Jo’Burg’s psychedelic avant-garde rock
What may appear at first sight as the clumsy abbreviation of a company title is, in fact, the name of one Africa’s most unusual bands: the “Black Jacks” (as they call themselves) from Johannesburg have baptized a genre that has been showered with epithets by a bewildered press: Zulu Rock, Dub Metal, Afrogothic. South African roots, coupled with the sound-language of white rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and Hendrix make for a daring and powerful synthesis with no forerunners.
The band was founded in the year 2000 by lead singer Linda Buthelezi and guitarist Mpumi Mcata from Spruitview in southwest Greater Johannesburg. The band members have known one another since they were kids. Bassist Molefi Makananise and drummer Tshepang Ramoba, who are both from Soweto and grew up in the tradition of township jazz, complete the quartet’s line-up. They started off practicing in a small club. The audience, which happened to be there by chance, was so spellbound by the extraordinary music they were playing that the practice sessions soon turned into concerts. BLK JKS’s reputation then began to spread like wildfire – they were now the ultimate insider tip. But they also encountered suspicion too: “When we started, we encountered a lot of hostility,” they recall. “Rock was always seen as a white thing, the music of the enemy. Soon, though, people realized that what we were making was far more in tune with what´s going on in South Africa now than any of the pop music being played on the radio."
Soon, the BLK JKS actually got a chance to record in the SABC-Studios in Johannesburg. A meandering, psychedelic sound emerged during the session, based on a free-thinking philosophy usually associated more with the collective improvisation typical of free jazz. Hardly surprising, then, that the band is not finding it easy to sell itself and its music as a recipe for international success – unlike its white counterparts, the Parlotones with their polished, conservative mainstream vocabulary. And it is hardly necessary to stress that the BKL JKS don’t see themselves as a typical South African band: “I feel like we are like a growth ... An abscess. It could either implode, explode or, like, give the continent super powers.” they told the US magazine Fader.
The band members´ mother tongues are Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Pedi. But that’s not what counts in any case. Because the most important feature of this unorthodox quartet is melody, followed by the words that they use to home in on the desolate state of the South Africa of today. They use words as screwy metaphors populated with machines and medical horror scenarios. The traditional basics reemerge again and again, as in the groove of Mbaqanga – that genuine South African pop music with its fast rhythms, and so-called Toyi-Toyi, an anti-Apartheid dance. However, the complex muscular rock structures of Led Zeppelin and Back Sabbath are just as present here as the typhoon-like guitar antics of a Hendrix and the crazy glissando vocals of a David Byrne.
And that’s why BLK JKS are not afraid of getting close to their listeners, whoever they may be. They have performed at the Apartheid Museum, at the birthplace of Kwaito, the South African descendent of House, and at benefit events held in support of rural football teams. In 2007, they finally attracted international attention, too. Through the efforts of New York producer Diplo, they were invited to the Hudson. Brandon Curtis initially recorded the EP “Mystery” with them: four tracks that took Township Blues into the 21st century and also drink from the well of the spiritual jazz of a Carlos Garnett. The tracks were recorded at the legendary Electric Ladyland Studios, where they were also able to record their first LP "After Robots".
This is where BLK JKS pull all the stops on the road to self-discovery – on a journey that is far from over. Because “After Robots”, with its countless rhythmic breaks, its breath-taking wall of sound, its martialistic grunge-like guitars, garage-style beats and almost shocking fanfares on the wind instrument, sounds like a work that is afraid of its own courage. It’s almost as if BLK JKS themselves are tentatively starting to realize that, being the only black rock band in Africa, they are still the most avant-garde, too. There seems to be no stopping them: In June 2010, they will be standing on stage alongside commercial international stars like Shakira and Alicia Keys for the World Cup kick-off concert at the Orlando Stadium on their home territory, Soweto. They have also allied themselves with Vieux Farka Touré, another progressive rock hero from the black continent, to demonstrate to European ears the striking power of modern Afro rock. This quartet has changed the face of African music forever.
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