Oneness Of Juju ‘African Rhythms 1970-1982’ 3LP/2CD (Strut) 5/5

‘African Rhythms 1970-1982’ marks the new anthology compilation by Oneness of Juju – originally released in 2001 by Strut Records, the revered label have repackaged this stunning compilation to once again introduce listeners to the forward-thinking and progressive sounds of this timeless collective with a refreshed Frank Merritt / The Carvery remastering makeover.

Founded in San Francisco in 1971, and spearheaded by saxophonist, James “Plunky” Branch, the initial incarnation of the band saw them score releases on Black Fire Records and Strata-East originally under the name of Juju before evolving into Oneness of Juju, and later, Plunky & The Oneness of Juju. Already an eclectic and diverse outfit, Plunky’s affection for “African rhythms” ultimately proved to be the driving force behind the band’s concoction of R&B and funk. But it was more than just Africa’s rhythms that served as the inspiration for what Oneness of Juju were striving to achieve through their music – Plunky and the band gravitated just as much towards Africa’s essence of rebellious music; music that depicted a stance against war and a desire for independence.

While the Oneness of Juju would go on to make music spanning over three decades – leaving the door open perhaps for future volumes of this potential reissue series – ‘African Rhythms’ explores those early years of the band’s history that saw them making a name for themselves in New York before relocating to Branch’s home of Richmond, Virginia. With a compilation boasting 24 songs, including a selection of album tracks and their most notable single releases like ‘African Rhythms’ and ‘Every Way But Loose’, there are a hefty amount of treats enclosed in the form of alternate mixes and previously unreleased tracks including the eleven-minute masterpiece that is ‘Bootsie’s Lament’. And the highlights really aren’t hard to find here – the otherworldly brilliance of ‘Space Jungle Funk’ contrasts beautifully with the mellow groove of ‘West Wind’ that I could personally listen to on a loop for hours.

Strut Records have become this incredible – and pivotal – bridge when considering their ability to connect these vastly different eras of world class music to each other. This concept of understanding where the music has come from – its past, its roots, its history – and how that understanding can, while still paying homage to the past, can pave the way for the music’s future. This year alone, Strut’s release of new projects by pianist Greg Foat (‘Symphonie Pacifique’), new singles from Nubiyan Twist (check out their 2019 ‘Jungle Run’ release as well), along with original releases from ONIPA (‘We No Be Machine’) and Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids (‘Shaman!’) are inspired and innovative projects with a vision for the genre’s future. It’s an ideology perhaps shared by James Branch, himself, all those years ago when simply percolating on the notion of what the Oneness of Juju could represent in the years going forward. While the Oneness of Juju could have been perceived to be a project ahead of its time, it’s reissues like this one that celebrates Branch’s bold approach and the awe-inspiring music that was born as a result.

“Both formats feature a 12” sized 4pp booklet featuring rare photos and a comprehensive interview with Plunky Branch within liner notes by Chris Menist.”

Imran Mirza