Name: BLK JKS
Members: Mpumelelo Mcata, Tshepang Ramboa, Molefi Makananise, Tebogo Seitei
Interviewee: Mpumelelo Mcata
Occupation: Instrumentalists, songwriters
Current release: BLK JKS are returning after an extended absence from the recording business with Abantu / Before Humans on Glitterbeat.
Recommendations: I guess check out the artwork of Nandipha Mntambo who we worked with on our latest music video “Harare“. And I’m currently reading “Thirteen Cents” by Sello K Duiker.
if you enjoyed this interview with BLK JKS, their facebook page is the best way to stay up to date on their activities.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Hi … forever, to be honest - for as long as I can remember I was making up songs, song was everywhere. Besides radio there was music for all occasions: weddings funerals initiation ceremonies etc. As most kids do, you try to copy. But once I decided to leave school, buy a guitar and start a band, all bets were off …
It was clear the music had to be ours and no one else’s … It was original composition time, almost to the fault of making it difficult to learn, where we watched listened studied loved other music just to be able to avoid repeating it when making our own.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. what was this like for you: how would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Yeah, following on from above it was basically always a matter of doing it in our own voice. Otherwise what would be the point? This was maybe naive but we thought that there would be comparisons to other people's music anyway so why make it easy for anybody to “erase” or dismiss us as a copy of anything … especially as a black band in South Africa doing what we do.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Whether we like it or not it factors in, just like the fact that avoiding or ignoring politics is actually still a political decision - we don’t live alone in this world so no matter what we try it’s there. We never deny it … The question is: What do we do or not do with this and how? Therein lies the trick, that’s art
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Creative challenges? Ha! Not sure they’ve changed so much but I will say that we are excited again for the first time in a long time about reentering the recording business - for a long time before and after our first album “After Robots” our focus was really mainly on being a live band and somehow that will always be our favourite space. But we have learnt so much over time and as a result managed to get deeper into handling the production process for this, our sophomore LP “Abantu/ Before Humans” … so … I guess that’s whats changed. We are way more comfortable in the studio
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Wow, yeah … big journey. Wouldn’t want to bore your readers so will just say this: We were only focused on our live gear at first, unable to afford some of the things we use now of course … then after playing some shows we took that money and decided we need to do better than recording ourselves altogether straight to tape via a hifi speaker in our rehearsal room.
This lead to getting into some studios then to some studio gear. We now have our own studio and yes, analogue hardware is still the way!
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I guess like everyone else, or at least a lot of people in the world making music professionally, music programs that substitute for the analogue mixing desk have been a big player. So we use a combination and it does make you think about your compositions differently to have access to these virtual studios with infinite possibilities beyond any human limitations one might have. So that struggle between machine and you trying to still keep it “real” is challenging and fun.
Collaborations can take on many forms. what role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Yo! Our collaborations 99.9% of the time just happen on stage first. Chance meetings, long distance mutual fandoms manifesting, friendships leading to jamming. It’s often organic and that’s how we prefer it.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Music is always in the background in my life, if not in the fore. So there is very little to no separation - there is usually no routine, even with a new baby in the house it’s been somewhat loose and she came with her mama on her first (mini) tour with us. A kind of adhoc pilot test gig in the time of Covid19 … so … it’s improv all the way here. Blended, juggling everything, with beats in the back.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
We play a song called “Join Umzabalazo” (join the revolution), it’s an anti-apartheid struggle song for the people by the people. It rose from the streets and very early in our journey, when we were very much against doing "covers” the idea to play with that concept and adapt the accapella urban traditional ‘Umzabalzo” into a guitar riff came as if in a dream … a punk dream, it was the punkest thing I ever heard and we felt the people of South Africa deserve to have their revolutionary punk spirit and attitude archived and reflected back at them - for inspiration, to deal with all the other nonsenses that life will always throw at us … so … that tune changed a lot for us.
We knew then that we were a proper band - BLK JKS were recently invited by some fellow artists protesting at the South African national arts council to play it … the video is on youtube
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. what is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Capitalism is a distraction. Ignore that.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Yeah I mean music cuts through our biases, prejudices and fears much more effectively than anything else, really. So I think it is and has always has been there as a weapon of destruction or resistance. It is and has always been there as a tool of healing … maybe we just as society need to engage with that fact more actively. Which to be fair can be quite hard when we are all being accosted by the white noise of capitalism every day and night.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. what are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
If the intention, connection or story is genuine and you yourself as the person making the art are as involved, at risk, body on the line as anybody else in it … then most of the time that’s fine, cos the work will probably be good. If the work is good, then it’s cool, it’ll pass as good. If it’s not good, it’s usually cos the approach wasn’t. If all the things I mentioned above were not in place, it calls the whole thing into question. It becomes … exploitation. That is what appropriation is
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. from your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I always liked the terms metal, heavy metal or roots in music cos it felt so true. The connection between those things, their smell, how they feel to the touch and how that music sounds - that is also why live gigs with a bunch of heaving sweaty bodies in the rain will never be replaced by live streams! We are sentient beings, our sense are connected, of course, and require real stimulation. Otherwise, are we even alive ?!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Just doing what moves you at any given time, doing what you feel compelled to do … is the best way I think … no rules really, be free for all those who can’t be. That's kind of the motto
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Words are rigid, which is why I respect so much the poets who daily are trying to bend them - music is the intangible , which is all around us … it creeps into places that rigid things can’t. It is water, it is air, it is an emotion left behind when the thought or words are forgotten.