Interview: Q&A with BLK JKS – South African Songs from the Future’s Past (May 2021)

There’s a country and a city in it that never cease to (musically) surprise us. New acts are born every day, everywhere around the world, but the diversity of styles and influences embodied and manifested by musicians and bands from Johannesburg and Soweto, in particular, constantly amazes us and it’s an exciting reminder of the fertile music scene juicing up the South African city. 

BLK JKS are far from being newcomers on that scene, their story goes back to early 2000. Still, their upcoming album Abantu/Before Humans, out on Glitterbeat/We Are Busy Bodies on the 21st of May, is only their second full-length release. The LP, which is a collection of songs from their recent and less recent past, also represents a recollection of South African contemporary music history displaying a cross section of their country’s tradition, society and future.

To discover and understand Abantu/Before Humans, we felt the need to be accompanied by an “experienced” guide. So, we reached out to Mpumi (Mpumelelo Mcata, guitar player of the band) and enjoyed a quite unique Q&A on BLK JKS story, their upcoming release and South Africa.

BLK JKS came to light back in 2000 and despite highs and lows, hiatuses and comebacks, your music is livelier than ever. Can you briefly retrace the story of the band for us? 

Well … where to begin? Guess we could say that it all began with us just jamming out, dreaming of a kind of music we didn’t see or feel around us at the time, because the radio was inspiring but it wasn’t really giving us what we imagined could be. Everything was compartmentalized to be more easily sold – so we had to dig deep, so deep we ended up grabbing instruments and slowly (re)discovering music or the world in general from that point of view, naturally. Our journey is like that, spiritualized and organic … ebbing and flowing … outlandish chance meetings with people who can relate, people who feel what we do, helping us along, as we go on, operating, finding our way slightly outside of industry norms and timelines, that’s what it’s been … to this day. That wasn’t brief was it?

How much has your sound developed in these 20 years? 

In many ways this will be for the listeners to say, but for us, there is a clear growth, which is not to say anything is better or worse, it just … is … and therefore different. We couldn’t be happier with this latest album, so it might be connected to having lived more life, done other things, had kids etc. In many ways being older means taking nothing for granted, and as a result being more able to savour the beauty of this thing we created, self produced, nurtured, and creative directed every detail of, over such a long period of time, from start to where it is now.

Talking about comebacks, you’re planning to release a new album in a few days’ time. How would you introduce Abantu / Before Humans and what’s the idea behind it?

Yeah, so … this new record is a time capsule for sure. In it … so much is stored; not only the time between our first LP ‘After Robots’ (‘09) and this moment, but also the time before, hence the title ‘Abantu/Before Humans’, because we were able to have really honest musical conversations, a lot of playing, soul searching, alone and between ourselves, before laying this down. In many ways this sophomore album is a prequel to our first album, a return to basics, a pause … somewhere in a very distant future, it’s a call for all of us, sent back to meet us in these crazy times to help remind us of our humanity, telling us to stop the nonsense!

How was it to bring forward a challenging project like the release of a new album in such a troubled period and how much has the pandemic affected the process? 

After years of on and off demo-ing the new work we finally, without a label, locked ourselves under the orchestra pit at the Soweto Theatre in Johannesburg South Africa for a month or two to finish the LP. But as soon as we were done and ready for post-production the studio was broken into and hard drives stolen. A year later (2019) we regrouped and basically knocked the album out in 3 days, we pressed 300 vinyl and set our sights on heading back to SXSW where our international career began in ’08, then … boom COVID19 full stop!

How did your collaboration with Glitterbeat come about? If we are not wrong, you’re the first South African musicians to release an album with them… 

Oh, you’re right … we may very well be! One of the silver linings of this whole being crushed and grounded by COVID19 story is during lockdown some of the people we were looking to meet at SXSW reached out anyway. One showcase we were supposed to play decided to go virtual or put together a podcast with interviews etc. and from those conversations, as we were packing up for the COVID19 long haul, they decided to make some intros to someone they thought would dig the album and that was Glitterbeat (The World). Which then lead to WeAreBusyBodies (North America) matches totally made in Global Music’s Multiverse Rock Heaven.

Your music, as much as your lyrics, can be considered as Pan-South African. You employ styles, dialects and images from all over the country. So, what’s your relationship with South Africa and how much does your country influence your music?

This relationship is a complicated one. We love our country but it’s also got its issues and they are heavy. So firstly #FeesMustFall and the rest of it – but this is our family, we are invested in it, in trying to make it better. It’s who we are, this place, Africa, the World and what we call the Milky Way is at the centre of what we do. Existence is the wildest miracle of a thing. There is no ? … music is obviously a close second, okay it’s neck and neck lol!

At the same time, your songs also feature plenty of elements from overseas. From afrobeat to psychedelia and dub to prog-rock… Who are the musicians/bands you look at and listen to for inspiration when you write new music?

When making new music we tend to not listen to other music as much, if at all. However outside of the process of creation … the appetite is voracious and insatiable, recently it’s been about trying to listen to all the music on Glitterbeat and We Are Busy Bodies.

In the last 20 years, your country has changed a lot socially, politically and culturally and on many different levels… Has your life as a musician changed as well?

The more things change, the more they stay the same! Ha! The difference now is maybe that information travels faster and wider because of the evolution of the internet and social media?  So life in South Africa and in the whole of the modern world feels like it’s in the last desperate stretch of a race now … between the absolutely most terrible and the best parts of ourselves as a species.

Despite all that’s happened, South Africa and Johannesburg in particular, never stopped sounding vibrant and stimulating. What’s the secret behind the talent and artistic drive of their cultural and music scenes? 

Yebo! This is absolutely true, we don’t really wallow out here, we fight our way through and land ourselves in some joy no matter how much pain we are in … that’s how we retaliate. Maybe we can just blame it on the good weather … but yeah, South Africa is a very interesting place that was at the heart of global trade at some point, so it’s a place whose people have been brutalized, whose people who have seen a lot, and we carry a lot of energy and stories in our blood.

Is there any Johannesburg or South African musician/band you would like to suggest? 

Sure, right now? Too many in the past … way legendary, but currently maybe start here: check out the releases of a record label called Mushroom Hour Half Hour, look for a band called The Wretched and … Tshepang Ramoba drummer for BLK JKS has some solo stuff just out too.

You just released the first single from your upcoming album, which is going to be out on May 21. Do you have any other plans for the future… For example, any UK show on the horizon?

We would love to be out and about, playing shows again … no concrete plans yet as this whole COVID-19 thing is obviously still a big problem! That said, as much as there are issues with the vaccine(s) and the rollouts, at least that’s where things are at now. So, who knows, maybe we get to dust off our rhythm passports soon, drrrrr-dish … Till then, we’re here.

We usually close our interviews with a tricky question… How would you introduce BLK JKS and your music to someone who’s never listened to it? 

We’d ask them if they had 04:44secs, then tell them 4+4+4 = 12  and that 1 + 2 = 3, 3 x 3 is 9, there are 9 songs on the BLK JKS album. A human being is usually in its mother’s womb 9 months before being born, so 9 is totally amazing, just check out the Wikipedia page on it. But first sit, close your eyes, wear these headphones and listen to BLK JKS’ latest single “Running” with your entire self. We’ll discuss it afterwards!


Photo ©: Brett Rubin