plunky branch

Okyerema Asante

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Ghanaian master drummer Okyerema Asanta poses for a portrait in his home in Northern Virginia in 2014.

Asante Sana – Okyerema Asante

All that vinyl was heavy but Okyerema Asante knew it would be worth it once he got the records on the plane. The Northern Virginia-based master drummer’s LP “Sabi,” recorded at Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, MD, would be a hit back in his home country, Ghana. What Asante didn’t count on was Customs not letting him board the plane with all the records. He needed a backup plan.

Asante’s journey started when was four years old, banging on pans in Koforidua, the Eastern region capital of Ghana. His uncle, a senior master drummer, spotted Asante’s early talent and began to groom him to play the talking drum. By the age of 10, Isaac Asante earned the title “Okyerema,” which means master drummer.

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Eager to develop his own style, Asante introduced conga drums into his repertoire and refigured the end his talking drumsticks to sound like the palm of his hand. Today, a set of Asante’s unique talking drumsticks are part of the world’s largest drumstick collection, which was exhibited in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from 1995-2002.

Asante eschewed the Western trap drum kit, remaining dedicated to traditional Ghanaian music. He found compatriots when he joined the group Hedzolah Soundz. In 1972 the band recorded a self-titled LP at the EMI Nigeria studio, which was finally released in 2010 on Soundway Records.

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In 1973 Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti introduced South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela to Hedzoleh Soundz, who then recruited them to become his backing band. Asante and the other members of Hedzoleh Soundz moved from Ghana to Los Angeles to join Masaekela, and eventually to Alexandria. The legendary South African musician and Hedzoleh Soundz recorded the 1973 LP “Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz” and 1974’s “I Am Not Afraid,” both on Blue Thumb Records. The group eventually returned to Africa with the exception of Asante, who decided to split his time between Virginia and Ghana.

As he continued to develop his craft, Asante added more instruments to his act. He currently plays up to 86 instruments during his performances. He also adopted a signature look—a helmet with antelope horns that is normally worn to celebrate victory after a battle.

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In 1976 Asante recorded his funk-tinged debut LP, “Drum Message,” at Arrest Recording Studios on 14th St. NW. The LP was co-produced by Black Fire Records founder Jimmy Gray, but remained unreleased until 1993 when Asante’s Oneness of Juju band mate Plunky Branch issued it on CD on the label.

In 1979, Asante recorded the aforementioned “Sabi.” When he couldn’t get on the plane with all the records the master drummer was forced to bring only a few copies, which he re-pressed once in Ghana. As he had hoped, the album was a hit in his home country.

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Asante became a sought after traditional Ghanaian drummer for many artists during the 1980s, including Masekela, Fleetwood Mac, and Paul Simon, and recorded on Mick Fleetwood’s “The Visitor” in 1981 and Simon’s “Graceland” in 1986.

Asante has released more than three solo albums since “Sabi” and is currently working on his latest, “The Honorables.” You can purchase Asante’s music here.

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Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Plunky Branch

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Plunky Branch plays his soprano saxophone near Howard University’s WHUR 96.3 FM in Washington, DC in 2013.

African Rhythms – Oneness of Juju

“Juju” has various meanings in West Africa. It is a style of music, a form of witchcraft, and the ability to affect someone subconsciously through music. When Richmond, Virginia’s J. Plunky Branch traveled to the region with his jazz-funk group Oneness of Juju he discovered that people take the word “juju” very seriously.

20 years before his trip to West Africa the young saxophone player formed a band in New York City called The Soul Syndicate with a few fellow Columbia University students. They recorded one 45—covers of The Temptations’ “Fading Away” and a James Brown song, and pressed only a couple hundred copies.

In 1968 Branch moved to San Francisco.  There he met South African jazz musician Ndikho Xaba and joined his group Ndikho Xaba and the Natives. The group released a self-titled LP on Oakland’s Trilyte label in 1969.  Working with Xaba, Branch realized that music could be political and more than just entertainment.

After Xaba left San Francisco, Branch and two other members of the Natives got a gig in the music ensemble for a stage production by playwright Marvin X entitled, “The Resurrection of the Dead.” When the show ended Branch and the five other musicians in the ensemble formed the group, JuJu.

“Certainly there are people who know more music or who can play saxophone in circles around me,” says Branch. “But I have a lot of perseverance and a lot of study ability. I was able to articulate things from the stage and to other musicians that seemed to be able to rally them.”

In 1973 JuJu recorded their debut LP, “A Message From Mozambique,” which was a reference to African civil wars that were not being covered by the media. They released their follow-up, “Chapter Two: Nia,” in 1974. Both records were issued on Strata-East Records and featured African-style percussion.

By 1975 Branch returned to Richmond. He came across a magazine called “Black Fire,” which incorporated JuJu’s logo on the cover. Curious, Branch reached out to publisher Jimmy Gray and together they formed the Washington, DC-based Black Fire Records. Artists eventually signed to Black Fire Records included Experience Unlimited, Wayne Davis, and Southern Energy Ensemble.

Branch incorporated new members from Richmond into his group and in 1976 released “African Rhythms” as Oneness of Juju on Black Fire Records, which they recorded at Bias Recording Studios in Springfield, Virginia. The lineup at the time of recording was:

Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis: vocals
Plunky Branch: saxaphone, flute, vocals, percussion
Al Hammel Rasul: piano, keyboards, percussion, vocals
Muzi Branch: bass, percussion, vocals
Babatunde Michael Lea: drums, percussion, vocals
Lon Moshe: vibraphone, marimbas
Ronnie Toler: drums
Phillip “Pee Wee” Ford: bass
Reginald Brisbane: Balophone

More R&B influenced than the band’s previous albums, the title track’s bass line was a direct riff on James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” Howard University’s WHUR 96.3 FM became the first radio station to play the LP extensively, bringing a wider audience to Oneness of Juju in the Mid-Atlantic.

Oneness of Juju performed in DC constantly. Other musicians they performed with at the time included Gil Scot-Heron, Hugh Masekela, Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, The Young Senators, Brute, and Experience Unlimited.

Oneness of Juju released their fourth LP, “Space Jungle Luv,” in 1976, which continued the band’s explorations into R&B and jazz-funk. In 1977 they recorded and shelved a fifth LP, “Bush Brothers & Space Rangers” at Arrest Records in DC, which was finally released in 1996 on P-Vine Records. By 1982’s “Make A Change,” Plunky & Oneness of Juju were fully playing funk, disco, and reggae music. The album’s track “Every Way But Loose charted in Billboard Magazine, bringing them national attention. It was later featured in “Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories.”

So when Plunky & Oneness of Juju toured West Africa in 1986 they were surprised by the reception to their name. In Ghana, radio DJs would only refer to them as “Oneness of God.” People were also caught off-guard by the band’s sound, which did not resemble West African Juju music. They dropped “Juju” from the name, becoming known simply as Plunky and Oneness.

Members of the band have changed but Branch has recorded and performed consistently over 35 years. In 2001 Strut Records released a two-CD retrospective, “African Rhythms – Oneness of Juju 1970-1982.” In 1999 Branch was named “Musician of The Year” by Richmond Magazine.

Plunky & Oneness released their latest album, Never Too Late, in 2013. They continue to perform regularly in Martini Kitchen & Bubble Bar in Richmond and at K2 Restaurant & Lounge in Woodbridge, Virginia. You can purchase Branch’s music here and here.

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Mmm, mmm, mmm.
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