Artist Feature: BLK JKS
And so the story goes....
A band emerges from Africa, the land of music's birth, and blesses us with the rhythms and melodies of the jungle, the desert, the mountains, and the sea. They play world music. Let us all dance now. [record screeches to a halt]
Hold the fuck up. Can we banish these preconceived notions of African music or the worst description of all, world music. What the fuck is world music anyways? Anything outside the U.S.? Anything produced by a non-white person? Let's just deconstruct these social frameworks and discuss music in a way that it deserves to be discussed. Music is natural and fluid. Yet, it can contain antonymous elements without being contradictory. That is, music can be organic, but can be naturally expressed through synthetic instrumentation. It can be politically charged or riddled with opinion, but it is inherently honest and thus, natural and fluid. Music flows through people as if the human body is merely a conduit for the most beautiful sounds to be expressed. And, there is no better example of natural and fluid music than that of Africa.
But, please, don't start thinking about the Lion King right now. Seriously, that will really piss me off. Think of true musicianship and not of African landscapes. Think of Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure. Think of polyrhythms and not of African attire. Think of Salif Keita and Fela Kuti. Think of innovation and not of African drum circles. Think of Zola and Youssou N'Dour. Just think of musical purity and innovative musical styles and you'll be on the right track.
Once we deconstruct this myth about African music and get to the heart of it, we find something very interesting. We don't find Bubus, Dashikis, and other African garments. We don't find scantily-clad men beating on drums in the bush. No, we find four good-looking, well-dressed, women/life-loving South African men that play hypnotic, often rousing rock music. We find BLK JKS.
BLK JKS (pronounced "Black Jacks") cut the AC from their name because their music is so god damn hot. They seem to fall out of the mold of African music, but, again, this mold is a false notion. The truth is that BLK JKS do play African music. They are one of the purest, most technically skilled bands I've seen this decade - two traits that define African music. And, that opinion can be developed from just one short release, the Mystery EP, and just one live show. But, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with the JKS on their visit to San Francisco and, as we walked around the city together, I developed a better understanding of them as human beings, which gave further insight into their music.
BLK JKS began their mission almost a decade ago in Johannesburg, South Africa. Co-founded by Lindani "Linda" Buthelezi (vocals/guitar) and Mpumi Mcata (guitar), BLK JKS did not form their current line-up until some five years ago, adding Molefi Makananise (bass) and Tshepang Ramoba (drums) to round out the rhythm section. From there, they happily played shows where anyone would let them, whether it be a friend's living room in Soweto or the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg. But, after a chance encounter with a journalist from The Fader, a brief meeting at an airport with Diplo, a manager delivered to their doorstep, and a record deal with the venerable Secretly Canadian, the world can finally discover this amazing band.
However, the JKS take all of these serendipitous circumstances modestly, as if it was all a gift that they expected to receive many years ago and thus, humbly accepted at present. For instance, when asked about the significance of achieving the cover of The Fader magazine, a feat desired by any band on earth, Mcata replied, "I just hope we'll be remembered by our fans as a band that plays music to play music, not for any fame or money. Like Ronaldinho - he's one of the best and richest in the world, but he can go back to Brazil and play football in the streets with the kids. I hope we'll be remembered as a band that doesn't forget its roots."
This idea of remembering your roots is evident in the style of music they play, as well. Yes, it is rock music, sometimes pushing towards metal, but it's rooted in the improvisational inclinations of jazz, the deeply emotional side of traditional folk, and, of course, the innovating elements inherent in the diverse array of African musical styles. In terms of improvisation, the band's synchronization is impeccable in their live show, but it was also a key part of their studio recordings. For instance, the depth of standout track "Lakeside" was the result of experimentation with various knick-knacks found in the studio. "We just grabbed things that were lying around and tried them out. Let's see how this pedal sounds. Let's see how this cymbal sounds," said Mcata. The result is a stunning rock jam that is as layered as any TV on the Radio track, but focuses on nuance rather than grandiosity in sound. Makananise's bass line thumps like a bubbling heart while Ramoba rattles his high-hat like funk-snake. Buthelezi's voice verges upon a trembling tone, but stays strong enough to purvey the emotive force behind the lyrics.
Music aside, BLK JKS are as real as they come. Although they walk with the coolest of swaggers, drop knowledge into any conversation, and have no inhibitions about approaching pretty girls, there's no pretentiousness about these guys. They are as genuine as they come, a trait that is clearly indicative of their approach to music. And, such a trait is what makes bands great. Thus, you can be sure that the BLK JKS will be around for a long time. Although they're ten years in, they haven't even scratched the surface of what they're capable of creating. Lucky us.
- Caleb Morairty