Like any good saxophonist, J. Plunky Branch is long-winded. So some of lengthy conversation for my recent Style Weekly interview about his voluminous memoir didn’t make the paper.
I didn’t set out to be involved in African music. It sort of just happened for me. I started my first band [The Soul Syndicate] in college at Columbia University. I didn’t realize I was so Afrocentric, although I was very politically active, very left wing active at Columbia [University]. One of the guys in my first band had a picture of us playing at the Cheetah Club, one of the first discos in the 1960s in New York, all of the other pictures of the band, we dressed in all black or white ties, we looked like some kind of mafioso take-off, but in this picture, I’m standing there, leader of the band, I’m at the Cheetah Club and everybody else is dressed in that garb and I have on an African Dashiki. I was stunned to see that, I didn’t even remember that.
I went to San Francisco, really for political reasons, while I was in San Francisco, I got involved with an African musician [Ndikho Xaba], who was from South Africa, basically played with him for a couple of years. He was a South African expatriate, basically a political protester against the apartheid system there. And he taught me about African music. He had originally come here as an theater person, so he played music, but he was also very theatrical, very much an activist, so I got involved with that and learned about African music. My basic take-away from that was, in terms of African music and philosophy, was that music was more than just a play thing, more than just entertainment, it could be a political resource, a source of information … a motivator of people, in other words. But that was kind of a happenstance, I didn’t got to school for that, I didn’t plan for that, but I had a rich experience. Again, this is much more minutiae, much more detail than you want to hear about, and you see why my book is so lengthy.
After I left his group, I was part of music group doing the music for a play, by African nationalist by the name of Marvin X, a play called “The Resurrection of the Dead.” Basically, It was a ritual. I went from African music to an African ritual. Then after that I formed my own group called “JuJu,” and we studied African music. Again we lived the kind of life in San Francisco, where, for three, four five hours a day we are doing this ritualistic high energy African music, I recorded an album of it [Mesage from Mozambique], went to NY for a music festival, people were really taken by this because it was it was avant garde and it also had African Rhythm. It was kind of unique and kind of different for that time.
So later years, I forned my own group, came back to Richmond, again brought some of this philosophy back to Richmohnd. Richmond kind of trained me to go back to my R&B roots. Primarily beause Richmond was not New York or San Francisco, It wasn’t so open to the very progressive avant gard jazz. Later I ended up doing albums and tours with Bobby Byrd, toured in Europe … My life was very very interesting, but it was almost by step by step happenstance.
Many of your early records have become valuable. Why do you think that is?
One of the reasons is, not just the what of the music, not just the quality of the music or what the music says. A lot of it, in terms of determining value, is the rarity of the music and the rarity of the recording. If you have a Michael Jackson’s Thriller, even fifty years from now, it won’t be worth anything. There were 18 millon sold and probably 30 million printed. So it’s not going to have much value. But if you’ve got an early Plunky and Onenss album, the first pressing were usually 1,000 copies, and we’re talking worldwide. So when I got to London and I see “Message from Mozambique,” it might be literally 75 to 175 pounds for one of those album. It’s because it’s rare. I think, more than anything, it’s the rarity of it and the fact that I’m still at it.
Is there anything else?
One of the things I say in the preface of the book, is that they’re all kinds of people in this world, and everybody has a story. One of the thing I want to highlight is that I give thanks and respect and props to the people that allow me to operate like I’m some sort of beacon or I’m some sort of inspiring light. But for me, and I don’t want to sound cliche or overly humble, it really is the local people who sort of strive every day, the local musicians who sort of allow me to be up front person and claim all the credit, in all of the situations that I’ve had while, I’ve been the leader in just about every band I was in, clearly I couldn’t have done it without people allowed me to be the leader.