Indiana Daily Student

From South Africa to South Central Indiana

Mpumi Mcata
Mpumi Mcata

How does a band from Johannesburg, South Africa end up in Bloomington?

And not just any South African band, but one that graced the cover of The Fader magazine in March 2008, played Austin’s South By Southwest, and gained the attention of basically anyone they met.

As it turns out, the reason for Blk Jks’ current residence is quite simple: Secretly Canadian, a local independent record label.

After a string of unsuccessful courtships from various other labels, the band signed to one founded by four IU alumni.

While in town, Blk Jks recorded their first full-length album at Russian Recording and are now preparing for an international tour. But before the boys from Joburg head out to various parts of the United States. and Europe, they will play a free show at Jake’s
Nightclub this Monday.

One might think that the pairing of Blk Jks with Bloomington is odd, but the partnership came about quite naturally.

In fact, nearly everything about the band is a natural happening – from its sound and creative process to its record deal and recording session.

The Sound
Ten years have passed since the first inception of Blk Jks, and five since its current lineup. Guitarist Mpumi Mcata said it’s been a long time in coming for their debut album.

“I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people that we know, because it’s beginning to surprise me ... I still don’t know what it is,” he said. “I hope somebody out there can figure it out.”

Despite Blk Jks’ firmly planted roots in their national identity, many critics are prone to place the South Africans into an easy, westernized context.
“I feel like it is – actually I know it’s – traditional African music,” drummer Tshepang Ramoba said.

IU alumnus and Russian Recording owner and chief engineer Mike Bridavsky said the group’s fusion of various elements is what makes them stand out.

“What is most interesting about their music is the African ‘feel’ that inevitably comes through all of their songs,” he said. Bridavsky mostly attributes this feel to the drums and bass.

“Tshepang’s style incorporates a lot of jazz technique as well as complicated ‘African-style’ poly-rhythms and syncopation, as does Molefi’s bass playing.”

‘Four cultures meeting in one room’

Lead vocalist and guitarist Linda Buthelezi describes the band as “four cultures meeting in one room.” Each member comes from a different culture in South Africa: Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Pedi. And each member also has his own taste, with influences ranging from church music to South African pop funk.
For the band, these differences don’t interfere, but contribute to forming a cohesive effort.

“I guess that’s what makes this band what it is, because we give each other space to the creativity of the band,” bassist Molefi Makananise said.

The distinct nuances of each member become visible during a Blk Jks performance.
Mcata is the organizer, often communicating with everyone else to keep things going right.

Makananise is soft-spoken and calm, often closing his eyes and grooving in his own world.

Ramoba is the liveliest of the bunch, constantly smiling and laughing while pounding his drumsticks.

Buthelezi, the quietest member despite his role as lead vocalist, lets the music speak for itself.

“Why did we decide to form this band?” Makananise asked his mates after the question was posed to all of them.

Mcata said it just happened – playing music was another thing to do in addition to watching TV or playing sports. He said one minute you’re playing for people, and the next you’re in a band.

Makananise met Mcata and Buthelezi, who were childhood friends, the day before their first live show.

He met the two after they all rehearsed together during a band photo shoot. The next day, they drove ten hours to play their debut show – at a prison.
“It’s called ‘going with the flow,’” Mcata said.

The Bloomington Connection
After a few years of mainly self-released efforts, it took an independent label in Bloomington to find the right support for their first full-length album. The band was turned off by contract offers and wanted to find a label who was foremost interested in their sound.

It was love at first listen for Secretly Canadian project manager Kevin Duneman. He soon e-mailed the band and received a response from their manager, Knox Robinson.

“We just started talking about the music, music in general. We definitely developed a quick and deep relationship on that level,” Duneman said. “We’ve always been entirely transparent with each other – no tricks, no gimmicks.”

The band solidified that mentality when they decided to record their album in Bloomington, a town they knew nothing about.

When the group finished recording in early February, they experienced their first taste of fun at FARMbloomington’s bi-weekly funk and soul event, Soul in the Hole. They also witnessed a rowdy and sweaty basement show and played one of their own this past Saturday.

Blk Jks have never been the kind of guys to plan things out very far in advance; they just go with what feels right at the moment.

“I can’t get excited about something that will happen in a month,” Ramoba said about their upcoming tour. “I’ll be excited when I’m on stage, because that’s what I love.”

And there’s one thing that will be certain about Monday night, as Mcata put it best.
“It’s going to get noisy.”

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