Growing up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, the first creative love of James Branch's life was chemistry. Which seems fitting enough given all the musical compounds he would later contrive. As a performer, Branch started out with woodwind before latching onto sax at Columbia University, New York. Also immersed in left wing politics, he moved to California and was hunted by the FBI for three years while living under an assumed name, freelancing as a musician.
Branch's intriguing story took another twist when he met Ndikho Xaba, a South African Zulu then in exile. Xaba, a renowned pianist, gave the members of Branch's band South African names, with Branch becoming Plunky Nkabinde or 'tall bull.' Branch also played on the magnificent Ndikho Xaba & The Natives
album (Trilyte, 1971). Just as important, it was Xaba who taught Branch the essence of African music as something communal and devotional. Branch formed his own outfit, JuJu
, who made two albums for New York label Strata-East, fusing avant, spiritual and polyrhythmic aspects.
But it was after returning to Richmond that Branch moved his band towards its next distinct phase. Oneness of Juju
added a full drum kit, electric guitar and female vocals into the mix. Strata-East was questioning its jazz purity after Gil Scott-Heron
scored them an R&B hit with "The Bottle," so Branch's new smoother approach felt like a mismatch there. He fell in with Richmond DJ/producer Jimmy Gray
, who formed the Black Fire label which released Oneness of Juju African Rhythms
(1975) and Space Jungle Luv
(1976). Branch's bassist brother, Muzi Nkabinde
, also served as art director for Black Fire.
Now this newly remastered and reprised offering from Strut Records helps us place Branch's early genius in context. The focus is on Oneness Of Juju, where virtuoso soloing was mostly sacrificed for commercial good, though various side projects get a look-in. Heavy funk and soul jazz helped to sweeten Branch's message which never lacked for defiance. "African Rhythms" was later sampled by rap star Jay Dilla and here the euphoric original has a madly catchy refrain. The ravishing vocals of Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis
were vital on such tracks as "Follow Me," with the electrified "Be About The Future" offering an early eco anthem.
"Space Jungle Funk" finds an ethereal quality, with its time-warping rhythms and lingering space between sax phrases. Similar gaps are used coolly on the sexy "Nooky," which has the vibe of a dangerously crowded dancefloor. But Branch did not shy away from adding phased or flanged effects to his sax where useful. Other delights include the manic trashcan percussion of "Freedom Fighter," folky flute strains on "West Drive" and the arousing pulse of "Sabi." Of course "Every Way But Loose" is included, the band's slickest disco number, all hands-in-the air, which provided a clubland hit.
Everything is rooted in chemistry, Branch says. He likes to mention the band's live act where long and mesmerising segways of music continued until the spirit came down on someone. These bodily rushes and sense of getting a second wind took time to achieve. Branch's great formula was to provide strength, hope and soulful connections through music. This ecstatic compilation shows just how often he got the chemistry right.
Oneness Of Juju - African Rhythms (Album Version); Oneness Of Juju - Follow Me; Oneness Of Juju –
Space Jungle Funk; Juju & The Space Rangers – Got To Be Right On It (Original 45 Version); Okyerema
Asante feat. Plunky – Sabi (Black Fire Mix); Interlude: Rhythms Timelessness; Roach Om – No Name
#3/ Love Is…/My N*Gg*R & Me; Oneness Of Juju – West Wind (Previously Unreleased); Juju – Freedom
Fighter; Oneness Of Juju – Be About The Future; Oneness Of Juju – Nooky; Interlude: African Rhythms;
Plunky & Oneness Of Juju – Every Way But Loose (Original Version);Oneness Of Juju – Bootsie’s
Lament (Unreleased Version); Oneness Of Juju – Chants / Don’t Give Up; Oneness Of Juju – River Luv
Rite; Plunky & Oneness Of Juju – Higher; Interlude: African Rhythms Chant; Juju – Nairobi / Chants;
Okyerema Asante feat. Plunky – Asante Sana; Interlude: African Rhythms II; Juju & The Space Rangers
– Plastic (Original 45 Version); Oneness Of Juju – African Rhythms (Original 45 Version: Part 1); Juju –
The End Of The Butterfly King.