Returning after 12 long years with ‘Abantu / Before Humans,’ South Africa’s BLK JKS are many things at once – capturing the heart of punk, the fever of rock, the soul of Africa, and the open-mindedness of jazz and art-rock in their stunning, breathtaking sophomore LP.
Stream: “Harare” – BLK JKS
Now seems like a moment in our history as human beings where it would be good to remember that there was a time before humans.
It doesn’t feel right to pigeon-hole BLK JKS into any one genre or a single style: The South African band are so many things at once, capturing the heart of punk, the fever of rock, the soul of Africa, and the open-mindedness of jazz and art-rock in their music. Epic in the truest sense of the word, BLK JKS’ sophomore album is a breathtaking roller-coaster of cinematic and stirring sound: Over a decade in the making (and well worth the wait), Abantu / Before Humans effortlessly transcends continents and cultures in delivering a set of songs that, above all, captures the dynamic and impassioned artistry of this unparalleled phenomenon.
Released May 21, 2021 via Glitterbeat Records (Worldwide) and We Are Busy Bodies (North America), Abantu / Before Humans arrived last Spring as the highly anticipated second full-length album from South African quartet BLK JKS. It is perhaps one of the most long-awaited follow-ups to an acclaimed debut LP in modern memory, and yet most music fans would be forgiven for not fully understanding why that’s the case. Pronounced “Black Jacks,” the group currently consisting of bassist Molefi Makananise, trumpeter Tebogo Seitei, drummer Tshepang Ramoba and guitarist/vocalist Mpumelelo Mcata first garnered international acclaim around the late 2000s.
They recorded their 2009 debut EP Mystery at Electric Lady Studios, and followed up at the end of the year with After Robots, a critically well-received full-length that received accolades from none other than Dave Grohl himself. All this and more led to Rolling Stone declaring BLK JKS “Africa’s best new band,” and after a whirlwind of tours and appearances throughout 2010, the group retired home in 2011.
While it’s not entirely fair to say BLK JKS “then reemerged” ten years later, that’s the essence of this comeback kid story – and a narrative the band themselves are happy to go along with.
“With 12 years or so between our first album and this second LP, I would say our vision changed,” Mpumelelo Mcata tells Atwood Magazine, “never mind the fact that we lost a band member and our first proper pass at finishing! The record was stolen out of the studio we built in the Soweto Theatre – basically in many ways, what we felt could stylistically be our Kid A became our Adore, and luckily I love both those albums equally.”
Mcata stops to do the math here, reflecting on “12 years condensed to 3 days of 6 hour studio sessions, 2 hours a song, 9 songs. Album done… feels so fresh, it’s scary,” he says. “I don’t think i’ve ever listened to anything we’ve recorded this much, so that’s new. [It’s] a reintroduction for me, for sure.”
Abantu / Before Humans is the stylistic and conceptual “prequel” to After Robots, finding the band digging deep into questions of existence and belonging, life’s purpose and meaning. “Tonally it sounds like our first pass at After Robots, and some of the songs and ideas come from that time or before,” Mcata explains. “Also, the stories we’re telling and the way we are telling them on this album [make this a fitting prequel] – take for example the beginning of this record versus the beginning of our first record.”
The term “Abantu” is the Zulu word for people; BLK JKS hope the album title Abantu / Before Humans not only adds context for listeners, but encourages them to open their minds a bit and think more critically about this time in the history of our species.
“It was screaming out to be called this, just based on the aforementioned prequel-esque qualities,” Mcata notes, “and of course, now seems like a moment in our history as human beings where it would be good to remember that there was a time before humans.”
The album also comes with its own manifesto inscribed on the cover art: “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.“
“There is a lot of important information stored and needing to be restored or preserved in this kind of narrow sonic crevice we are mining,” Mcata adds, doubling down on the urgency and activism in BLK JKS’ music.
Abantu / Before Humans deserves to be felt in full from start to finish: How else can one experience the inimitable jaw-dropping singularity that is BLK JKS?
The world between “Yela Oh!” and the adventurous nine-minute closer “Mmao Wa Tseba — Nare / Indaba My Children” is exhilarating and vast, full of soaring solos and roaring drums, searing vocals and dramatic climaxes of charged emotion and radiant energy. “Running / Asibaleki” is unapologetic in its fervor and drive, with thrilling guitars and drums joined by a boldly expressive brass section; “iQ(w)ira — Machine Learning Vol 1.” churns with a darker sonic pallet that quakes and shakes with undeniable gravity – a heavy, intense metallic weight.
“‘Yoyo!’ is definitely one of my highlights on the record,” Mcata says, “just because of how after years of us not knowing exactly what to do with this little idea we had. It exploded precisely when we needed it to, lyrics and all! I could almost get teary just thinking about it.” Lyrically, he cites the song “Human Hearts” as having one of his favorite lines:
I’ve seen this happening, to friends of mine, they see it in other people, but never in their own lives: We’ve become beasts.
Ultimately, Abantu / Before Humans is a majestic and unique affair. BLK JKS are in a league of their own, marrying disparate worlds in an exciting arena where rock, jazz, punk, soul, and more musical elements come together in a pan-African melting pot of influence and inspiration. Yet it’s not just the way they play that makes this South African band so special: Their songs carry great meaning. Vulnerable and intimate, yet so full of colorful passion and power, BLK JKS’ second full length holds nothing back in putting the naked human spirit on full display in all its pain and wealth, fracture and beauty.
We hope to not wait another twelve years for Album Three, but if we do, it will once again be worth the wait. Experience BLK JKS’ Abantu / Before Humans via the below link, or listen wherever you access music.
“I hope the album brings people closer to that human voice inside themselves,” Mcata shares, “away from the noise of the modern world and all the things that the algorithm that is capitalism would have them do. I hope it helps us all cope, helps us see, connect, live, and rock better.”
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Stream: ‘Abantu / Before Humans’ – BLK JKS
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