In the mid-1960s, South African musician and composer Ndikho Xaba was visiting the United States as an actor in the first African play to ever run on Broadway. The production of Alan Paton's “Sponono” was staged for nearly a month at the Cort Theatre, now James Earle Jones Theatre, and when the show's run ended, Xaba stayed behind.
Whatever problems he found in America, he chose to deal with them rather than return to the racist system of apartheid in his home country. In New York, his old friends Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba helped him establish residency while Xaba taught himself piano. Soon he wound up in San Francisco at the peak of the psychedelic, “hippie”-era counterculture, where he was surrounded by like-minded artists pursuing social progress through music, political activism and various other consciousness-expanding activities.
In 1971, Xaba and his young band traveled south to a Los Angeles garage studio, where they recorded a masterpiece of Afrocentric spiritual jazz titled “Ndikho Xaba and the Natives.” Originally, only a hundred copies of the album were pressed, and much later it became a highly sought-after collector’s item. First remastered and reissued by Matsuli Music in 2015, this musical treasure is finally reaching a larger audience on its 50th anniversary, now that Mississippi Records has reissued it this month on affordable, 160-gram vinyl. The Natives featured on these songs include Baba Duru on congas, Ken “Shabalala” Parker on bass, Kieta on drums, Lon Moshe on vibes and percussion and Richmond’s own James “Plunky” Branch on tenor and soprano saxophone, flute and percussion.
Plunky, who is about to turn 75 next month, still maintains a prolific artistic life. Between writing and publishing poetry, performing and recording new music, and executive producing a new documentary about the Black Fire label he co-founded in Washington, DC, Branch stays busier than many artists a third his age. And during the early days of the pandemic, as tumbleweeds still drifted through toilet paper aisles, Branch chose to provide free weekly outdoor performances in his Byrd Park neighborhood; a shining example of an artist contributing to the wellbeing of the village.
Serving the tribe
About the new reissue, which is garnering critical kudos and praise from all the right internet influencer caves, Branch says the album still reminds him "most intensely" of his mentor, Xaba, and what he learned playing with him from roughly 1970-1972. “The primary lesson I got was this idea of African music being very closely akin to American jazz and R&B music,” he says. “The other part was that music could be more than entertainment, [it could be] a political tool, if not a weapon. In African society, you judged music and the arts, in general, not based on specific technique or proficiency. You judged the arts by how well it served the tribe, or society.”
Listening to these songs today, one can sense common musical bonds forming between anti-colonial, social justice movements in Africa and the United States. This is revolutionary music carried along a deep, meditative groove led by Xaba’s expressive piano, Plunky’s soaring, fluttering horn work, and various homemade instruments and percussion. More specifically, the music bridges the Zulu and Xhosa tribal music of South Africa, and its popular “township jive” dance music, Branch says, with the spiritual free jazz scene being built in America by luminaries such as Alice and John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. Among the reissue's five tracks are long, free-flowing instrumentals – notably the sublime track, “Nomusa,” named after Xaba’s wife – in addition to live-sounding chants reminiscent of Sanders’ raw and celebratory musical demands for freedom.
Xaba was taken with spiritual jazz because it allowed a kind of romanticizing of the music, Branch says. “I don’t mean romanticizing in terms of dreaming, but making sounds that would be imitative of things in nature,” he explains. “For example, we might be asked to reenact the sounds of battle, or revolution.”
After leaving San Francisco, Xaba moved to New York and Washington, DC --where Branch says they did some more recording-- before eventually returning to South Africa, post-apartheid. Baba Ndikho Xaba passed away in June 2019 at the age of 85, an under-appreciated genius of South African music.
So why does there seem to be a resurgence of spiritual jazz music among younger audiences and independent labels today?
“That’s such a great question. I’m not sure,” Branch says, before taking a few stabs at it. “Some might think that where we are on the planet now, and how we’re faring politically, [that] this is the time for a resurgence of music created toward the end of the Black Arts movement in the '60s and early '70s.” He points to former race relations during a time of upheaval, as well as several political assassinations. “Some might say we’re in a similar time frame, not just locally but globally.”
Branch points out that spiritual jazz music asks us to look beyond the physical world and reach for something grander. “I think there also might be an interest in that music purely because it’s different,” he continues. “Marketing and social media have given us a kind of mass-produced sameness. Sometimes people crave something different. New guys like Kamasi Washington and old guys still around might appeal to people. They don’t fit into the Justin Bieber world, or Britney Spears, or even Beyonce.”
From a music business standpoint, he says this genre is not as “controlled and contracted,” and collectors are always craving overlooked gems. “I was just telling my wife, the idea of resurgence and reissues of vinyl records; sometimes we call it rare groove music. These records are rare.”
- From the reissue album
- Plunky Branch performs on shekere (left) while Ndikho Xaba plays conga drum during a concert at Howard University in Washington, DC. circa 1975.
Finding his own sound
Although largely self-taught, Branch says he was lucky to have received a solid education in music while attending Maggie Walker High School in Richmond. “I had great Black music teachers like Joseph Kennedy, a jazz violinist and one of the first two Black people to integrate the Richmond Symphony,” he recalls. “Good, basic music information. But when I graduated, one of the most important parts for me was developing my own sound.”
Initially, Branch attended Columbia University in New York to become a chemist and planned to work for Dupont. But campus radicals convinced him that he would be making napalm to be used against villagers in Vietnam, so instead he gravitated to his other love of music, which has defined his life ever since.
Branch relocated to the Bay Area in the late 1960s because of “music and politics,” he says, and ended up living a couple blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury, early home base for the Grateful Dead and ground zero for the American counterculture for a few short years.
“What I feel when I hear this record now is a great reminiscing of those times, the psychedelic era, the formative years of the Black Panther party,” he says, noting that he hung out all the time at Bill Graham’s venue, the Fillmore West, watching legendary acts like Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Miles Davis. “Especially the ‘Bitches Brew’ era.”
He mentions an organization, Third World Communications, out of San Francisco. “Being from Richmond, I only knew race relations based on Blacks and whites, and only through total segregation. [Here] was this organization of Japanese artists, Filipino artists, Chicano or Mexican artists, Chinese, because of Chinatown. All these nationalities were getting together for left wing political and cultural enterprises, exercises, demonstrations and activism.”
While living in the Bay Area, Branch played with several R&B bands and worked with drummer Art Perry, who had been touring with legendary jazz multi-instrumentalist, Rahasaan Roland Kirk. “I interacted with Sun Ra, met Pharaoh Sanders – and recorded with him later in New York,” Branch says. “For me, Pharaoh was an idol. And Rahasaan Roland Kirk helped me learn the concept of circular breathing on the horn.”
He said it was players like Roland Kirk or John Gilmore from Sun Ra who taught him the importance of finding his own sound or language -- much the same way a visual artist might. (Watch the very end of the Sanders video above and you'll see him emulate African drums using the keys of his sax).
"One of the great things about saxophone is its tone is so malleable. You hear the timbre of someone like John Coltrane and nobody else sounds like that,” he says. “That’s what my challenge has been for these 50 years, [to find] a sound that’s for me, expresses my emotionalism, my politics. Although these days, I’ve started writing more [poetry]. Just because you find your own sound, doesn’t mean everyone is going to understand it.”
An assist from Gil Scott-Heron
Branch usually refers to the Ndikho Xaba and the Natives album as the work that got him started producing albums. The recording and the band actually took root from an earlier Bay Area gig, when Xaba enlisted Plunky and the other musicians to provide the backing for a local poet, a “folksier, older Black gentleman” named Cousin Wash. Since that first album, Branch speculates that he’s produced roughly 40 albums, most involving himself or his groups.
During that early 1970s period, Xaba gave all of his fellow band members African names, calling the young saxophonist Plunky "Nkabinde," which translated to "tall bull." Branch writes in the liner notes to the new reissue that "he gave me that name because I was lanky and had a lot of girl friends."
After the Xaba album was made, Branch soon formed his own group Juju and put out two early records on the Strata-East label, an innovative artist-producer collective founded by jazz musicians Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver in New York. The label made its name by releasing the classic Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album, “Winter in America” (1974). Along with The Last Poets, Scott-Heron is often considered the godfather of socially conscious hip-hop.
"A big part of my history is as a result of my interactions with Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band as they once were called,” Branch says. “The theory behind that company was that the artist would be the owners of the label, essentially.” Branch explains that the artist would produce their own studio sessions and pay for the first initial thousand or two thousand pressed copies. Then the label would market the record for the artist.
Strata-East had about 30, mostly older jazz musicians, he recalls. Also on that label were some young lions, or “headstrong guys” that included Scott-Heron, Mtume, and Plunky. “That album ‘Winter in America’ had a hit song called ‘The Bottle,’ which was selling thousands of copies. It caused all kinds of upheaval at Strata-East because they hadn’t contemplated even having hit records. They had to ask themselves if they wanted to participate in the commercialization of the music.”
After some debate and discussion, Branch says they were forced to confront the idea that they were “more interested in the politics of how to change the record industry" while "promoting jazz music, specifically.”
“'The Bottle' was a more R&B song and the system they had set up was unmanageable,” Branch recalls. “The artist producers would get 85% returns from the records and the company would get 15% ... but they couldn’t keep up with that formula when Gil’s record started really selling.”
Like lots of U.S. manufacturing sectors, the company basically worked on a glorified consignment basis and “it was a mess,” Branch remembers. But it was also an educational mess that allowed Branch to learn enough about the music business that he was soon inspired to cofound his own Washington, DC record label, Black Fire, with jazz DJ Jimmy Gray. The label released his Plunky and the Oneness of Juju's classic “African Rhythms” in 1975.
After the Strata-East drama, Scott-Heron also moved to Washington and began using Black Fire for distribution for his most popular record. “It seemed like the whole R&B world wanted copies of ‘The Bottle.’ Gil pressed them himself and distributed through Black Fire, which put us on the map. For about eight weeks, the only place you could get that record around the whole country, and internationally, was us.”
Also, Branch and Oneness of Juju band used a booking agent, Charisma Productions in DC, which booked shows for Scott-Heron, Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Norman Connors, and others. “Gil Scott and Brian Jackson are like brothers to me. We played together all the time. Oneness of Juju wasn’t as big as other bands with that agency, but they would use us as the opening act many times.”
Coming full circle in RVA
Eventually, Branch returned to his hometown where he began to really pay it forward as an educator, cofounding the Richmond Jazz Society. That inspiring organization remains close to his heart to this day.
“I love what some of the younger groups are doing today. Like Butcher Brown, I did some things with them," he says. "I like their experimentation, the blend of hip-hop and jazz and everything in between.”
Branch also still enjoys recounting the story of when Richmond’s VCU jazz ensemble went to South Africa in 2012 to scout its exchange program with the University of KwaZulu-Natal. They met Xaba’s wife, who only wanted to them all about Plunky.
“The instructor said, ‘We went [8,000] miles to learn about a musician who was three minutes from campus,” Branch says, laughing. “So when they got back, we released a recording commemorating their trip and my relationship with Ndikho.”
However, Branch has publicly lamented Richmond’s music scene as being a little too cookie-cutter, particularly “the R&B bands have tended to be cover bands as opposed to original music."
But more and more, people are doing their own music, he says, in various genres. "I see some experimentation with Afrobeat, and I’m always appreciative of VCU and Virginia State’s jazz departments, and what they’re doing at VPM with radio and Style.” Things are better than they were a decade ago, he adds.
When asked why Richmond has never managed to support a small, world-class jazz club (like Yoshi’s in Oakland or the Spotted Cat in New Orleans), even with our impressive number of talented players and educators, Branch has theories.
“Richmond is, believe it or not, a conservative place. And this is purely a Plunkyism, but part of the problem is we’re the capital," he says, noting that he's been to many states and finds that, largely, it's not the capitals that are most progressive in terms of art or entertainment. “You might find more progressive art in the Tidewater area or Northern Virginia than [here]. People don’t party where the politics and laws are being made.”
Though Branch admits that he never thought marijuana would see any legalization in Virginia. “I knew 50 years ago it should not be illegal, and there was social harm being done to people by its prohibition,” he says. “That speaks to what is possible. You never know, you can’t prejudge people by location, geography or even culture, because things can change.” He also hopes that science continues to use more psychedelics in the treatment of things like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the fear involved with terminal illness.
Over his life, Branch has released around 20 albums on the Black Fire label and more recently started his second label, N.A.M.E (New African Musical Enterprises) Brand Records. He sold his entire Black Fire catalogue a year ago and those albums are being reissued by Strut Records in London, which has helped raise the artist’s international profile. For example, after playing the Dogwood Dell this August, he jets off to play Paris a week later.
There’s also a new film, “Black Fire: The Documentary,” made with a grant from Home Rule Music and Film Preservation Foundation which documents Washington, DC music history. The movie is co-directed by Kia Freeman and Richmond’s Patrick Mamou (also a producer) while Branch is listed as an executive producer. Recently, that doc had its premiere at a DC festival, and Branch says it will definitely screen at Richmond’s own Afrikana Film Festival, he thinks in September – though there will likely be other opportunities to see it as well.
Soon, you should be able to watch Branch and his group featured on television in the PBS series, “The Elevator Pitch,” he says. He also recently wrote his second book of poetry and recorded an album setting the poems to music, just releasing a new single, “Blackness,” last week. And if that wasn’t enough, he says he just completed a new album of material for the fall.
Going back to discussing the Xaba and the Natives album, Branch says that his own life’s musical message has not been too different from his mentor.
“My music is R&B, Afrofunk and jazz music and all of it, to me, is one. Which is the name of my group, Oneness. For me, Black music is all African-oriented; it’s polyrhythmic, improvisational to varying degrees, and it’s all about this idea of social interaction and music serving the people,” he explains. “That’s what I got from Ndikho and that’s what I infuse in all my genres – it’s always about the spirituality of this moment, and how can I make those principles serve the community? That’s all lofty and noble, but it's really what I believe and try to convey.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Branch holds up his recent book of poetry, "Juju Jazz Poetics."
With growing consternation at home and around the world among a population of nearly 8 billion human beings, Branch still has hope that there are people who have an understanding of where things are going, “planetarily” speaking.
"We’re all interconnected. You can’t do something in one place that doesn’t affect another place. You can’t say … who cares if the icebergs fall in? Or who cares about mowing down a million acres of trees a month in Brazil that function as our lungs?”
Organized religion continues to fade in this country among younger demographics; with Millennials and Gen Z, over a third have no religion. Branch believes there are other arts “that open up our consciousness and cause us to think in those kinds of terms.” He thinks this all factors into why there is still a need for spiritual jazz or progressive music in general.
“That’s where people have congregated who are looking for uniqueness, who are looking to punch through. To say, ‘I’m confronting you and making you have to deal with me, pro or con. You might not like it, but you’re not going to ignore it.’”
Plunky and the Oneness will be performing for First Fridays at the VMFA in the sculpture garden this Friday, July 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. On Aug. 5 he will be playing at Dogwood Dell before heading to Paris, France for a show on Aug. 12.