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PLUNKY & ONENESS OF JUJU
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION


Juju is about ritual and rhythm and spirituality and joy. Plunky & Oneness of Juju is the name of a rhythm & blues-African-jazz-funk band from Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A. The group, originally known as Juju, was founded in San Francisco in 1971 and has continued to evolve for over 23 years, performing and recording with changes in personnel and under different group names, but always led by J. Plunky Branch.

The basic chronology has been as follows: the group was originally called Juju (1971-74), then Oneness of Juju (1975-81); then Plunky & Oneness of Juju (1982-88); and most recently Plunky & Oneness (1988 - present).

The original group, Juju, was composed of musicians who had been the music ensemble for a ritual/theatrical production entitled "The Resurrection of the Dead", written by San Francisco playwright, Marvin X. The six musicians had been chosen because of their previous musical experiences and their Afrocentric orientation to music and culture. In the play, each night there was ritualistic music, historical commemorative songs, improvisational music testimonials, and an actual naming ceremony in which members of the cast would receive new names. The musicians for this production were an important and driving component. When the theatrical production completed its run and the cast was disbanded, the musicians decided to continue their musical explorations and pursuits together. They formed a group and Juju was born.

Saxophonist, J. Plunky Branch from Richmond, Virginia and bassist, Ken Shabala (Kent Parker), from Brooklyn, New York, had met at Columbia University in New York where they attended college. There Plunky formed an R&B group called The Soul Syndicate and Kent Parker was its lead singer. From 1966 - 68 they played colleges and clubs in and around New York, setting and breaking attendance records at The Cheetah Night club in Manhattan and sharing the campus spotlight with another group from Columbia, Sha Na Na.

After college Plunky migrated to San Francisco and Kent followed. In 1969 they met vibraphonist, Lon Moshe (Ron Martin) from Chicago and joined an African-avante garde group called Ndikho and the Natives, led by South African pianist/percussionist, Ndikho Xaba. The group recorded one L.P. "Ndikho and the Natives".

Plunky, Ken Shabala and Lon joined the other original members of Juju: percussionist, Michael "Babatunde" Lea from Englewood, New Jersey; and two musicians from San Francisco: pianist, Al-Hammel Rasul (Tony Grayson) and percussionist, Jalongo Ngoma (Dennis Stewart).

These musicians had come from separate and distinct musical backgrounds. Plunky had been raised on southern rhythm & blues and gospel music and had studied jazz and classical music in school. Bassist, Ken Shabala was a R&B vocalist, jazz enthusiast and radio deejay in New York. Lon Moshe had been a part of the Chicago avante-garde jazz scene. Al-Hammel Rasul was a self-taught pianist who performed in his church and with various jazz and soul groups in San Francisco. Babatunde and Jalongo had long studied African, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian drums and chants and percussion.

As Juju, these young Black musicians dedicated themselves to using their music as a vehicle for raising political, spiritual and cultural consciousness. They practiced and rehearsed everyday for hours and hours and eventually developed a highly energetic, ritualistic, African, avante garde music based on rhythm, energy, improvisation, traditional chants and creative jazz. Juju performed in clubs, festivals and at political gatherings in the San Francisco Bay area, working with such notables as John Handy, Santana, Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Summers, and others. The group recorded an album in 1972, Juju - A Message From Mozambique, which was released in 1973 on the Strata-East Records label.

In 1973 the group migrated from San Francisco to New York and became a part of the New York creative music scene. They worked with musicians like Sam Rivers, Frank Lowe, Rashied Ali, Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra, Joe Lee Wilson, Ahmed Abdullah, Marzette Watts, Julius Hemphill, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Fortune, Jackie McLean and many others, including the other artists on the Strata-East label. Ornette Coleman was particularly helpful to the band during this period, giving them the full range of his support by allowing Juju to live and work in the Artist House, his gallery, loft and studio at 131 Prince Street, in the SoHo of New York.

In 1974, the group moved to Richmond, Virginia and recorded their second Strata-East album: Juju Chapter Two: Nia. By 1975, Plunky had decided to stay in Richmond permanently. There were some personnel changes but, more importantly, the music and audiences of that Southeast region of the U.S. began to have an effect on the music of the group. Now, the group was incorporating more R&B influences, more vocals, more urban contemporary instrumentation.

Originally Juju had used saxophone, vibraphone, piano, congas, timbales, traditional percussion instruments and upright bass. On occasion Babatunde and Jalongo would take turns on the trap drums. But when Ronnie Toler, a funk drummer from Richmond was added to replace Jalongo, who had moved back to San Francisco, and Plunky's brother, Muzi replaced Ken Shabala on electric bass, the music became much more funky and danceable. The group name was changed to Oneness of Juju to reflect these changes.

The most important change in the sound of Oneness of Juju was the addition of vocalist, Lady Eka-Ete (Jacqueline Holoman). This singer possessed a voice of such distinctive mellowness that she evoked a kind of spell over audiences and listeners. She was a mesmerizing presence on stage and she moved the music of Oneness of Juju to new heights of appeal.

In 1975, the group released its African Rhythms album, on the Black Fire Music label, marking the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with producer and label president, Jimmy Gray. This album had a powerful impact on the Mid-Atlantic music scene, particularly in Washington, DC. There, Oneness of Juju often performed with Gil Scot-Heron, Hugh Masekela, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, the Young Senators, Brute, Experience Unlimited and other popular groups.

In 1976 Oneness of Juju: Space Jungle Luv was released. This L.P. featured Eka-Ete and included guitarist Melvin Glover (a jazz musician who would later form his own reggae group, the Awareness Art Ensemble) and pianist, Joseph Bonner (who was with Pharaoh Sanders' group), in addition to Latin percussionists Rafael Solano and Alfredo Mojica. The music on this album was polyrhythmic and melodically flowing and it was influenced by Plunky's association with the music of Pharaoh Sanders. (Later Plunky would record with Pharaoh on his Wisdom Through Music album released on Impulse Records.)

Oneness of Juju continued to perform in the Washington area and occasionally toured. They performed at festivals with groups like Kool & the Gang, Mandrill, Ohio Players, Johnny Taylor, Funkadelic, and others. In 1978 they released a single entitled Plastic. The song and production of this record was clearly funk, in the mold of George Clinton and his groups. But Oneness of Juju continued to utilize jazz in their arrangements, perhaps because of the saxophone as the lead instrument and Plunky's strong linkage to avante garde jazz.

By 1981 the name of the group was changed once again. Now it was called Plunky & Oneness of Juju. Plunky was the only original member of Juju still involved and he was much more than leader, being director of the business, as well as the productions and stage shows. Plunky was the elder statesman of the band, in some instances serving as a teacher, father figure and mentor to younger members who had come to learn and add to the music.

There was always developmental continuity because the changes in personnel and the music were gradual and happened over a span of several years. Most of the members of the group stayed in the family for years at a stretch and when they did leave, they went on to do other great music. Some of the members (Marcus Macklin, Anthony Ingram, Lance Dickerson, Carl Lester, Jr., Desiree Roots and Seandrea Earls) who performed and recorded with the group over the years were actually former students of Plunky, who taught music in public schools and at Virginia Union University and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.

The Make A Change L.P. was released in 1980 on the Black Fire Music label and it was re-released by Sutra Records (Buddha Records in Europe) under the title Every Way But Loose. The single, "Every Way But Loose", went to the top ten of the soul charts in London in 1982 and was the group's biggest success. The album included Lady Eka-Ete and other female vocalists in addition to Virtania Tillery, who would eventually replace Eka-Ete as lead vocalist with the group. Also included in this edition of Plunky & Oneness of Juju were pianist, Weldon Hill, who would later go on to become professor of music and Dean of the School of the Arts at Virginia Union University; percussionist, Kevin Davis, from Brooklyn, NY and Ghanaian Master percussionist, Okyerema Asante, who came to the group from Hugh Masekela's band and who would later perform with Paul Simon's Graceland tour and with Fleetwood Mac.

The next release for Plunky & Oneness of Juju would be a 12" single, Hit the Jackpot, in 1983 for N.A.M.E. Brand Records, Plunky's own label. In 1984 the group backed up Okyerema Asante on his own L.P. entitled Sabi; and later that year Plunky & Oneness of Juju release an L.P., Electric Juju Nation which featured Virtania Tillery doing lead vocals and the versatile and ever masterful Ronnie Cokes on drums. This would be the last recording the group would do under the name Oneness of Juju.

In 1986 Plunky went to West Africa to perform and to promote his recordings. There had always been questions and discussions in the U.S. about the meaning of "Juju" and the significance of the name Oneness of Juju. But on this particular tour of West Africa several incidents occurred. In Nigeria, people were at first happy to learn that there was a Black American group with "juju" in their name but the Nigerians thought that the group's music would be "Juju music" and they were disappointed that the music of Oneness of Juju was jazz funk. In Ghana, West Africa, the radio station deejays would not say the word "juju" on the air. They would refer to the group by the name "Plunky & the Oneness of God", because to one of the tribes in Ghana, "juju" was like evil witchcraft. To another tribe, "juju" meant something different all together, which made for some humorous situations.

When Plunky came back from that tour he decided to shorten the name of the group to Plunky & Oneness. The personnel had changed. Virtania Tillery left the group and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Weldon Hill was replaced on keyboards by Nat Lee, Jr. (from the Southern Energy Ensemble) and after a few years Nat was replaced by the current keyboardist, Kevin Christopher Teasley, a student of Weldon Hill and a Michael Jackson Scholarship winner from Virginia Union University.

In addition to Kevin, who has been with Plunky four years, the current group, Plunky & Oneness includes: Philip Muzi Branch, bass (who has been with his brother, Plunky, for 19 years) ; Ronnie Cokes, drums (11 years); Carlton Blount, lead vocals (four years); Carl Lester El, Jr, guitar (two years); Asante, percussion (14 years). From time to time, Plunky uses additional side musicians, guest artists, singers and dancers, depending on the parameters of the tour or engagement.

Most recently Plunky has produced and released albums in his name, Plunky: Tropical Chill, Move Into the Light and One World One Music. Last year he produced a gospel collection entitled Spiritual Sounds Within My Soul. He is releasing a new compact disc in July, 1994 entitled Plunky - The Oneness of Phunk. All these recordings have featured the members of Plunky & Oneness but they are Plunky's solo efforts and all have been released on his own N.A.M.E. Brand Records label. When he performs, it is almost always with Plunky & Oneness.

Other information to develop:
Turning point happenings: gigs, encounters, sessions, etc.: Keesar Stadium, SF, Mozambique cover photo taken; NY Musicians Festival, Lincoln Center; loft jazz scene; the East; June Jubilee; Dogwood Dell; Take It Easy Ranch Festivals; Worlds Fair; Howard University; African Liberation Day; Ft. Dupont Park-Carter Baron; West Africa; VCA Tours; CIAA; Atlanta NBAF; etc.

Drummers: Babatunde, Jalongo, Ronnie Toler, Michael Carvin; Norman Conners, Ilu Drummers, Bill Summers, Rafael Solano, Alfredo Mojica; Asante, Ronnie Cokes, Dr. Barnett Williams, Tony Greene, Miguel Pomier, Kevin Davis, Harold Smith, Rashied Ali, Writers' of influence: Thulani Davis, Ntozaki Shange, Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kane, Gil Scott-Heron, Jessica Haggedorn, Collis Davis, Jacqueline Fleming, Bill Brower, etc.