Journal of the First Gig In Paris 2004

Plunky & Oneness – Impressive In Their Paris Debut Paris – Even before the concert began there was electricity in the air. Monday, November 29, 2004 will long be remembered by members of Plunky & Oneness (of Juju) and their French fans as the date of the band’s triumphant debut in Paris. The venue for the band’s first Parisian concert was the New Morning, a place that has a history of presenting great jazz artists from Ella Fitzgerald and Dee Bridgewater to Chick Corea, Maceo Parker, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp and too many others to name them all. And according to the promoters, the Monday night concert by Plunky & Oneness (of Juju) was up to the club’s high standards. There was a rush to get choice seats and stage-edge positions when the first 100 hundred patrons who had lined up outside were allowed inside the club 90 minutes before the opening song would be played. When the band did take the stage, a loud roar of approval was let loose as the by-then packed house got a glimpse of colorfully costumed band members with faces painted like African masks. After bandleader J. Plunky Branch joined the ensemble, intoned his opening statements and played an invocation on tenor sax, he launched the band into a 6/8 polyrhythm with his famous words, “These are African rhythms, passed down to us by the ancients spirits…” From that point on the magic of juju was in the house. For the next two and a half hours the band and audience were joined in spirit celebrating the power of rhythm, energy and improvisation to create joy, peace and inspiration. The music was classic. The sound and lights were ideal. And the band performed wonderfully, reveling in the exhortations of the adoring crowd. Plunky said, “I always thought it would be special to play in Paris with my band. It took me years to get to do it, but I always thought it would be great when it happened and I wasn’t disappointed.” The band was as tight a tick. All night, fabulously funky drummer Corey Burch flailed away in perfect sync with Nigerian percussionist Chief Udoh Essyet. Original and longtime Oneness of Juju bassist Philip Muzi Branch anchored the ensemble and created the shifts from jazz to p-funk, sometimes while singing. Keyboardist Kevin Teasley added tonal colors and took several amazingly nimble solos. But it was the soulful voices that moved the listeners to higher heights. Divas Jacqueline “Lady Eka-Ete” Lewis and keyboardist Tonya Lazenby-Jackson sang alternately like jazz stylists, gospel singers and Funkateers, always invoking the blues and evoking oohs and aahs from the French music connoisseurs. As director of the energies, bandmaster Plunky was a commanding presence and always fully in control. His saxophones soared, bringing back memories of John Coltrane. His words poked and prodded the intellect. And Plunky was a modern day funk conductor, in the mold of his idols: Fela Kuti, George Clinton and Prince. The repertoire for the evening traced the history of Plunky & Oneness of Juju in song. Beginning with the 1974 composition “Nia” and proceeding through the 1976 “Space Jungle Funk” the stage was set for beloved vocalist Lady Eka-Ete to sing her classic, “River Luvrite,” a song that has been reissued on several compilations since its release some 28 years ago. Her rendition of “Follow Me” was followed by stirring a capella sax solo, which served as an intro to an intricate arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Each break or transition would be punctuated by loud screams of approval and thunderous applause; and the volume of the audience’s responses would only increase as the night wore on. From the middle of the first of two 75-minute sets on, things got funkier and funkier. The party got more exuberant. The energy reached its zenith when Plunky & Oneness (of Juju) finally played their classic song, “African Rhythms,” and Lady Eka-Ete sang the lyrics: “African rhythms make you clap your hands, African rhythms, they make you dance!” Later Plunky would say, “One of the highlights of my performing career occurred last Monday, at the New Morning club in Paris with me and my band chanting, “Let the rhythms take you to the truth…” and the audience of 500 French people hollering back, “Mother Africa!” What a joyous musical high!” At the end, even after two encores the audience was screaming for more. But mercifully Plunky released the crowd from the band’s spell ‘round midnight and sent them out into the Parisian air floating on memories of a fantastic evening and anticipating Plunky & Oneness of Juju’s return to the New Morning. The whole thing was filmed for French television and a future DVD release. So hopefully the experience can be re-lived soon. In the meantime, the group’s compilation double CD, African Rhythms Oneness of Juju 1970-1982, has been reissued by Black Fire Records and distributed all over Europe by Night and Day Distributors of Paris. ++++++++++++++++++++++ But things didn’t look so great two days before that, when at the Richmond airport we learned that our connecting flight to Philadelphia was delayed and we would not be flying to Paris on that evening. Going back home to wait until the next day to leave was a disappointment that proved to be a blessing because we were able to get more rest from performing at our Bon Voyage party on Friday night and we used Sunday afternoon to better prepare and plan for the show in Paris on Monday. Yes, it was a bit trying to have to reschedule all my travel recovery time and Sunday promotion activities and shift into the mindset of arriving on the same day as the performance. But in the end it all worked out just fine. The gig in Paris was a triumph! Such an energetic and appreciative packed house. So much love. I was in my world. And on top of it. After the gig we stayed in Paris for two extra days just to do touristy things: a boatride on the Seine river, walks along the Champs Elysee, eating in a French café, riding the Metro (subway), etc. I could live in Paris. In fact, I think I will at some point in time. But for now I can hardly wait to return. We are making plans for a tour in late spring. It would be wonderful. Security issues at the airports are a drag. On the way back home we almost missed our connecting flight out of Philly. We had to run to make it and then we sat on the plane for almost an hour waiting to take off. But by the grace of God we made it home safely, thankful for the blessings and for experiences that keep us growing and inspiring us to strive to be better.