JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

BLK JKS: Rebirth of a Nation

By:  | published on April 23, 2009

BLK JKS: Courtesy of Secretly Canadian“No idea’s original, there’s nothin’ new under the sun / It’s never what you do, but how it’s done…”

In 2002, the rapper Nas spit that lyric on a track fittingly called “No Idea’s Original”, his attempt to sum up a sonic landscape he saw as being chock full of wholly derivative acts. Hundreds of new bands have emerged since his diatribe on originality, all serving up variations, both major and minor, on a prior theme.

There may never be an indisputable exception to that theory—all artists are in some way a product of their influences—but the BLK JKS come damn close. This South African poly-lingual chameleon of a band wasn’t created in a vacuum, and each member boasts a litany of influences. But it’s safe to say that the vowel-phobic BLK JKS (say: Black Jacks) dish out a sound that is inimitable—let’s call it dub psych-rock laced with traditional South African rhythms, bebop jazz, and creepy lyrics. They have an EP on the Secretly Canadian label that arrived in stores March 10th and a full-length to be released in late summer.

The root of the band’s distinctiveness lies in its diversity. BLK JKS are a black rock band from a country in which rock music has always been the domain of white folks (they are steadily changing that fact). The two founders and guitarists, Mpumi Mcata and Linda Buthelezi, grew up on the same street in Johannesburg’s East Rand district, teaching themselves guitar and initially forming the band in 2000. Four years later, they recruited bassist Molefi Makananise and drummer Tshepang Ramoba, both from Soweto and session players with jazz-heavy backgrounds to sure up the rhythm section.


Each of the four hails from a distinct South African language group and culture: Mpumi is Xhosa, Molefi is Tswana, Linda is Zulu, and Tshepang is Pedi. There are commonalities among those languages and the band members all speak English, but Tshepang says their barriers actually helped them click musically at the outset.

“When we first started rehearsing together [in June 2004], we didn’t talk to each other much, we just played for a long time,” he says. The new bandmates would have plenty of time to connect personally, however, as they jumped into a bus the next day and drove 11 hours for a gig in Grahamstown. “We clicked on the bus and it was like we had known each other for a long time,” Tshepang says.

When the band first started playing shows in South Africa, the crowds were decidedly white, save for a few friends and family. But as its star has risen, particularly after a whirlwind two months in the US a year ago that included a stop at SXSW in Austin, Texas, that has gradually changed. For a band with a wealth of international buzz, it is this imprint—laying the groundwork to change the musical landscape in their homeland—in which the band takes the most pride.

“It’s good to see more black people at our shows,” Tshepang says. “Too often they are not open enough in South Africa, and they just listen to what the radio tells them to listen to. But they’re learning and getting better and better all the time.”

Tshepang seems uniquely suited to build bridges between music scenes in his native country. He grew up in Soweto, but his parents sent him to a mostly white private school, where classmates turned him on to things like Britpop and psych-rock. A band teacher would later turn him on to Santana and classic rock. Tshepang connected with that band teacher through a failed attempt at a joke in detention that ended up marking him as a natural drummer. Spotting an empty drum kit among the school band, an always-easy target for mocking, Tshepang sat down and banged away derisively. The joke went awry when he revealed his innate rhythm that came from years of listening to jazz records with his dad.

“I was just making a joke and trying to make everybody laugh,” he says. “But as soon as I started drumming, the headmaster said, ‘That’s it, you’re the drummer in the band.’”

BLK JKS arrived at their sound in a similarly serendipitous way. Their early jam sessions were long, improvised Courtesy of BLK JKSaffairs, with members often going off in different directions. On the Mystery EP, produced at New York’s Electric Lady studios by Brandon Curtis of Secret Machines, time signatures vary wildly, tempos change in spasms, and a lilting ballad can turn into a Sabbath-esque metal riff in seconds. Over all of that, Buthelezi drops strange lyrics about paramedics, broken lesions, hospitals, and malformed babies. Almost every one of its songs seems to have a moment that makes sense before it catapults into left field.

“We never wanted rules,” Tshepang says. “We wanted it to sound the way we wanted it to, whatever that meant at the time.” He compares their song structure to a book that doesn’t repeat part of the story the way a song does. “It moves on,” he says.

Despite a meal-sized sound that doesn’t seem to fit into any one box, BLK JKS were the subject of a label frenzy for the past few years. They rebuffed each offer that came along, choosing to wait until the right one, from Secretly Canadian, appeared in 2008. The Bloomington, Indiana-based label released the Mystery EP and will be releasing their upcoming full-length. The band will be on the road for much of the time in between in the US, Europe, and South Africa.

Tshepang is soft-spoken and laidback, but he clearly revels in the unknown, the potential cultural weight his band could have in his homeland. “We want to reach everyone—just like Mandela,” he says.

Listen: Various Tracks [at myspace.com]

– See more at: http://www.crawdaddyarchive.com/index.php/2009/04/23/blk-jks-rebirth-of-a-nation/#sthash.NMQ0JIAI.dpuf