The music of Richard Wagner, said Oscar Wilde, has “great moments and very dull quarters of an hour.” The same could be said of the music of BLK JKS, a South African group who deconstruct Afrobeat, rock, and jazz to achieve a trancelike effect that is either hypnotic or grating—depending on whether you ask someone who stayed for their entire set Thursday night at the Cedar Cultural Center or someone among the exodus that started streaming out the doors about 30 minutes into the set.
The show opened the Global Roots Festival, and the traditional core of the Cedar audience—Birkenstocked baby boomers—were very much in evidence, surprisingly so for a band that’s a long, long way from Free Range Pickin’. Many of those were among the first to leave; the next wave to bail looked like a crowd typical of the Walker Art Center, which co-presented the show. Those who made it all the way to the end were those who probably started the evening with the clearest idea of what they were getting into (though only two audience members applauded when it was asked who had seen the band before).
The Walker is a museum of contemporary art, and the music of BLK JKS is certainly contemporary art; it tests the senses and the patience as contemporary art often does. As the band’s four members—guitarists Lindani Themba Buthelezi and Mpumelelo Mcata, five-string bassist Molefi Makananise, and drummer Tshepang Ramoba—banged away and fiddled with their pedals, I thought of Philip Glass, the minimalist composer who often performed in New York City lofts in the early 1970s. While Glass’s ensemble played loudly and interminably, the very high audience would turn on, tune in, lie down, and bliss out. We could probably all have laid down at the Cedar; I, for one, was definitely ready to.
BLK JKS are frighteningly skilled musicians, the kind of musicians who are so good that they get bored with conventional time signatures and song structures. The effect of their intense jams is something like that of four guys running for a door at the same time and smashing into each other, or like a wind-up toy before you set it down: legs pulsing furiously, but not going anywhere. The band’s sound is rooted firmly in the 1970s, the decade of stuttering Afrobeat jams, meandering reggae anthems, and prog-rock-jazz-fusion experiments; BLK JKS often sound like an avant-garde Spyro Gyra. There are those of you out there who will salivate at this prospect, and I hope you were at the Cedar to enjoy it. If you’re not sure whether that’s your bag, then it probably isn’t.
I suspected that the band might have at least a little accessibility up their sleeves, and sure enough, they saved for their last song “Summertime,” a buoyant number that stayed in one time signature long enough for the crowd to obey Buthelezi’s suggestion that they do some dancing. (The only people who had been doing much dancing previously were a couple of people on the fringes who looked like their voodoo dolls had been soaked in bathtub gin and were being prodded into yoga positions with electrified knitting needles.) The single encore, the name of which I didn’t catch but which Mcata introduced as a song that they were playing in tribute to South African freedom fighters such as Steve Biko, showcased Ramoba’s complex, churning drumming—he plays like he has a few extra hands that move too quickly to be seen—and had the crowd outright jumping around until its conclusion, a multi-minute feedback drenching just for good measure.
“That,” said my friend, shaking his head as we walked out, “was just not my cup of gasoline.”
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