Our Daily Bread 447: BLK JKS ‘Abantu/Before Humans’

May 17, 2021


BLK JKS ‘Abantu/Before Humans’
(Glitterbeat Records) 21st May 2021

From the South African underground to meteoric international success, championed by an American hipster parade of luminaries (from Diplo through to TV On The Radio, The Mars Volta), the innovative soundclash that is BLK JKS have found that leap, and that keeping up the profile, takes its toll. They worked hard on the circuit for years in Johannesburg before hot-footing across the Atlantic to become some sort of exotic darlings of the hype industry: jamming with The Roots, photo opportunities with Pharrell, hanging with the late Lou Reed at SXSW.

Signing to another of those virtuous bastions of the hip market, Secretly Canadian in 2009, the quartet released a career defining and highly influential debut album: After Robots. A “channel-hopping” frenzied Internet collage of post-apocalyptic Afro-funk, rock, jazz, kwaito, folk, renegade dub and pysch this fired up statement attracted even more admirers to the fold, including (rather surprisingly) Dave Grohl, who not only rated it his favourite album of that year but would invite them to open for his Foo Fighters, five years later. By that time however the group had grown jaded and tired by the touring and other travails, and had returned back home to South Africa. Some members split to pursue other projects, whilst a core stayed and went back to performing on the underground scene of local festivals and nightclubs.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the group recorded a tribute to one of their fellow compatriots and mentors, the now sadly missed late genius, Hugh Masekela (‘revisioning’ his ‘The Boys Doin’ It’) and jammed with the Malian guitar legend (no stranger to this blog) Vieux Farka Touré and hip-hop innovator and Beastie Boys foil Money Mark – the results of which appear on this new album. This would be a year of reactivity, a restart of a kind, as the ruminants of the troupe invited in the young trumpet virtuoso Tebogo Seitei to complete a new incarnation of the quartet; fit once more to enter the studio and record that long overdue album.

Setting up in what was the orchestra pit in the Soweto Theatre, BLK JKS began a fatalistic recording session: fatalistic because their studio was burgled, ransacked, with the hard drives that the group had saved those recordings on stolen in the bargain. Despondent to say the least, they nevertheless decided to just go for it and record a 2.0 version in just three days; the results of which have finally now seen the light of day in 2021.

The travails and hard graft have produced something more earthy, mature and actually purposeful despite the drifts and amorphous cross-pollination of influences, ideas. Framed as a ‘prequel’ in fact to After Robots, Abantu/Before Humans time-travels between the atavistic, primal and the future. It’s a sonic and hauntingly soulful set world of ancestral trauma and deliverance; a mystical soundtrack to archeological dug-up pasts, proud civilizations and an African continent thousands of years before European colonization.  

There’s a statement on the record cover that goes some way towards articulating this backdrop and source of inspiration: “A complete fully translated and transcribed Obsidian Rock Audio Anthology chronicling the ancient spiritual technologies and exploits of prehistoric, post-revolutionary afro bionics and sacred texts from The Great Book On Arcanum by Supernal 5th Dimension Bound 3rd Dynasty young Kushites from Azania.” From that we can make out references to secrets, mysteries and the Tarot (that’s the “Arcanum” bit), allusions to the sky, the heavens (“Supernal”), and mention of the ancient kingdom of Nubia that gained independence from Egypt under King Kashta in around 1050 B.C. (hence the “Kushites”). There’s also a reference to original name bequeathed upon the southern tip of Africa and beyond by such scholars as Pliny, “Azania”: championed in the 20th century by such groups as the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, and even touted as a possible name for independent South Sudan in the 21st century. 

In the footprints of the forbearers, but even further back to “before humans”, there’s a dirt music feel of desert mirage blues, wafted jazzy trumpet serenades and punctuated plaints, and a sort of Adam Ant toms patter tribal beat of messenger drums all broadcasting across the plains, sand dunes and grasslands. This is an album that first begins with a sort of rustic hymnal blues harmony and tapping hand drums – which as the communion progresses slap quickly until blurring into a digital code -, yet soon limbers into a loose sunshine cohesion of Masekela trumpeted warmth, reggae and post-punk: imagine PiL, The Slits and Sly & Robbie sharing the air fare to South Africa.

It’s a spindled Middle Eastern and North African vibes, with hints of a Tinariwen and Afro-soul, on the almost romantic but slightly warning ‘Q(w)ira – Machine Learning Vol. 1’. Songs like this push towards the haunted description, which continues on the Kele Okereke fronts an Afrofuturist Specials ached and longing, elephant heralding trumpeted ‘Human Hearts’. Oddly, they turn an acoustic twangy B52s riff into a modern electro dancehall hymn on the deeply voiced narrated ‘Harare’.

They go on to spit a lot of “fuck you(s)” on the album’s most volatile, actionist grumble: ‘Yoyo! – The Mandela Effect/Black Aurora Cusps Druids Ascending’; also the album’s most obvious call-to-arms, but equally disdainful disappointment at a less than revolutionary zeal to take power and make the change.

On an almost seamless ride, with tracks more or less blending into each other, carrying over certain threads and rhythms from the previous track, Abantu warps and channels localised music dances, ska, Afro-jazz, and on the final strung-together codex like drift and sound collage, ‘Mmmao Wa Tseba-Nare/Indaba My Children’, hints of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pixies emerging from the ether. This track actually fades out; leaving a silent gap of anticipation before the Foley sounds of a pier and seaside scene are funnelled into a vortex finale: a return to something more human, communal. After such a hiatus – though let’s not be too harsh, the pandemic that ripped through South Africa accounts for at least 18 months of that time – it’s heartening to once more hear the BLK JKS’s distinct underground intuition of blending so many diverse sounds, ideas. Somehow idiosyncratically South African, but above all unique, this is a sound that time-travels between the mystical, haunted and spiritual; an eclectic fanfare of psychogeography, prayer and protestation, from a wizened band that limbers to a soundtrack of soulful punk, rock-reggae, South African musical styles and beyond. It’s Bad Brains meets Sun Ra and Funkadelic on a millennia historiography tour, from the soil upwards, of Africa.  

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.


One Response to “Our Daily Bread 447: BLK JKS ‘Abantu/Before Humans’”

  1. […] BLK/JKS ‘Abantu/Before Humans’  (Glitterbeat Records)(DV)  Review […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: