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Artist: BLK JKS

Album: ZOL!

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Jun. 9, 2010

While there’s been plenty of South African musicians making names for themselves in the last half century of spreading pop monoculture, there’s yet to be the sort of rock band that gallops past its international peers, leaving a scene in its wake, and redefining the way listeners think about the nation – say, a band like Can or Boredoms.

South Africa has a leg up with English as a main language, and with the mixing and clashing cultures, it will inevitably happen. The members of Johannesburg’s BLK JKS, who play eerie variations on guitar rock, seem like they wouldn’t mind being that band. Others seem to like the idea even more. There’s a nifty validation that comes when a pop artist emerges from a place with a different musical tradition and excels in a genre that isn’t even fully appreciated in its native land. (Brazil’s Seplutura must have made Slayer feel pretty good.) Lord knows indie fans are insecure that their scene is too pale and bourgeois, so hearing dramatic crescendos coming from guys who were born under apartheid has an inherent interest.

The the five songs on this EP build on the textures they’ve explored already: Afropop guitar plink, melodies emerging through murky digital effects, some Queen-like histrionics, unkempt but sincere vocals from Lindani Buthelezi. Throw in the group’s previous forays into dub, and you’ve got a set contrasts that could have come from a metropolitan American band that gets bloggers all giddy – arena-goth-mbaqanga. BLK JKS may have an advantage with the Afropop aspects, but the point of this music is more about meshing ideas that don’t comfortably mesh. Their real advantage is that they’re adept at all the parts and they work them together without the nervous smirks that usually accompany cultural vampirism.

"ZOL!,” the title track, is a little out of place. It’s a football chant with Soweto harmonies and rhythms, put together for the World Cup this month, somewhere between a jingle and late-career Joe Strummer. The sunny tradeoffs have a clarity that doesn’t jibe with their moodiness. It sounds commissioned. The final track, "Mzabalazo," is also designed as a crowd-rousing anthem. It works better, making the juxtaposition in the other direction – the lead vocals feel African, while the chants and backing are rock. It’s listed here as a demo, but sounds as gauzy as the band’s other tracks, even with a bunch of distortion flailing in the foreground.

That brings up the strongest thing about this band: Ethnic music rarely meanders or shows a fascination with special effects. Rock regularly does, but rarely when it’s dabbling with more traditional forms. BLK JKS both meander and dabble. Often, their songs have an indefiniteness to them, lacking clear refrains. Percussion fades out or gets washed to the side. "Bogobe" is sung in traditional language, but through an echo effect. It sways, almost reaching a peak with rippling minor scales. Mostly, though, it’s disjointed and atmospheric and sounds like something from vintage 4AD. Which is to say, it’s hard to tell if it started life as a song or an experiment.

Either because the attention heaped upon the band while its still defining itself, or because its members want to pursue looser approaches to songmaking, BLK JKS can make songs that take shape and dissipate, rather than start and end. Buthelezi’s presence is intriguing when his words stay oblique. These guys have the opportunity to ask a bit more of the listener. When they take advantage of it, it’s something to hear.

By Ben Donnelly

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