Humanity unadorned: In their latest release, BLK JKS use their experimental sound in conjunction with Morena Lerabas idiosyncratic artistry to explore themes pertaining to African identity. (Brett Rubin)
The cover artwork of the BLK JKS debut full-length recording (released in 2009) features an Andrew Dosunmu image of a Mosotho shepherd, his oddly-featured face obscured by a balaclava, his torso swaddled in a blanket. The man’s features, his balaclava and blanket ensemble, the lone, out of focus cow grazing the background, easily led to a science fiction reading of what the term “after robots” meant, expanding what for South Africans is just a simple instruction to a taxi driver.
A decade later, as the band releases the single Harare in preparation for a follow-up album, the reading of the image evolves again, with Dosunmu’s handiwork seeming to foretell the meeting between the band and famo-inspired musician Morena Leraba. Leraba’s artistic persona, especially his vocabulary and delivery, are derived from the building blocks of the genre, which has become synonymous with Basotho migrant workers and rural Basotho shepherds.
While Leraba’s vocal weaves the tale of a detained migrant, the story of Harare begins much earlier, capturing the warm residual feelings of a 2011 trip to the Harare International Festival of the Arts.
“I met Vincent Moloi in Hifa for the first time,” says drummer Tshepang Ramoba. “They were at a lobby with his partner. They were trying to get a hotel and they said they had travelled the whole town looking for one. I was like, ‘You can take my hotel room. If I need to sleep I will go to whoever’s hotel room.’ And then I ended up going out with Vincent. We didn’t even need to sleep. We had a great time individually, as BLK JKS. When I went out at night, gallivanting till the morning; the other guys did the same thing nabo at their own time … I just came in the morning to freshen up, go see more of Harare, play the show and disappear again.”
Ramoba remembers being nervous as the rain came down and continued throughout their set, but the Harare massive stayed with them, etching the moment as a key experience for the band. On their return to South Africa, they passed the guitar around in an impromptu jam session producing a skeleton of the song. “We tried to record it with Matthew Fink, but we left it at that,” Ramoba says.
It was Ramoba who met Leraba in Johannesburg in 2017 and played a gig with him in Lesotho. He then invited Leraba to a recording session that yielded the lyrics of Harare.
During the trip to Lesotho, Ramoba played After Robots for Leraba and their destinies began to merge. It was as if the band’s global impact echoed “my views on things,” says Leraba. “I always wanted to explore other sounds, rock included. They became close to me because of Thsepang, then I started getting to know the band. I studied them. For me they represented young people in South Africa breaking barriers.”
When it came time to record the song, Leraba drew from the contemporary subject matter of famo: “The lyrics came naturally. The whole migration thing, people tell you what they go through working in South Africa without proper documentation. It’s a big topic in the famo scene.”
Sonically, Harare tells a parallel story, perhaps one obliquely connected to the theme represented by Leraba’s lyrics. It is the tale of how the band — at the peak of its musical powers and visibility — had to reconfigure its sound after the estrangement of lead singer and guitarist Linda Buthelezi. Although a nervous front man, Buthelezi was an oddly charismatic conduit for the band’s searing electric guitar sound and its ornate lyrics.
Since his departure, the band’s sound has veered towards a rootsier rock with electronic elements that appear to nod at the side projects that picked up as the band’s momentum slowed down.
In its foundation, one can hear the “subliminal” (as Ramoba puts it) but abiding influence of Afrobeat on the group. One can hear the subtropical rock grooves of Motèl Mari (which comprises BLK JKS rhythm guitarist Mpumi Mcata, Ramoba and sound artist João Orecchia). One can also hear fuzzy indie pop that turned up on BLK JKS Soundsystem sets, as well as the expansionism the group aspired to. This is represented here by trumpeter Tebogo Seitei, the lone remaining brass player in a section that once featured three.
While it is bass player Molefi Makananise who speaks of the song’s questions in direct terms (“Yes, things are fucked up but what are we gonna do as African people?”), I would argue that in the polyglot vision of the band lies many possibilities — possibilities that imagine a deeper humanity after robots.
The BLK JKS’s next album is due for release later this year