For a cover story of Rolling Stone magazine, Bongani Madondo once wrote of the gathering of four young musicians to form the now lionised indie band BLK JKS. “Back then, in 2005, in a Spruitview garage, east of Johannesburg, all these boys aimed for was to have some fun,” he wrote.
But almost a decade later, with half of the band’s original members sitting in my apartment on the other side of the city, I wonder if fun was what they got, or was it sacrificed along the way to stardom.
Contacting them proved almost impossible, but on time and in true BLK JKS fashion sense, I meet drummer Tshepang Ramoba and guitarist Mpumi Mcata a week ahead of their performance at King Kong, in Johannesburg. They are billed on a line-up that includes touted acts such as Bateluer and The Brother Moves On.
“Linda is no longer in the band,” Mcata says about BLK JKS’s estranged front musician Linda Buthelezi. But Ramoba interrupts to correct the guitarist, “Linda took a break.” Mcata adds: “Nobody told Linda to go away. And Linda didn’t tell us he was going away. Linda hasn’t showed up for rehearsals.”
Despite their back-and-forth responses, Mcata and Ramoba assure me that bass guitarist Molefi Makananise is still a part of the award-winning group. The two also dispel rumours that their two new members, trumpeter Tebogo Seitei and saxophonist and keyboardist Hlubi Vakalisa are replacements for Buthelezi. “We have additional members but we were going to add those members even if Linda was there or not.”
So as the years have passed since the band slowly emerged on South Africa’s alternative music scene, not only has their sound expanded with the recently added horns but so have their careers. Mcata and Ramoba’s DJing side project BLK JKS SNDSYSTM has taken off as well as their band Motèl Mari with musician João Orecchia. While Ramoba – who has just returned from spinning the decks in Rio de Janeiro and a music project in Kenya called Ten Cities – produces for singer Moonchild.
But as the stardust settles for the band members and they make sense of their lives several years after gracing the cover of Fader magazine, performing alongside acts like Alicia Keys at the Fifa World Cup in South Africa and touring the world, I wonder if the fame came too fast for the BLK JKS. “Everything did happen very quickly,” Ramoba says.
“Once we were on the cover of Fader, things just went crazy. We were on American TV. We were performing everywhere. We did a six-month tour across America. A three-month stay in Europe.”
But the Soweto-born drummer and producer says it wasn’t a shock to the band when they blew up. “I wasn’t surprised; I don’t think Mpumi was either. We used to talk about red carpets and performing in LA before we made it.”
But Mcata feels differently, saying the band was at it for a long time, so success was bound to happen.
“I think everything happened the way that we thought things would happen.”
Despite getting signed to indie record label Secretly Canadian, achieving fame and, sometimes, as Ramoba says, getting “the big paychecks”, the two say the one constant for the band has always been creating music. With one album, After Robots (2009), and two EPs – Mystery (2009) and Zol! (2009) – under their belt, Ramoba tells me that his taste for creating sound developed from a young age. “My family is very musical. My parents always collected music. And growing up, my next-door neighbour Tata Mthembu was a blues guy and a saxophonist … he’d tell me stories about Philip Tabane, or play me Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters.”
Photos by Liam Lynch
But beyond just making music, Mcata says that creating genre-defying music that leaves crowds curious has been the reason the BLK JKS have stood out.
Around 2009, Mcata says, their sound “was the opposite of what you heard on South African radio. And not a lot of people are willing to put themselves on the line to be the opposite of what is trending.”
I wonder when the band, known as they are for going against the grain, will channel their expanding sound into a new album.
“I don’t think we can say when,” Ramoba responds, adding that they “ditched” Secretly Canadian earlier this year.
So as they enter a space not really bound by the pressures of churning out a record, we talk about how albums tend to serve as a measure of success.
Mcata asserts his point of view, quoting American punk-rock band Fugazi’s mantra, “the record is the menu, the show is the meal”. And in the case of the BLK JKS, whose raw electric sounds, thunderous drum rolls, screaming vocals and sense of style are best captured live, I’m reminded of Fugazi front musician Ian MacKaye’s words to hit-channel.com: “For me, playing the music in a live setting is always the point … not the record.”
So as the band prepares to take to the King Kong stage, I question the two on what they think has been the BLK JKS’s biggest success to date. “The song Concentration is our biggest achievement, because it’s awesome,” Mcata says about an instrumental track that never made it on to any of their records.
“It’s not an MTV award or a Grammy or Sama [South African Music Awards]. BLK JKS doesn’t need any award or high record sales. BLK JKS needs to make the music that it needs to make. Because when everything’s gone, the only thing left will be this damn music.”
For those who don’t know, how did you get into music?
Tshepang Ramoba: I started playing music when I was very young – in primary school. I first played piano and the shakers. My family is very musical. My parents always collected music. They collected jazz, old school R&B and funk and African jazz music. And my neighbour Tata Mthembu was a blues guy and a saxophonist. So on the days I got home from school and there was no one there, I’d go chill next door with him and he’d tell me stories about Philip Tabane – before I met him. The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters was at Tata Mthembu’s.
And what about your music studies?
TR: After getting expelled from Holy Family [school in Johannesburg], my mother took me to boarding school in Klerksdorp. It was a Christian school – I couldn’t stand it. But they played lots of different instruments. At the school, I’d always watch the schoolkids play music – especially the drummer guy and then practise what he was doing. But later I was told not to return to the boarding school, so I went back to Holy Family. When I got there I was still naughty … so I ended up going to detention every Friday. But one day, the guy that took detention was absent, so us naughty kids were made to sit in the contemporary music room. We hung out there, around kids playing all these instruments, but nobody was playing the drums. So I took the sticks and did all the things I practised after seeing the guy from boarding school play drums. And what I played was to the beat of the band. The headmaster, who was taking the contemporary music class said that if I joined the school band, he’d take me off daily report [weekly detention]. That’s how I started before going onto studying production and music at a tertiary level.
And you Mpumi, what was your music journey like?
Mpumi Mcata: From a young age, I was always interested in the ‘cool’ and how the concept of ‘cool’ could effect some kind of change in people. I don’t mean it in a superficial way – the coolest things are often not concerned with ‘cool’ at all. I was also interested in different genres of music, art and weird dressing styles. [I was inspired by] the likes of Grace Jones and Michael Jackson … Dambudzo Marechera and Miles Davis. By the time I was in high school, that feeling [of the idea of ‘cool’] was vibrating at a higher frequency and the only place I could express it, was in music. I was about exploring and curious about pushing boundaries and rebelling.
Was there a specific genre you were leaning towards at this point?
MM: Musically, the place that I cared for and felt was my own, was lying somewhere between kwaito and hip-hop. Rap was so deep for me that I’d go to [Jo’burg’s now defunct] Le Club on my own. But later, despite the idea that hip-hop is an expression in which you can speak your mind, I felt that it was a bit fascist. I felt I had to rap in a certain way for it be considered cool. I remember getting up on stage at Le Club and rapping after Amu, Snaz D, Waddy Jones [now Ninja in Die Antwoord], Tumi and [the late] Robo the Technician. They all did a verse and it was judged on the crowd’s applause or boos. After I rapped, I didn’t hear an applause nor boos, there was just silence. The audience was left confused and couldn’t compute what had just happened. I remember feeling that I needed more that in my life: knowing that I can arrive in a rah-rah crowd and just silence it. So after that I took a walk. And that walk led me to poetry clubs, the slam poetry. I remember messing around with a guitar to accompany somebody’s poem. And then one thing led to another.
Is that around the time you guys started the BLK JKS?
MM: Yeah. I remember hearing that Billy Corgan started the Smashing Pumpkins by having the name before he had a band. He would go around telling people, “I have this band called the Smashing Pumpkins …” The look on people’s faces was what drove him to eventually create the band. Everyone he met thought it sounded so fucking cool. The same thing happened with the BLK JKS – the idea and name was there before the band got together. In my head, the band had begun end of 1999 to 2000. But in 2004, the gig we played with Linda, Molefi, Tshepang and myself in Grahamstown was our first official performance as a band.
Did you guys get any resistance after taking to stages as the BLK JKS?
TR: After we played the Grahamstown thing, we had no gigs. We used to play in rock competitions. We were the only black band all the time. And we always came second.
MM: … It was all very politically weird.
TR: But going back to what Mpumi said, when we performed, that silence was always there. After our show, some judges would write on their piece of paper, “Confused” or “You guys must choose something [a genre]”, so they could understand us. That silence followed up. I remember the first gig we played in New York, at the Knitting Factory. People just stood still after. They just wrote and took pictures.
That’s so bizarre. I wonder what people don’t get about four guys playing music?
MM: For the most part I think it’s all about curiosity. We’re curious fellows. It’s in our approach to creating these [musical] pieces, and to any listener who is sensitive to these things – this sound comes across on the other end. We could’ve written a reggae song or a jazz or rock song, but we chose to write all of them at once – in our own way. One guy in the States described our approach to music as quite nihilistic. The craziness of our music will either be the best thing ever or career suicide, this was his view of the BLK JKS. And I think this is the most exciting thing. I mean why do it then? There has to be vitality to it. There’s gotta be soul, pain and power.
I recently read a line in a Washington Post piece on singer Kelela, which goes, ‘the fulfilment of desire only extinguishes that desire’. So do you find yourselves continually hunting for the same feelings you got when you were whisked around the world in 2009?
MM: Well when we returned home after eventually releasing the album [After Robots], then touring, playing with Alicia Keys et cetera, there was a part of me that was looking for what the next best thing would be. Chasing the dragon. What would bring that feeling again? This feeling brought a kind of pressure with it. Returning from that kick-off concert was the heaviest thing. I feel like only now is the dust settling in the rehearsal room and in the universe of the BLK JKS.
TR: We’ve done a lot. We were in it. We were on American TV. We were performing everywhere. We did a six-month tour across America. A three-month tour in Europe. Headlined Hifa [Harare International Festival of the Arts] and played at Bushfire [festival in Swaziland]. But in terms of music and the experiences we’ve had, I felt that this can’t be it. There’s gotta be more.
What about labels such as Afro-futurist? I think it’s a pretty generic term to bunch the ‘other’ or the indefinable. What do you think about it?
MM: There are all these acts like Spoek Mathambo, Petit Noir, The Brother Moves On that are being pulled into this South African Afro-futurist label. And it’s fine that we are in the same pool … but the thing to do in typical BLK JKS fashion is for us to be on the flipside of this Afro-futurist coin. How to do that is a question that we need to take time to answer. It’s not enough to just step on stage and perform. Somebody’s gotta move it forward. So there’s still work to be done for the BLK JKS.
What can we expect from the BLK JKS’s performance on Saturday?
MM: Along with a host of new material, this new line up is reshaping, remapping, redefining and redesigning the BLK JKS sound. There is a lot to be excited about we think and this is the best time to see it in my opinion – as it comes to life. So, as much as we are carving out a new record, it’s all about that live experience. And also the song Concentration: we’ll probably be bringing that baby back out the woodwork this Saturday.
And lastly, Tshepang, there was a picture on Instagram that you posted of the new BLK JKS member Tebogo Seitei in a police uniform. What’s that about?
TR: Yeah, he is a police officer. But he doesn’t go out there arresting people.
MM: He wasn’t at Marikana [in 2012] basically.
So wait, you have a police officer in your band?
MM: Yeah, we good (laughs).
TR: No, he doesn’t arrest people, he plays music in the police band.
Nare will also be available for free download on the BLK JKS Soundcloud from next week