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Artist to Watch 2009: BLK JKS

Fiery guitars, dark jams: Africa's best new band

August 7, 2009 11:45 AM ET

It's Saturday night at a Brooklyn recording studio, and BLK JKS are frustrated. The South African psych-rockers are recording a song for the 2010 World Cup, to be hosted by their home country — an update of an old Johannesburg street chant called "Zol After Zol." ("Zol" is slang for spliff.) They've been tinkering with it for hours, but something still isn't right. "This bassline," frowns drummer Tshepang Ramoba, adjusting the pile of dreadlocks atop his head. "It's kind of, like, very cheesy."

Mpumi Mcata, the group's lead guitarist, nods. "It's not necessarily bad," he says, taking care not to offend bassist Molefi Makananise. "It's just, you know ... traditional."

For BLK JKS (pronounced "black jacks"), tradition is something to be marked, respected — and then chucked out the window. The band formed nine years ago, when a young Mcata and his friend Lindani Buthelezi (vocals) found an old guitar in Buthelezi's sister's bedroom and began teaching themselves to play. Their proggy debut, After Robots (out September 8th) incorporates everything from sunny South African kwaito to art-rock shredding; the result has been compared to Sonic Youth and TV on the Radio.

And although they inhabit what have historically been two very segregated worlds (South Africa and indie rock), BLK JKS conduct themselves with Mandela-like inclusiveness: Buthelezi sings in English and Zulu, and their live shows are, according to Mcata "mostly white but getting blacker."

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