Saxophonist James “Plunky” Branch is one of the foundation stones of the local arts scene. Over a more than half-century career, he’s simultaneously introduced Richmond to the world and the world to Richmond, with his seminal band, variously named Juju, Oneness of Juju, and now Plunky and the Oneness.
Over the years he’s toured the world, influenced the birth of go-go, played music for “The Cosby Show,” been sampled by hip-hop artists, and been on the virtual radio in the popular “Grand Theft Auto” game series.
At the same time, he’s worked to support the Richmond black artists’ infrastructure, including the Richmond Jazz Society. For his festival appearance, he is returning to his Afro-Cuban roots with an expanded all-star ensemble.
“I started playing music in the fifth grade in Richmond public schools. Fast forward, and I went to college at Columbia University in New York City. I started a band called the Soul Syndicate, five horns, five singers, advertised as ‘14 pieces of driving soul.’ Mainly we did James Brown and Motown, especially the Temptations.”
He left Columbia after three years to move to San Francisco, he says, where he met Ndikho Xaba, a Zulu from South Africa.
“From him I learned the connections between jazz, rhythm and blues and African music. I’ve spent the rest of my career exploring those connections.”
That led to the first edition of Juju, an avant-garde jazz group that released “Message from Mozambique” on Strata East in 1973. It moved from San Francisco to the legendary New York Downtown jazz scene, where it worked with free-jazz legends such as Sam Rivers, Rasaahn Rolland Kirk and Ornette Coleman.
“I hadn’t known Ornette very long before he put me in charge of his Prince Street gallery. Then, less than two weeks later, he left the country for six weeks. That was a formative experience because later when I returned to Richmond, I set up a gallery-performing space at my house in Church Hill.”
In Richmond, he had the epiphany of mellowing the hard-edge chanting with R&B, adding vocals, a trap drummer and a guitarist, and becoming Oneness of Juju.
“We were struggling artists, playing galleries and readings. I wanted to depict my theory that music is all one thing, an African spirit based on rhythm, energy and improvisation,” he explains.
The new direction took off. So did some of the original players, who were replaced by local talent. One of its songs became the theme for WHUR’s news show, and it started getting booked as an opener for more famous acts. He spent so much time in Washington that people thought he lived there.
“I claim some ownership for go-go because playing sets without breaks, with African percussion and songs segueing into each other like a live DJ situation, was taken up by the people we were playing with.”
Appropriately, in recent years that classic period has been rediscovered by hip-hop artists, including J Dilla and Big Pun. It’s been a financial windfall for artists of that LP era.
“A little bit of money helps you reinvest and reinvent,” Branch says. “I’ve made more from my one-fifteenth credit from J. Cole than from the rest of my recordings combined.”
The Folk Festival set will harken back to that mid-’70s to early ’80s edition of the band. “It’s my largest ensemble ever,” says Branch, adding that there will be 16 people on stage, including former bandmates, three female vocalists, and local favorites Bill McGee and James “Saxsmo” Gates.
“This is the crown jewel of festivals in a town of festivals,” Branch says.
“We’re playing several times, and closing everything out in the dance tent at 5 o’clock on Sunday. It’s early, and it’s like the afterparty. There is no reason not to be there.”
Plunky and the Oneness of Juju performs on Saturday, Oct. 12, from 3 to 3:45 p.m. at the Altria Stage and from 7:05 to 8 p.m. at the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion. They perform on Sunday, Oct. 13, from 4:50 to 6 p.m. at the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion.Back to the Richmond Folk Festival