Review by Ted Bradford
Trying to describe the music of the South African band BLK JKS ("Black Jacks") is nearly as challenging as trying to pronounce their name without inserting the implied vowels; you get stuck as soon as you start. At various moments they distinctly invoke Living Colour, The Clash, The Police, TV on the Radio, and Bad Brains, but never long enough to pin down. Just when it starts to sound familiar they space out into dubby echoes or take off running in a torrent of African rhythms. Although they defy your expectations of music from Africa by incorporating so many Western influences, they satisfy the desire for something new and otherworldly.
On tour to promote their first full-length album After Robots, BLK JKS landed at the Cedar Cultural Center, an appropriate venue for a band from another country on the verge of gaining mainstream attention. On the first night of the four-day Global Roots Festival at the Cedar, BLK JKS took the stage with some trepidation and seemed to be a little apprehensive about delving into their set. Only drummer Tshepang Ramoba seemed eager and ready to get on with it.
But the band warmed up as the night continued. With his arms whirling around him like molecules around an atom, Ramoba pushed the band through up-tempo rockers with complicated beats. Guitarist Mpumi Mcata playfully slipped between raucous space-rock and heavy-handed reggae riffs. In between songs, frontman Lindani Buthelezi declared to the audience, "We are floating in space" as the band explored a hazy fuzz of guitar reverb and wandering beats. It was as if they didn't want to cut the thread of the music for fear that the space they created would collapse in on itself. So they pushed forward, like a storm overwhelming the crowd with surprising bursts of thunderous drums and flashes of electricity.
But it wasn't all power and might. They were able to slow the night down for a slower, poppy song near the end of the set that gave the audience the opportunity for reflection and a little hand-holding before they closed with "Summertime," a likeable, danceable track from their debut EP Mystery.
For the encore, however, the announced that they were "going to have fun" with it. And they proceeded to blow the end of the night wide open, indulging in their own noise. Chanting in the mics, slapping chords on their guitars, and banging on the drums like Animal from The Muppets, they let the leash out as far as it would go before reeling it in just a little and slamming the door shut on the evening.
What's exciting about BLK JKS is that, like most good new bands, they have reconfigured the music that came before them into something original. What may be more exciting is that there are bound to be others in their wake. --Ted Bradford
Video of BLK JKS performing courtesy of Above the Fold: