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The first time legendary go-go drummer William “JuJu” House heard about Liza Figueroa Kravinsky’s Go-Go Symphony, he was dubious. “I was absolutely no doubt skeptical,” he recalls. “I was thinking, what kind of nightmare can this be? This could be not good, or not good at all.”
Fast forward a little less than two years, and now this: On Friday, the Go-Go Symphony performs the world premieres of “JuJu Symphony” and “Down With You,” two collaborations between JuJu and the symphony’s classical composers.
What changed his mind? “Liza understood go-go way more than I imagined,” says JuJu. “She wanted it to be authentic, so she reached out to the go-go community to get it done.”
Actually, Kravinsky, who grew up in P.G. County, has real go-go bondafides: During the late ‘80s, she played keyboards for the second incarnation of the all-women go-go band Pleasure. Later, she briefly performed with a Trouble Funk offshoot, TRJ.
Still, when she initially contacted JuJu hoping to find an emergency replacement drummer shortly before a Go-Go Symphony show, she expected a rejection. “I had some real gall to call him, but I told myself he could always say no, and if he does, I’m not gonna die,” she says. Initially, he told her he would consider filling in.
But after looking at the Go-Go Symphony website, he signed on. “He said, ‘Liza, you’re alright. I’ll play for you, and as a matter of fact, I want to join you as a regular member.’ I was in shock—he’s a legend!”
JuJu learned his mastery of the drums from his father, a drummer known as Billy Whiteshoes, who played with James Brown and Grand Central Station. By the time he was 18, JuJu had joined Heavy Connection, and five years later he moved to the popular Mighty Peacemakers. Since then, at one time or another, JuJu has played with nearly all of go-go’s top acts: He joined Experience Unlimited around 1981, and has played with them on and off ever since. He has also played for Trouble Funk, Little Benny & the Masters, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, and Maiesha & the Hip Huggers. JuJu was with EU during the remarkably successful hit “Da Butt,” and also for their Grace Jones collaboration, “Slave to the Rhythm.” And that’s not all: Like a number of go-go’s most talented musicians, JuJu has also hired himself out to an array of national acts, including Arrested Development, Roberta Flack, Chaka Kahn, Dionne Farris, Natalie Cole, and The Boston Pops.
JuJu was celebrated on “Go JuJu Go,” the title track of EU’s excellent 1987 album, which was about bursting cultural stereotypes. “That song is about someone from the islands coming into D.C. and realizing that it’s not what people think about with the violence, that there’s this creative black culture here,” he says. “That song was meant to break barriers.”
So perhaps fans can find a connection between that go-go classic and his new collaboration. “Go-Go Symphony is also about breaking barriers by bringing orchestration and the go–go sound together,” he says.
JuJu describes “JuJu Symphony,” a collaboration with Go-Go Symphony composers Kravinsky, Joshua Cruse, and Andrew Velez, as “somewhere in between Rage Against the Machine and go-go.”
(Astute go-go fans may find they can connect the dots between “JuJu Symphony” and EU’s early local hit “EU Freeze.”)
The more mellow “Down With You” was a work in progress that JuJu has dedicated to Reggie Mack, a talented rapper who was gunned down during a vacation from his military service. After Mack’s death, JuJu says, he could not bring himself to complete the song. “I actually turned it over to Liza, and she liked it and worked on it as well,” he says.
Both compositions are contenders for GGS’s first album, which is planned as a hybrid between a studio and live album.
And while the notion of combining go-go and a classical orchestra is not new—Chuck Brown played with the National Symphony Orchestra not long before his death—it does represent yet another example of the genre seeping into other DMV cultures, right along with the popular Go-Go Fitness classes and a recent go-go musical.
For JuJu, it also represents something else. “The Go-Go Symphony is definitely going to be a crossover between the racial barriers, and that’s something I appreciate,” he says. “There are a lot of people there who never heard go-go and never played go-go. They were totally out of their element, and I guess in a sense I was out of mine.”
The Go-Go Symphony performs tonight at 8 p.m. at the Church at Clarendon, 1210 North Highland St., Arlington. Suggested donation is $20.