Soweto-born rock four-piece Blk Jks returned from international tours, an American recording stint and global press accolades to release their debut full length record, ‘After Robots’.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 5/6 September 2009.
“We left in January and traded in our summer for a winter in little Bloomington in Indiana in middle America to record our album,” they say during a short stopover back in the country that birthed them and helped to form their unique sound. “We did some touring in Europe and the UK and a lot of work between that on recording projects. Then we came back here; here is where we wanted to release the album first, because home is where the heart is. Then it is released in America on 8 September and then 23 September in Europe.” They pass the interview telephone between them, answering as a collective just as fluidly as their playing – especially the jam sequences – seem to be the product of a hive-mind that operates as a seething, brooding organic whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Blk Jks are Lindani Buthelezi (vocals, guitar), Mpumi Mpumi Mcata (guitar, vocals), Molefi Makananise (bass, guitar) and Tshepang Ramoba (drums, vocals). They’ve played with Femi Kuti, Santigold, Dirty Projectors and Michael Franti (Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) and featured at festivals as varied as Sasquatch and the Soweto Arts Festival. “Rolling Stone” called them “Africa’s best new band”; Spin hailed their EP “Mystery” as one of the Top 20 releases of 2009 to date; Billboard named Tshepang as Best Musician of the celebrated American “South By South-West” industry showcase.
It’s an impressive roster but one that seems not to have affected the musicians either way. “We really don’t have a favourite of all those people we’ve played with,” says Molefi. “Everyone is on the same level.” There’s a pause, and some off-line conversation and then he adds, “There are a couple of people we enjoyed playing with. Like Michael Franti, he was a really good brother – before we played the gig we also got to play football with him. After that is was just, you know, like brothers getting along.” More off-line talk. “We got to share a stage with (Malian band-leader) Vieux Farka Touré and we connected before and after the show. And even during the show, because he invited us on stage to play with him.” More off-line discussion and the breadth of their experiences is revealed: “Squarepusher”, “Usher”. “The So So Glos, doing some great punk music”, “Santigold, our sister”. “We can go on and on,” they say and immediately speak about two gigs on home soil, one at Johannesburg’s House of Nsako and one at Cape Town’s Assembly. “These were interesting for us, we got the chance to do them so of course we did, and they were great. People came to hear us.”
“After Robots” features nine tracks and has been lauded by international press as “provocatively pulling Afro-futurism into a new century” (Last.FM / PlugIn Music) and “a testament to a global form of cultural exchange” (The New Yorker), and with comparisons like “incorporating everything from sunny South African kwaito to art-rock shredding [comparable] to Sonic Youth and TV on the Radio” (Rolling Stone) and “if the Talking Heads had grown up in Brooklyn circa-’99, rather than in CBGBs in the ’70s” (Straight.com). The point is, gentle readers, that there is more significance to what this record is doing in terms of international rock interest than, perhaps, we can understand in the southern tip of Africa. Partly, this international response is because the band melds together sounds that even the most oblivious and cloistered of South African listeners would find familiar from our day to day environment. Partly, though, it is because the material on the album is, simply, just that good.
Asked for their (current?) favourite tune on the album, the quartet obliges. “‘Standby’,” says Tshepang immediately and with a grin, about the apparently innocent musing piece that morphs ever more hauntingly into a kind of free-jazz collapse. “It was kind of a 3/4 beat, a swing beat. Before we recorded it, we used to do the same kind of thing on other songs, like on our first EP (consider “Lonely” from their depressingly rare first recording, “The Blk Jks EP”), but we knew something had to be different. I played a very slow beat, keeping it slow. After the recording, people asked me if I had a slow jam and it was like a ‘Spinal Tap’ moment. Now I say I do.”
For Molefi it is “Skeleton”, the kind of tune that’s seen the band labelled, by some, as “dub-metal”. “I like the clear reggae-ness,” he says of the piece, which shimmers with massive brass tabs courtesy the enigmatically legendary Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. “It stands alone as a combination of reggae and all of that but, also, I like the way that it is scary deep.”
Linda cites “Kwa Nqingetje”, an eight-minute epic ushered in by a sci-fi squelch and charting a tense emotional course where the musical mood echoes both the accusation and the self-damnation of the tale it charts, and segues between embroiled containment and prog-rock-like guitar soaring. “I like it technically because of the style of recording and the gear we used, but I like it conceptually too. It was initially a twelve or thirteen minute song, a prequel. It’s about certain things that exist in fable, stories from our childhood…”
Mpumi picks up as Linda tails off, “There’s a whole reverse guitar idea that we did with Brandon Curtis (vocalist, bassist and keyboard player for the celebrated New York based “space rock” act, Secret Machines, and producer of “After Robots”). We flipped the song backwards, then Linda played a solo over the song, and then we flipped it back again, so the song is the right way round, and the solo is in reverse. It’s based on the fable something that happened: when the prophetesses told the people to kill their cattle and burn their crops. The music is backwards; we’re talking about reverse psychology.”
“That’s ‘Kwa Nqingetje’, but no doubt, my favourite is ‘Tselane’,” says Mpumi about a song with so delicately simple a refrain that it threatens to bring tears to the eyes. “It’s something that our grandmothers and mothers would say to us. Advice. But we have made it broader. It was recorded raw. No technical feats, just four guys on the mic. No going back over it, so you have to nail it on the flash. It is pure soul.”
Thus, The Blk Jks. Entirely and delightfully impossible to pigeon-hole or label. Happy to thrust their collective musical prowess into the dank, unexplored corners of the human soul. Seemingly incapable of doing anything by the book and happily charting new destinies for both themselves and the future of South Africa’s contribution to the pantheon of music. And they’re also quite comfortable jamming out a song influenced by something their mothers said, and making you cry while they do it.
“After Robots” was release in South Africa on 1 September through Just Music. Blk Jks performed at the South African music industry’s Moshito conference last week before returning to the United States for the American release of “After Robots”. More on BlkJks.com.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble plays as part of the ground-breaking Pan African Space Station cultural festival’s performance component, from 30 September to 4 October (see PanAfricanSpaceStation.org.za).