“Enjoy the rainbow. It’s not about the pot of gold at the end.” So said guitarist Mpumi Mcata near the opening of BLK JKS’ 90-minute set at the Cedar Cultural Center. The opening of the 2009 Global Roots Festival (the first year the Cedar’s usual “Nordic Roots” festival has gone global), it’s hard not to hear echoes of Nelson Mandela and the idea of the “rainbow nation” as an idealized post-Apartheid South Africa in the Jo’Burg group, “a rainbow nation,” in his words, “at peace with itself and the world.” Anybody who has followed South Africa over the past 10 years—or at least has seen District 9—knows how complicated such an idea has become.
While this kind of politics only briefly appeared during their set—more on that later—the packed house at the Cedar was treated to a bewildering mix of genres, with roots in music from Soweto to Kingston to London and all points in between. Their roots seem to be in prog rock, with the band’s long, winding guitar and bass lines and on-the-fly shifts in mixed meters, while at other times I felt like I was listening to a spontaneous dub record, especially with the processed drum sounds and vocals. (In a 2008 cover story, Fader described them as “afrogothic,” a neologism that only hints at the variety of styles and influences churning beneath BLK JKS’s surface.)
There was lots of obvious communication between Mcata and the rest of the members of the group— Tshepang Ramoba on drums, Molefi Makananise on bass, and lead singer and guitarist Linda Buthelezi—as they seemed to figure out their path through the songs as they played them. Their positions on-stage, in a straight line instead of the usual drummer-in-back hierarchy, lent itself both to this ease of communication as well as no one musician occupying the center of attention. All this led to sometimes startlingly different versions of songs like “Molatatladi,” “Summertime,” and “Tselane.” This last song was especially striking, a slow, almost dirge-like song at times, with a long buildup that seemed to match the eerie nature of its subject, a folk tale-cum-bedtime story about the ogre Dingwe kidnapping little girls.
Buthelezi and Ramoba seem to be foils for each other, the latter’s frenetic energy and churning drums seemed sometimes at odds with the almost disaffected singing of Buthelezi. For much of the time, Buthelezi looked suspicious of those in the first couple rows. By the end of the show, however, he had shed this stoicism, as he threw guitars and mics to the ground, pecking the entire body of the guitar and twiddling knobs to bring forth ever weirder sounds from his amps.
The group’s audience-demanded encore started out as the most politically-engaged moment of the show, with shout outs to Steve Biko and African Youth organizing in 1974. In fact, it was the most straight-ahead song, with much less of the rhythmic elasticity that marked the rest of the set. (Mcata did say it was a popular political rally song, but I couldn’t recognize it or catch the title over the wash of distortion that crowded his words.) As the minutes went by, dreads, sticks, and microphones, guitars, and cymbals flailed in an incredible, Acid Mothers Temple/Boredoms-worthy freak out, an incredible release of all the built-up energy of the previous 80 minutes. While this might not have been the usual pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, both the path and the end BLK JKS painted at the Cedar were thoroughly enjoyed by both the band and audience.