Sunday, August 23, 2020


We had plans in 2020, didn't we? One of my plans, before the virus laughed in my face, was to feel my way into being a concert promoter, having often dreamed of seeing "AnEarful Presents" on a flyer for a concert by one or more of my favorite artists. Then I heard BLK JKS, the South African band whose After Robots was my #1 record of 2009, was planning a return to full activity after a quiet decade, and I started to imagine possibilities. When they announced their return to SXSW on IG, I put in a comment to the effect of, "How about New York?" This led to an email exchange and to me putting on my event planner's hat and sending out emails to venues, one of which responded eagerly. 

While the finances were somewhat in question, amazingly enough it looked like this could actually happen. The venue was on board, BLK JKS were on board, we had a date that fit with their Austin, TX travel plans, and my excitement was building. We all know what happened next: the cancellation of SXSW and then the complete shutdown of concerts everywhere, not to mention the limitations placed on international travel. The band must have been even more devastated than I was, but there was still a new album to look forward to, right? Well, yes and no. Deciding to reset their trajectory, BLK JKS started planning for SXSW 2021, also postponing the wide release of Abantu/Before Humans to coincide with those critical concert appearances. I say "wide release" because they did announce a vinyl-only release in South Africa but also available via mail order. After Googling the exchange rate for Rands (380R = $22.15USD), I clicked submit. And waited. 

When the package finally arrived, I celebrated the occasion with a slightly giddy unboxing video and then set out to listen. The handsome package, including vinyl in an otherworldly blend of green and black, also indicated that the trio of Mpumelelo Mcata (guitar), Molefi Makananise (bass), and Tshepang Ramoba (drums), who founded the band with Linda Buthlezi, remain, joined by trumpeter Tebogo Seitei and a variety of guests. But the first thing to know about Abantu/Before Humans is that it is ambitious, and seems to draw on a larger vision. There's a hint of this in the album's subtitle: "A complete fully translated and transcribed Obsidian Rock Audio Anthology chronicling the ancient spiritual technologies and exploits of pre-historic, post-revolutionary afro bionics and sacred texts from The Great Book On Arcanum by Supernal 5th Dimension Bound 3rd Dynasty young Kushites from Azania." 

There's at least a dozen rabbit holes to explore in that sentence, but a quick look tells me that Azania was the name the Romans used for southeastern Africa at least as early as the first century, AD. The name was revived by the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania when its founders split from the African National Congress in 1959. Kush was an ancient kingdom in Nubia, whose capital was known by the Greeks as Aethiopia. This makes me think of the "Ancient to the Future" philosophy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as any number of Afrofuturist works by Sun Ra, P-Funk, or Samuel R. Delaney. So far, so up my alley. But what stories would the needle tell when dropped into the groove? 

Yela Oh! begins the album with with a hypnotic ostinato bass and ritual chanting, drums burbling underneath. After an ominous riff, Running - Asibaleki/Sheroes Theme explodes into THAT sound, busy drums, soaring horns, bass driving ever onward. Unlike the songs on After Robots, however, all reverb and haze (wonderful as it was) has been stripped away, leaving an attack that is crisp, precise, and lethal. iQ(w)ira - Machine Learning Vol 1 is a slow burn, almost acting as a prelude for Mme Kelapile, an epic that expands from minimalistic to anthemic, then back again, with the drums growing more expressive, with Ramoba edging into "Steve Gadd on Aja" territory. Side One ends with Harare, which was released in 2019 and features BLK JKS protege, Morena Leraba on vocals. Cannily combining folk, rock, and hip hop, it ends up feeling almost like a pop song, but that might be the familiarity talking.

Side Two begins somberly with Human Hearts, arpeggiating guitars combining with a gorgeous horn arrangement. You can almost imagine an alternate timeline where Bob Marley takes the stage to its dignified strains. Next comes Yoyo! - The Mandela Effect/Black Aurora Cusp Druids Ascending, the one stumble on this magnificent album. It's just overstuffed, it's punky rage party coming across as ill-fitting and cliched lyrics such as "Treat me like a yoyo, make me go up and down," don't help, nor does the clinical production, which is so effective elsewhere. Fortunately, Maiga Malie Mansa Musa, which has special guests Vieux Farka TourĂ© and Money Mark, puts us solidly back in BLK JKS's sweet spot. It opens like a folk song, but it's mournful horns are soon joined by an insistent post-punk bass line, eventually merging seamlessly into Mmao Wa Tseba - Nare/Indaba My Children, which crosses over into spiritual jazz with some wonderful tenor sax. The last section ends the album in a sound collage of field recordings - we hear the cheery sound of an ice cream truck and children at play with the muted sound of the band in the background. 

Abantu/Before Humans is a fascinating new chapter in the tale of BLK JKS and an album that is already an essential part of my year. I hope it gains the audience it deserves when it hits wide release in 2021 and that New Yorkers will have an opportunity to see them in concert before or after SXSW. But mostly I hope I don't have to wait 11 years for more of this powerful, mysterious, and utterly original music. There is only one BLK JKS - ignoring them would be like letting an entire genre of music pass below your radar. Don't let that happen. 

You may also enjoy:

No comments:

Post a Comment