BLK JKS - Mystery EP
Alex Cocks 22/03/2009
BLK JKS were formed in 2000 by guitarist Mpumi Mcata and vocalist Linda Buthelezi, childhood friends who had grown up in the tough locale of Spruitview in Johannesburg's East Rand. After adding Tshebang Ramoba on drums and Molefi Makananise on bass (seasoned musicians from the townships of Soweto) they set about creating a slow moving word of mouth buzz, bridging racial and social divides, and eventually catching the attention of an on tour Diplo which in turn led them to being signed by Secretly Canadian and recording the Mystery EP with Secret Machines' Brendan Curtis at the Electric Lady studios in New York. All this after a misadventure with an album recorded at South Africa Broadcasting Company (After Robots) that is still abandoned in the vaults.
Attempting to describe their sound is like attempting to elucidate a mind map; schizophrenic, messy and ultimately futile. You can draw a line through Bitches Brew, Fela Kuti, Jimi Hendrix (in particular the energy and dynamics of the Band of Gypsys), Lee 'Scratch' Perry's output at the Ark, Zulu blues, jazz fusion, mbaqanga right up to Deloused in the Comatorium, perhaps the closest contemporary record in terms of the scope of its sound and influences.
Despite the amalgamation of genres and sound design BLK JKS' sound doesn't come across as a compromise, not does it seem like a calculated attempt to meld traditional African rhythms and sounds to a standardised alternative blueprint. Instead the nebulous, psychedelic sound they create effortlessly traverses the restrictions of genre and ethnicity in much the same way as Abe Vigoda do with their 'tropical' punk until it becomes unclassifiable, a different sound altogether.
The scattershot drums and dread heavy bass of “Lakeside” gradually subside into joyous chants, whistles and harmonies, while the BLK JKS love of the possibilities of the jam is apparent in the opening moments of “Mystery”. The track's polyrhythms and percussive drive, based around an initially cyclic guitar figure, are entrancing. “Summertime” is the most dub influenced song on the album; Mcata's guitar sounds though it has been processed through a thousand Echoplexes, creating a cavernous wall of sound before Buthelezi's harmonious vocals and Ramoba changing pace on the rimshots pulls the song back from the edge. The murky ambience of the song belies the lyrics' fixation on the darker side of summer, where the sun is the bringer of cancer and birds are fanged creatures. There are so many ideas in these first three songs as the band constantly change direction, refusing to indulge the grammar of 'rock' music. This is evidenced in the song encompassing hi-life and kwaai kwaito beats as Buthelezi implores in Zulu for the taxi driver taking him through JoBurg to let him out and escape the heat. EP closer “It's In Everything You'll See” employs no drums, just layer upon layer of guitar and ambient atmospheric noise, and while structurally it is less complex it is no less arresting for that.
There is a suspension in their music, that creates discord and irregularity. Melodic lines submerge themselves in the mix before emerging later in the song, twisted beyond recognition. Syncopated rhythms and varied time signatures are used to great effect, and like the Band of Gypsys they utilise the jam. But they don't find themselves waylaid down blind alleys; every note, every nuance, every stroke seems like an extension of the band and is completely vital to the whole.
They use linguistics as a tool of escaping the limitations of melody; by flitting between English and varied African dialects (Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Pedi) it allows them to expand their phonetic range. The combination of the metre of Buthelezi's vocals and the free association of his lyrics create a fragmentary, allusive and poetic dynamic to the vocal performance.
Hype and positioning are key elements in promoting/breaking new acts, so how to promote a black South African rock act? BLK JKS react against the slow commodification of African music by in turn appropriating the white alternative sphere. Their rejection of the strategies of segregation which genre and classification place on artists links to a growing pan-African consciousness in the 21st century and a rejection of conservative South Africa's divisions along social, political, economic and racial grounds. By appropriating 'white' music they are reclaiming “the music of the enemy”,and this adoption can be read as a political statement. But in adopting 'white' music they also play with it's conventions, refusing to stick to the script and adhere to the traditional musicology of alternative music. A refusal to compromise cost them the release of lost album After Robots in South Africa, but by sticking to their principles they have found a new audience. This flagrant disregard is as telling as any grand statement or grandstanding from their lead singer. You don't need to nail your colours to the mast or be explicit to make a lucid, articulate political statement.
Mystery is a soulful, invigorating and cerebral release that interrogates the varied intersections between race, politics and music in the Rainbow Nation. But more importantly amidst a tangled web of influences they have created a coherent and timely EP that speaks to us all.