/ 20 June 2020

‘Abantu: Before Humans’: The BLK JKS tread new turf

Blk Jks Ft Morena Leraba Hi Res Grain By Brett Rubin
Blistering energy: The long-awaited second album from the BLK JKS (pictured above with collaborator Morena Leraba), was recorded in three days at Downtown Studios. (Brett Rubin)

“Soldiering on.” That was the phrase. It was uttered mid-set, or perhaps towards the end, by BLK JKS guitarist Mpumi Mcata. 

It captured everything. Our stunned, confused silence. Our unasked and unanswered questions about former frontman Linda Buthelezi. Our fandom at its precipice.

This was eight, maybe seven years ago. Alexander Theatre. Braamfontein. Friday night. The audience was shell-shocked, sure. But it was wounded too, on the band’s behalf. It wasn’t so much that the show was “bad”, or “tentative”, unveiling the new brass section for the first time; the space in the middle of the stage empty and unaccounted for. Not exactly.

It was that as fans, we had to accept that the joyride we had taken as a given was finally over. We were being asked to believe in a new faith. Thinking about it now, that night something was buried. In the intermittent absences, we had already been forced to confront what it meant to believe in a band. To believe without question. “Soldiering on,” at that moment, seemed more like an ultimatum than spin. We had to face reality or leave it the fuck alone.

It’s hard to pin down the band’s significance in verbal, or even musical terms, for there was always a tension in being a BLK JKS fan. A part of that resided in that vertiginous feeling of the future suddenly catching up with you. The sensation that perhaps the sound you had been searching for your whole life may have already been there — in Batsumi’s talking rhythms, in Black Jack Johnson’s head-nodding riffs, in Dr Malombo’s cosmic channelling, in HR’s calculated madness. All there. Shot through with imperfections and half-formed songs, contained in one singular jar and released into the atmosphere, live from Johannesburg.

The past 10 years haven’t constituted a demise as much as a deconstruction, not only of the band’s sound, per se, but of the idea that it was multipronged. The progeny, probably best not listed here, seemed only to be picking at it one head at a time, proving nothing more than a provocation, as opposed to continuity in conversation.

“As a band we have been dealing with things like this from the beginning,” says guitarist and vocalist Mpumi Mcata of the band’s stop-start career.

It is late April. South Africa is in lockdown. We are connecting via WhatsApp from France, where he is preparing for the birth of his second child. “Some people don’t know that it took us six to eight years to get to our debut album After Robots [released in 2009]. That whole story for some people was like an overnight thing, but it was also a story of setbacks and pushing through. We are well versed in the world of pushing through. From Linda taking a walk, to the hard drives being stolen at the Soweto Theatre [in 2018]. We had a thing at some point at Market Theatre where we were working on a musical [which was being directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza]. We were building this show and suddenly they stopped responding to our emails, and that’s how that project died [in 2016] — and that would have been our second album. We’ve been dealing with things like this quietly for a long time, right up until our hard drives were stolen … It took us a year to recover from that.”

After a year of letting the setback sink in, Mcata says he and bandmate Tshepang Ramoba took a trip to Mpumalanga to reflect and conduct a series of spiritual interventions.

This was followed by more months of “urban” exile, until the requiem was ruptured by playing the Fetish Party with King Tha at the Bassline in late April 2019.

“Hanging out with FAKA, Sho Madjozi, and Moonchild [Sanelly] backstage … it was kind of electric; the energy of all of us being together that night,” says Mcata. “I had one of the greatest hangovers I’ve ever had in my life that night and waking up that morning, I was like, ‘I think I know what we are gonna do.’ We took money from that show and put it together with some other money and booked three days at Downtown Studios. We went in and knocked out the album that you hear in three days — three songs a day, six-hour sessions. After 10 years plus of trying to get this shit together, it came down to three days.”

Released on June 16 on limited edition vinyl (by Permanent Record in Cape Town, and awaiting larger release with a new label in 2021) Abantu: Before Humans is being branded by the group as a prequel to After Robots. Whereas After Robots was a space-age freak, recorded in Wilmington, Bloomington Indiana, as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unsettling The Holy Mountain played on a loop, Abantu: Before Humans is extemporaneous exorcism; a pan-African expedition with Downtown Studios as the control tower. 

It is an adult relearning how to walk; that huge cipher in the middle finally being accounted for. You could bear with the dudes as they literally find their voices, grunting, chanting and exchanging long-winded lyrics for declamations, but at this point, it seems, they have run out of fucks to give.

“We were open to the material going to where it wanted to go in that three-day period,” says Mcata. “It was an immediate snapshot, quite raw.”

Make what you will of ritual-invoking songs like IQ(w)ira: Machine Learning vol 1, with its somnambulist march and matching guttural guitar riffs, beefed up with hooks and slurs like “latsh’ igqwirha” (“hebamosha beyimosha!”).

The framing device of a prequel can also be a way of expelling the pall of a false start; like how Saul Williams’s second album is self-titled because he couldn’t stand the mixing of his debut Amethyst Rock Star, produced by the mighty Rick Rubin.

After all the tightly managed productions that constituted American releases like After Robots, the Mystery and Zol! EPs, in which, in some places, the band was swimming against torrents of effects, Abantu is about as representative of the band’s strengths, weaknesses and sonic vision as you will get to hear. There is still that blistering energy of early classics like SK1, but there is also the wider palette of having travelled the world, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Vieux Farka Touré and come back home to reflect on what it all means.