Bluesman Otis Rush died yesterday, aged 83, from complications of the debilitating stroke that had confined him to a wheelchair since 2003.
Rush was probably the jazziest blues guitarist of his era. Aged 8, the Mississippi-born schoolboy taught himself to play on one of his brothers’ instruments – and didn’t realise he was supposed to fret with his left hand and pick with his right. He learned the other way round: “Nobody teached me. That’s why I play left-handed.”
But he credited his southpaw style – “pulling down”, he called it – for giving him greater facility to bend and stretch the notes in what became his trademark single-string breaks.
Whole fake books are devoted to “Otis Rush licks”, but his jazziness resided in how he rarely played the same lick twice. He’d always find a way to change it up or down, vary the dynamics, and weave delicacy and swing into robust roots chords. He was also one of the first leaders to invite the electric bass sound into Chicago’s blues bands.
There had been music around his mother’s house, but it was most likely to be country music on the radio, while his brothers had done little more than fool around with their instruments. Rush, however, caught the guitar bug, although there wasn’t much time for playing or schooling. As sharecroppers, his family got tools and seed from a white landowner to farm. For that, they paid half their crop every year, and long hours of labour – including what should have been school time for the little ones – any time the landowner needed extra, unpaid hands.
At 14, Rush visited his sister in Chicago and saw Muddy Waters performing live. That was it: he knew what he wanted to do. When he was practising in those early days, “the neighbours wanted to call the police on me, mad at me for making that noise. I was like: ‘Man, I’m trying to learn how to play the guitar like Muddy Waters’.”
Working by day in the stockyards, at a steel mill and later as a driver, he got some lessons and by 1953 was making his first club appearance, billed as “Little Otis”.
Together with Buddy Guy and Magic Sam (Maghett, who died aged 32), all signed to the Cobra label, they shaped what became known as the West Side Sound: a more lyrical, rhythmically complex blues style that was eagerly taken up by white players in the blues-rock movement of the 1960s.
Many other artists (Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and more) profited from their homages to songs whose sound Rush had shaped, such as I Can’t Quit you Baby (composed by Willie Dixon) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-7aYnijKbw), while his success remained, at best, modest. If you want, you can search Google to hear Mick Jagger, Robert Plant and more making attempts at the classic field-holler whoop with which Rush opens that song, but I’d recommend you stick with the original.
First with Cobra (which went bust via the gambling habits of its white owner), then Chess, Delmark, Duke and more, Rush was repeatedly shackled by contracts from capitalising on his hits with timely follow-ups in what should have been his career prime. He went 16 years during the late ‘70s and ‘80s without a release, and later Capitol Records sat on the release of his classic Right Place, Wrong Time (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zesioegOY0 ) for more than five years. He wasn’t interested in showbiz glamour, slick self-management or promotion, telling one journalist “I like to go home to bed after a show”, and unsurprisingly given these frustrations, he spent some years battling alcoholism.
None of that detracts from the brilliance of his playing or the thinking that went into it. Rush was belatedly recognised by a 1999 Grammy for Any Place I’m Going, a place in the Blues Hall of Fame, and multiple music media awards. His guitar walked those tracks from Mali to Mississsippi to Chicago to the world, and working musicians everywhere may well hear echoes of his life in their own.
People’s culture and South Africa’s heritage of struggle are far more worthy of celebration tomorrow than all the irrelevancies the public discourse invokes.
So, tomorrow is Heritage Day – or, as the media insist on calling it, National Braai Day. For some of us, that latter is never going to stick. Maybe it’s the environmental impact of raising and then charring all that red meat: clearing land for grazing animals or the soy that feeds them, plus all that CO2 from charcoal and the 23-times-worse methane from cow farts (not putting you off your steak, am I?) are all really bad for the sustainability of our planet.
But I eat meat too, so maybe it’s something else.
Perhaps it’s the way something that should be priceless and in people’s hearts is instead turned into an excuse for self-aggrandizing politicians and grasping shopkeepers to sell us things: ‘heritage’ couture, braai tongs and promises.
Perhaps it’s the way the day is used to emphasise feudal difference, with the whole country turned into a gigantic, booze-soaked cultural village within whose walls legislators scurry to restore the worst of colonial-designed, patriarchal law via the Traditional Courts Bill.
And, inescapably, it’s the foul miasma from all those cosy braais at Vlakplas and Bird Island – not something any sane person should want in their heritage.
But before Ebenezer Scrooge takes over completely, let’s consider some of the things that are worth remembering. We can notice, while we’re at it, that most of them have been completely erased from the dominant public discourse about Heritage Day.
How about, for example, our history of struggle? Not those convenient corners opportunistically appropriated by political parties when it suits them to win votes. Rather, the fact that millions of ordinary people risked and gave their lives every day across more than two and a half centuries to defeat colonialism and apartheid and put something better in their place. That something better is beautifully summed up in the Freedom Charter (http://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/inventories/inv_pdfo/AD1137/AD1137-Ea6-1-001-jpeg.pdf ). Its goals have still not been achieved, and some of those who should have been fighting hardest for them have instead betrayed them. But none of that devalues them, and Heritage Day should be the time to celebrate the women and men who fought and are still fighting for their realisation.
And how about people’s culture? There are the obvious things: the jazz legacy, the intricate creative artistry of traditional attire and architecture, the social commentary of praise songs, the art, poetry and music by workers in town and country and liberation soldiers – and still, today, by this generation of activists around Marikana, Fees Must Fall, One in Nine and more.
But there are other cultural legacies too. Despite the patronising guff of the chattering classes on 702, there is, for example, a township heritage of care and concern for the environment, expressed most powerfully in the mid-1980s by the Peoples Parks movement (https://asai.co.za/jdownloads/Peoples%20Culture/Imvaba/worksbycollectives.pdf ). Young people and their parents worked to take control of ugly, neglected township spaces. From junk, they built artworks, playground equipment and shelters in which to gather, using community spirit to transform their environment. Apartheid razed the people’s parks – and the market obsessions of the post-apartheid regime stole the confidence, solidarity and creativity that had built Unity Park, Crossroads People’s Park in Oukasie, Biko Park, Alexandra township’s Garden of Peace and more. That’s a legacy worth celebrating and reclaiming this Heritage Day.
If you want some music for all this genuine heritage you won’t see on TV, you could do worse than pick up a copy of The Liberation Project (http://www.theliberationproject.co.za/) 3-CD set. More than 140 musicians from South Africa, Italy, Cuba and more worked together live and across the aether to create a compilation of familiar and unfamiliar liberation songs, fresh arrangements and new compositions celebrating people worldwide striving for freedom. The late Ray Chikapa Phiri was a guiding spirit until his death; other names you’ll know include Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Roger Lucey, Aus Tebza Sedumedi, Tony Cedras, Phil Manzanera, Cyril Neville, Juan de Marcos – it’s impossible to list them all. The CD-set and a DVD will launch formally at Joburg’s Melrose Arch on October 3, but tomorrow is the right date to start playing it. Happy Heritage Day.
A number of people asked me at yesterday’s Wits Bheki Mseleku event if I could publish what I said. So, here it is. Some parts of this first appeared in 2008 as an obituary in the excellent, sadly short-lived literary magazine Baobab. We heard wonderful reminiscences and reflections last night. I hope my fellow panellists – Lindelwa Dalamba, Salim Washington, Eugene Skeef, Nduduzo Makhathini and Afrika Mkhize – also publish theirs.
I’m not a player and can’t do the kind of analysis musicians like Salim Washington, Afrika Mkhize and Ndududo Makathini can. So I’m going to talk about the Bheki I knew.
Make no mistake, if geniuses exist, musically, Bheki Mseleku was one. This afternoon I was listening to Meditations, Bheki’s least well-known album: his solo recital at the 1992 Bath international Festival. The first track is a 32-minute improvisation; the second a 15-minute one. You need to hear it.
But I can’t help thinking he’d be amused by the title for tonight’s discussion – and find it just a little bit ridiculous.
Because when you talked to Bheki, the thing he constantly stressed was what we all have in common. “We’re all just Earthlings” was something he liked to remind us, especially when disagreements, or somebody’s ego, were getting in the way. And “Earthlings”, rather than “South Africans” or “Zulu-speakers” or even “musicians” was very deliberately chosen. Not only do we all share humanity on this planet – but we have to be mindful that there might be other entities waiting to jam with us out there among the spheres …Bheki was an Afro-futurist long before that term got fashionable.
I interviewed Bheki 3 or 4 times over his time in this country. But the time I got to know him best was in Gaborone, in Botswana, in 1985. On June 14, the Boers had raided the town, killing more than a dozen, smashing among others the MEDU cultural structure that had made the place so hospitable for defiant, original music. Bheki, Barney Rachabane and a number of other South Africa-based players had arrived to collaborate with MEDU and Batswana musicians (Tony Cedras, Motswana guitarist John Selolwane, more…) making an album with Hugh Masekela. But after the raid, night stopped being a time to relish the joyous, rebellious creativity of Gaborone’s players. It was a time of apprehension, when you woke up fearful every time a car slowed at your gate, or slept only to dream the faces and voices of the dead. For some, creativity took second place to staying safe or watching out for friends, and those musicians were basically marking time as Hugh set up, from outside, the next phase of a planned tour.
Like all of us, Bheki became a gypsy. It really wasn’t safe to stay in one place for too long. So he’d crash, and when he had a gig, he’d hijack a clean T-shirt from one comrade in the house; washing gear from another. If he had a jacket, he’d probably left it somewhere else last night. It didn’t worry him: “People are good; someone will bring it back, or another one will be given. Why are you so worried about things? Things are heavy; they weigh you down. What’s important is the lightness in the heart. Come on: it’s time to play.”
He wasn’t a saint. He was deeply spiritual, but he had no patience for narrow, censorious organised religion. I remember one evening when evangelists from some well-funded American faith organisation knocked on the door. The rest of us were all for sending them away – you never knew who such people really were. But not Bheki. “Wait,” he said. “ Watch. I’m going to fuck with their heads.” And he started such a high-level theological argument about spirit and freedom that by the end of it the evangelists’ heads were spinning and they didn’t know what planet they were on, while the rest of us were helpless with suppressed laughter. For Bheki, music and spirit were, in photographer Val Wilmer’s words, “serious as your life.” But there was an irreverent, witty side to him too, and we shouldn’t always remember him as wrapped in mystical solemnity.
After a gig, Bheki would charm his way past the security guard into the Gaborone National Museum and Art Gallery: the only place in town with a good piano. Him, and a gaggle of other players – South Africans Batswana; the remnants of our two resident expatriate bands, Jonas Gwangwa’s Shakawe and Hugh’s Kalahari; guys from the Botswana Defence Force; occasionally a wannabe musical youngster from the University.
And that’s where another facet of his genius showed. Not only did musically amazing things happen, but Bheki’s midnight symposiums at the Museum were part of the healing. It was hard to hold fear when you were caught up in a debate on whether there could be any such thing as a new combination of notes – or has everything been played before, somewhere in the Universe? Impossible to surrender to nightmares, listening to Bheki analyse Trane’s solo from A Love Supreme, put it back together as a duet with one hand on the keys and the other on his sax, and then slide off the piano stool so we could hear what Tony Cedras or the Motswana pianist and journalist the late Rampholo Molefhe would make of it. It was all part of sharing and spreading the light and everybody there – even me, who still can’t read a note – learned from it.
In Charles Dickens’ words, those were the best of times as well as the worst of times, with Bheki collaborating with others to create a free, light space in which to play. The music on Meditations reminds me of those Museum piano nights.
20 years on in South Africa, the Bheki I talked to was heavier, graver, sadder. “I wrote to X University,” he tells me sadly, “but they didn’t answer my letter. And Y University wants me to send them my qualifications before they’ll consider me.”
Which ones would those be, I wondered. The Mercury nomination for Celebration? The praise from critics worldwide? The covers in international magazines such as The Wire? Tributes paid by Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Abbey Lincoln, Charlie Haden, Kenny Barron? Trane’s mouthpiece, given to him by Alice Coltrane at Newport in 1977? (No, not that. When he was home at last from exile, it was stolen by robbers who probably flogged it for five rand.) Perhaps copies of the albums: Celebration; Meditations; Timelessness; Star Seeding; Beauty of Sunrise?
For Bheki was self-taught, with no degree certificate to brandish. Born in Lamontville, a suburb of Durban, in 1955, music was in his blood. His father and uncle were vaudevillians William and Wilfred Mseleku, leaders of the Amanzimtoti Royal Players, one of the most extensively recorded South African entertainment groups of the 1930s. Later, his father got religion. For a long time the family piano was kept locked. But his mother, Elvira, would give Bheki the keys when his father was away. Eventually, older brother Langa was allowed to practice, and he became Bheki’s mentor. Bheki persevered, despite a go-kart accident that robbed him of the top joints of two fingers (and the piano finally being chopped up for firewood). He mastered piano, sax and guitar and played with young bands in and around Lamontville, but he was soon scouted into the Johannesburg jazz scene. According to Cape Town pianist Roger Koza – who worked with Mseleku in ‘70s touring band The Cliffs – it was legendary Malawi-born bandleader/impressario Dick Khoza who first spotted his talent.
In Joburg he was schooled in two of the most interesting bands of the 70s: The Drive and Spirits Rejoice. The first, founded in 1971 by reedman Henry Sithole took a soulful, hard-bop approach to original tunes and Bheki puts in a neat organ solo on the group’s bump jive hit ‘Way Back Fifties’. The far more explicitly experimental Spirits Rejoice, founded by drummer Gilbert Matthews and sxaophonist Duke Makasi in 1974 gave him space to spread his improvising wings, and hooked him up with guitarist Russell Herman who, until Herman’s death, became his manager and refuge in 1980s London. Then a stint touring with Malombo showed him how you could be at home in music wherever you traveled.
For Bheki, where you were, was irrelevant. He believed we’d all lived before and would all live again; that these lives could be on Earth or on other planes and planets. It was both faith and lived metaphor; it took him to Hindu temples, Buddhist retreats and Sufic meditation, and it allowed him to consciously opt out of a world where music was parcelled neatly into genre boxes and sold by the pound, and live his life differently: sharing the light.
“I’m not a jazz musician,” he told me and other critics. “I don’t know what that means. The industry invented that box.”
But contemporary South Africa bruised him. The industry wanted to buy and sell, not share, and Bheki’s sprawling, glittering, different talent was not easily commodifiable: “not commercial enough”, they told him. Only one album, Home atLast – a gentle, lyrical collection – came out of his time here. When he was sad, he neglected himself: eating wrong or not at all; forgetting the insulin his diabetes demanded. That made him sick and blocked his creative spirit. And so, back to London, with a jazz scene more hospitable to exploratory sounds, and supportive friends such as Eugene Skeef. But years of self–neglect (sometimes he’d play for a couple of days without pausing to eat or drink) and the sadness, had irreparably damaged his health.
On to a higher plane
After his death, in September 2008,Bheki’s elder brother Langa talked to The Sowetan newspaper: “Bheki’s daughter has been trying to organise for him to play at home for five months. Nobody was interested. Now he is dead, everybody is interested.”
The best way to remember Bheki, I think, is to remember all of him. The earnest, committed spiritual seeker, and the mischievous deflater of pomposity. The soaring musical genius, and the man who could groove a keyboard vamp on Way Back ‘Fifties that insinuated its way under your soles and made you move. UK Guardian critic John Fordham said he could sound as though he was playing for a dance one moment and an act of worship the next, and sometimes both at once. And the absolutely best way to pay tribute to him is to do what he loved and longed to do. First: learn and teach (he had made himself impressively learned in both ideas and sounds). And second: breathe in the air of freedom and breathe out good music.