Blk Jks - Biography

Blk Jks (let’s just assume it’s short for “Blackjacks”) are a supremely stellar kick-ass ensemble from the urban chaos of Johannesburg, South Africa, and they indulge in a freewheeling amalgamation that squashes preconceptions and throws gauntlets like so much confetti. They’re anchored by a gruesomely fierce drummer in Tshepang Ramoba, who can pound out metronomic, razor-grooved beats that cross back and forth into planes of polyrhythmic exaltation, accompanied and propelled by the bass of Molefi Makanaise. Yet, the guitars of Mpumi Mcata and vocalist Lindani Buthelezi can offer complete textural and contextual anomalies. They effortlessly traipse through prog-ish fanfare, gentle interludes, and strange ambient batik that can drone with Minimalista militancy. Buthelezi makes certain that his aesthetic sprawls as much as it confounds, and he can and will switch from Xhosa top English to Zulu whenever it suits him. However, it’s the fluidity of the vocals that often stands out; sometimes Buthelezi is suave and debonair, but he can cross into a weird post-punk terrain in which he sounds cavalier and louche. Blk Jks are most assuredly a bewildering affair and a dizzying whorl of mismatched components: township blues; urban swagger; facile musicianship; political protest; lyrical gamesmanship; high-tech gloss; low-tech percussive jams. The initial blizzard of press about Blk Jks made dubious references to TV on the Radio, but one can just as easily slop around comparisons to the aloof chic and sci-fi warbling of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, the campground electronica of Grizzly Bear, the mathematic nonchalance of Battles and/or the fertile legacies of 70s-era Afropop versus Krautrock. Blk Jks’ publicists have their work cut out for them.


The band formed in 2000. Mcata and Buthelezi had grown up together, self-taught guitarists in Jo-Berg; they soon added Ramoba and Makanaise, both from Soweto. A rigorous touring schedule led to a national following. The initial Mystery EP (2009 Secretly Canadian) launched Blk Jks onto international radar screens, highlighted by appearances at South by Southwest, and some rabidly frothing word-of-mouth live reviews. Mystery is a brief blast, but a concussive one, aided by some twee-twiddling knob turning by producer Brandon Curtis of the goth-rock outfit Secret Machines. The four tracks clock in at less than a half hour, but they work up a sweat. “Lakeside” is the killer. A relentlessly frenetic drum figure repeats with a precision both robotic and kinetic, while the guitars loop and spin through agile phrases; meanwhile, in direct contrast, the languid vocals and an icing of electronic whooshes glide in somnambulistic slow motion. It’s good stuff — equal parts austere and danceable.


Curtis took the helm again for the highly anticipated full-length debut, After Robots (2010 Secretly Canadian), and it’s a trans-hemispheric mélange that merits scrutiny. It caught some flak for being too ambitious, and it does occasionally lurch from Pink Floyd infrared Cheops jams to moments of post-jazz, esoteric transcendence, but that’s the appeal. Blk Jks invoke comparisons to just about any artist for whom pan-cultural boundaries melted away in the face of rigorously heated imagination, from Ronald Shannon Jackson to Jah Wobble to James Blood Ulmer to the Pop Group. Seriously, despite some momentary lapses of absent-minded noodling, Blk Jks manage to impress without sounding forced or contrived, just blatantly and baldly original. The subsequent Zol! EP (2010 Secretly Canadian) confirms this within a few brisk vignettes that swap some of the stratocumulus heights of After Robots for an earthier set of arrangements. Zol! is both a continuation of and a counterbalance to After Robots, which deliciously suggests that the next Blk Jks effort may be better than the previous two combined.


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