Bruce Bunn and Joe Amata of Tunji
Conjuring New Orleans mysticism with a mantra of ‘Jazz, Soul, Afro-Funk Mutations,’ Tunji is making magic on the long road toward its big vision
by Lee Abraham
Voodoo lurks just beyond the glowing safety of the corner street light. It’s late. Maybe 2am. Strains of music from several nightclubs float together down the empty street in a soft parade of sound. A black magic fog drifting in off the canal moves slowly - a sheer, silvery haze illuminated by the crescent moon above. There’s nobody around. A woman’s laughter suddenly rises from deep inside the mist. The sound ricochets off the cold asphalt then disappears into the darkness. At the same moment, a nightclub door swings open. As the lonely wail of a saxophone spills out onto the concrete sidewalk, the imagination of a young boy lying in bed, awake and listening, races along with it.
"We grew up along the Gulf Coast. I spent a lot of time in New Orleans as a kid," says Bruce Bunn, keyboard player for Tunji, a tough-to-tag rhythm and groove outfit based in Austin, Texas. "It was definitely a mysterious town. I remember sitting up in the hotel room, all night long, looking over Canal Street listening to Louis Armstrong and just imagining what was going on out there."
These days, Bunn knows what’s going on. And it shows in his music. As Tunji’s primary songwriter, Bunn is a ‘Big Easy’ mystic with an assortment of musical influences from Canal Street and beyond. "As you mature as a musician, you open your eyes to a lot of different styles of music," says Bunn. "People are always asking what kind of music we play. We call it, ‘Jazz, Soul and Afro- funk mutations."
Although Bunn plays keyboards most of the time, he can play just about anything. His first instrument was the drums. As a music major in college, he studied the trumpet. Over the years, Bunn picked up the guitar and bass. "I just play music, you know?" he says with a slight ‘nawlins’ drawl. "I’m a musician. Not a piano player, or a trumpet player, I’m just a musician."
And a good one at that. So are the rest of the guys in Tunji. Not only are they outstanding individually, it’s their chemistry as a unit that gives Tunji its unique sound. "Except for the sax player, we all went to high school together," says Bunn. "We’ve been jamming together since 10th grade."
Back then, Bunn and his cohorts just wanted to have fun. "We had like a disco band, it was called Boogie Nights," he recalls with a laugh. "We should have copywrited the name and made some money." But they were in it for the yucks, not the bucks. "It was a total joke. People were just having fun, but then they started getting really into it. So we decided that it wasn’t really that funny anymore."
Dismantling the disco band was a defining moment. "We still maintain our sense of humor and we don’t believe anybody should take themselves too seriously," says Bunn. "But we decided that we all wanted to do music for the rest of our lives. And me being a songwriter, I specifically want to play my music for the rest of my life."
Taking their name from Olatunji Williams, a friend in north Texas, ("We told him that we would name a band after him... didn’t find out ‘til later that it means "sun" in an old dialect from Nigeria."), they moved from Houston to their current home in Austin. That was five years ago. From day one, Tunji was intent on developing their sound. Brad Gilley on drums and bassist Shiben Bhattacharya, experimented with world beats and jazzy, syncopated time signatures.
Learning to drive the groove or navigate it through space, Bunn played the keyboards with a variety of tones, ranging from funky clavinet and swirling R&B church organ to the elegance of a grand piano. He also refined his singing style - a husky, soulful voice with a cool cat, hoodoo guru delivery. Occasionally, Bunn will also pick up his trumpet and join saxman Andre Van Buren, giving Tunji a potent "horn section feel." Sometimes Joe Amato on guitar does the same thing. "Our color man," says Bunn. "Joe adds the color and textures, as well as playing solos. He almost acts as another horn player at times."
Tunji’s fan base grew along with their music. Expanding into Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, they quickly built a regional following. Sometimes in the places they least expected. "The craziest town we’ve played is Little Rock, Arkansas," laughs Bunn. "Last call’s like at 4:50 AM, and people will order like four beers, you know? They’re all about the partying."
Although they like a good party themselves, when Tunji wasn’t playing, they were recording. Earlier this year, Tunji released their debut CD, -Last Night’s Wine-. A thoroughly enjoyable studio effort, -Last Night’s Wine-, captures Tunji’s lean, polytextured sound without a hint of overproduction. CD in hand to be proud of, the band did their first western states tour about a year ago.
"The people are definitely a little more open minded," says Bunn, talking about live music fans on the West coast. "I mean we’re in the heart of the bible belt here. People seem to have more creative energy goin’ on out there." And Tunji thrives on that energy. Says Bunn, "We’re on the road all the time, pretty much playing five nights a week." In spite of the hectic schedule, Bunn finds time to continue writing new material. Lots of it. But Tunji is playing -so- much, they decided to record a live album rather than take time off to head back into the studio.
The new CD, recorded live at the Mercury in Austin, is scheduled for release in February. Until then, Tunji's on the road. "We’re just trying to spread the music you know?" says Bunn. "I mean, our vision is far beyond Austin or Texas, or even this area of the country, or this country in general. We’ve got a big vision and we’re just conquering one state at a time."
"We’re having a blast," he continues. "I guess a lot of people get fed up with the bullshit. I mean, you’re not making any money, dealing with assholes and what not, driving ten hours between gigs, but I don’t know, we’re all about it. We’re longtime friends. We all live together here, so going on the road isn’t that much different. This is what we dreamed about since we were kids. We’re in it for the long haul."