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7 December 2017

JuJu - 'A Message From Mozambique' (Black Fire)

And that message is, loud and clear, 'we are teeming with life and energy'. Except JuJu aren't from Mozambique, they're from Richmond, VA and some form of this band still exists today, still based around saxophonist Plunky Nkabinde. 1972 was a great era for merging free jazz and African nationalism, or perhaps I should say continentalism; the iconography is made clearly visible on the cover and clearly audible throughout the heavily percussive LP of searing jazzjams under review here. If one didn't know better, this photo could pass as the bizarro Art Ensemble of Chicago (from around this same era), but the music is much more built around flow than space, showing that facepaint alone does not indicate sound. Compositionally, A Message From Mozambique is spread across the whole band, and the six cuts here have distinct personalities. Nkabinde's '(Struggle) Home' opens up with 16 minutes of rapid, toe-tapping melodic jamming, creating the sound that I remember the most about this record. It's driving, with two percussionists and fast, thunderous piano runs from Al-Hammel Rasul and much soloing from Nkabinde; free, yes, but the dissonance fits within a widely defined space and the overall motion is harmonic and energy-producing. Rasul's beautiful 'Soledad Brothers' would seem to pull things down a notch, except this open piano framework allows vibes and smaller percussive elements to run amuck between the chords. It's rising and falling cadences are beautiful and propelling, wrapping up the nervous energy into the centre of the soundstage and harnessing the group power in a quieter, more focused form. It's my favourite cut on the record and a tragedy that it's only five minutes long. A more 'traditional' group jam comes with the wonderfully titled 'Make Your Own Revolution Now', which feels most at home against the ESP/skronk scene of the preceding few years. The drums and piano tend to dominate here, but when Nkabinde and flautist Lon Moshe come in, they make their presence felt through fast, dynamic exaltations. The remainder of side two pulls away from western jazz entirely, being drum/percussion workouts that are sometimes deceptively minimal-seeming ('Freedom Fighter') or more explicitly exploring the influences of indigenous music (the traditional 'Nairobi/Chants' which does involve some spirited vocalisations). JuJu's success is in synthesising these genres in such a palatable way - certainly we've heard it before in ways more impressionistic (the aforementioned Art Ensemble, or the work of Don Garrett) or more futurist (later Ornette Coleman), but this is an Afro-jazz record that is remarkably fun and I daresay even 'accessible', at least for a free jazz entry. That JuJu and Nkabinde never became household names, nor even enshrined in the same canon as other figures from this time (Archie Shepp, Frank Wright, etc.) may be due to this balance being slightly more 'fun' that one would expect; yet both the playing and compositional sense are as strong as anything else from the era.

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