Jacqui Van Staden
More than a decade after they blew up stateside with a genre-defying debut album, the Blk Jks are back with grey streaks in their beards and a confident follow-up release. “Fucking 12 years,” says Blk Jks co founder Mpumi Mcata, counting the time between After Robots and Abantu/Before Humans. Yes, it’s been that long. Babies conceived to the discordant riffs and slow-building crescendos of Lakeside, a wild ride of a song unfairly tamed by producer Brandon Curtis on After Robots, are like teenagers now.
Where did it all go wrong? This line from Lakeside offers one way to frame the complicated history leading up to the release of Abantu/Before Humans. Where did it all go wrong between enigmatic frontman and vocalist Linda Buthelezi and the rest of the Blk Jks? It is a fair question, but also last year’s scandalmongering. Make that last of last year. Buthelezi left the band in 2012. Bands fight. Line-ups change. New albums get released, or at least sometimes they do. Fucking 12 years.
Can a band exist without a new album every other year?
“There’s two answers to that questions,” thinks Mcata. “The music business, the industry, will say no, absolutely not. But musicians will say, yeah.” Rather than leave it there, Mcata – a guitarist, DJ, filmmaker and serial collaborator, also homeowner, husband and father of two – presses on. Expansively. “You know,” he says, and then drifts. You know. Time becomes elastic.
Time is very much a concern for the Blk Jks on Abantu/Before Humans. For starters, had things gone according to plan, their new album might conceivably have appeared before the current masks and curfew vibes, before the death of live music.
In 2018, after convening at the Soweto Theatre to record new material, the drives containing their new studio material were stolen. Every artist needs a tragedy proposed Los Angeles noise rockers No Age in 2007, the same year Blk Jks self-released their prickly debut ten inch containing Lakeside. The trick is not to be defined by a tragedy.
A year after the theft, leveraging payola for a gig with Thandiswa Mazwai, the Blk Jks reconvened at Downtown Studios for three days. The nine songs on Abantu/Before Humans were recorded in three six-hour sessions. That’s a tight schedule for a band whose lifeblood is jamming and whose formal compositions emerge through improvisation. Despite the compact schedule, Abantu/Before Humans feels expansive.
The incantatory opening track, Yela Oh!, sets the tone. Unhurried and spare, a mesh of circular strings and chanting vocals coloured with hand-made percussion, it established the governing mythos of the album. Abantu/Before Humans is spiritual roots rock. On a recent playlist made for the BBC, Mcata squeezed their new album’s opener between two songs by Zulu princess Constance Magogo and Xhosa icon Latozi “Madosini” Mpahleni, both masters of traditional bow instruments.
“Traditional music is the deepest influence on what we do as a band,” Mcata told his BBC audience.
Kinship has always mattered to the Blk Jks. Where After Robots traces its lineage back to US indie rock and Mcata’s ambition to incubate a South African version of the Smashing Pumpkins, Abantu/Before Humans marks a bold attempt to commune with local ancestors and gods. Literally. The album’s third track, IQ(w)ira: Machine Learning Vol. 1, features a guest appearance by Kwa-Mashu-born guitar wizard Madala “Bafo” Kunene.
“I was sitting at the bottom of the ocean and the holy mountain of absolution with no solution,” intones Mcata midway through this slow-building yet propulsive track, which features additional horns by Blk Jks trumpeter Tebogo Seitei. At one point Kunene chimes in, his gravelly 70-year-old voice a counterpoint to the poised invocations and confessions of Mcata.
How important is a lead vocalist to the meaning of a band? This question may have haunted the Blk Jks for a period after Buthelezi’s departure, but on their new album the band emphatically deliver a riposte: not very.
Abantu/Before Humans features a number of guest appearances. Maiga Mali Mansa Musa features Malian bandleader, guitarist and vocalist Vieux Farka Touré alongside American keyboardist Money Mark. The collaboration with Touré has its origins in a 2009 gig at New York’s Highline Ballroom where the Blk Jks shared a joint bill. Mosotho musician and shepherd Morena Leraba rap-chants on Harare. This lilting track is one of the new album’s standout pieces and showcases the Blk Jks’s masterful ability to slowly develop and layer a composition, to parlay restraint in favour of sporadic crescendos.
Not that the bristling rock vibes that made the Blk Jks a crossover hit have been dispensed with. Tracks like Running: Asibaleki: Sheroes’ Theme and Yoyo!: The Mandela Effect: Aurora Cusp Druids Ascending are on a par with the free-form rock experiments that culminated in After Robots. Of the nine cuts on the album, Yoyo! is the only track where the lyrics were improvised in the studio for this recording. Lyrically, the song plumbs a deep strain of South African anger. “They’ll never give you power, you have to take the power,” spits Mcata, channelling Fanon. It is a sonically complex track too. Yoyo! jumps out at you, building and building, until it comes undone at its midpoint. The energy and anger is unsustainable. Rather than fade out, the musicians allow themselves to regroup, to find a new groove, to explore dissipation.
In a flagrant bit of mythmaking, the Blk Jks have penned a manifesto-like statement, one that is helpful in accounting for the second album’s complicated track titles and mystical foundations. It reads:
A fully translated and transcribed obsidian rock audio anthology chronicling the ancient spiritual technologies and exploits of prehistoric and post-revolutionary Afro-bionics, as well as the sacred texts of the Great Book of the Arcanum, by young Kushites from Azania, linked to the 5th dimension and the 3rd dynasty.
The boys are having fun. Obvs. But the Blk Jks are also pledging allegiance to an esoteric strain of pop, one more closely linked to Sun Ra than TV on the Radio, or, if you prefer, to Philip Tabane than the Beaters or National Wake. The Blk Jks’s current post-pop reinvention as a band on a spiritual quest shares some marked affinities with jazz guitarist Philip Tabane – or, as Mcata prefers, “the late Doctor”. Before he was canonised as a shaman of the strings, Tabane was a jobbing jazzman. Jazz might now be a party-political idea you flaunt at a carwash in a soft-top BMW, but it once embodied the promise of liberation. The 1964 Cold Castle Jazz Festival drew 40,000 young punters to the Orlando Stadium, where Tabane’s band, The Malombo Jazzmen, shared the festival’s first prize with the Early Mabuza Quartet. How different is that moment to the Blk Jks riffing and “organising” to an ecstatic crowd at the 2010 FIFA World Cup Kick-off concert?
Tabane’s influence is palpable on Abantu/Before Humans, although the Blk Jks sign off with a final track that invokes another ancestor: the Zulu mystic Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, whose 1964 book Indaba, My Children contains folk tales and deliberations on the origins of many African things. A gentling cascading song that builds to a math-rock complexity, Mmao Wa Tseba: Nare: Indaba My Children collapses into silence midway through, and then rebuilds. There are echoes of the first half in the reawakened song, but they are just that, echoes and reconstructions. It is a fitting end to a compass-reorienting album about lost and reclaimed resonances.