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 at Last – 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.