hip-hop demigod producer J Dilla covered the title song of this compilation.
African Rhythms 1970-82 requires open-minded immersion. A faithful reissue of Strut’s 2001 release, the 3-LP-sized compilation remains chronologically haphazard. It leads with the catchy grooves and improvisations from Oneness of Juju’s mid-’70s releases on the Black Fire label, a mixture of American jungle funk, Fela’s Afrobeat (“Follow Me”), and soul-friendly vocal choruses (“Got to Be Right on It”). Here and elsewhere, Branch’s versatile sax (he can be guttural or lofty, skronky or fonky, spacey or garrulous), his brother Muzi Branch’s bumping electric bass, and the gospelized vocals of Lady Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis variously rivet your attention as they batten down the mix.
But subsequent tracks both hark back to the group’s more experimental early-’70s work, including two albums on the Strata-East label, and jump forward to slick, wicked dance tunes like “Every Way but Loose,” a D.C.-area club hit in the early ’80s. The earliest song is from 1971, when, before they were Juju, Branch and his cohort backed a triptych of spoken-word numbers from Roach Om. A pair of percussion-drenched songs from the 1972 Juju disc Message from Mozambique cover Branch’s mentor in Afrocentrism, South Africa’s Ndikho Xaba. A few others on the compilation feature Ghanaian master drummer Okyerema Asante. Former Gil Scott-Heron partner and pianist Brian Jackson is on a couple of tunes, and Branch gently rhapsodizes like ’70s Pharoah Sanders on “River Luv Rite,” in part because Pharoah’s steadfast sideman Joe Bonner is on piano.
African Rhythms showcases the whole mélange in all its ragged glory. It reminds us that while Plunky Branch and his Oneness of Juju will never be household names, they deserve to stand as vivid footnotes in all sorts of locations on the musical map.