Fayard Nicholas: born 104 years ago today

The late Fayard Nicholas, elder and leading choregraphic imagination of the Nicholas Brothers, was born 104 years ago today. The Nicholas Brothers were the most brilliantly accomplished dancers ever to feature in American movies. They originated many of the dance moves later credited to white stars such as Donald O’Connor, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But their meticulously conceived dance interludes were often treated by directors as dispensable asides,  or, most egregiously, supplied to cinemas in the US South with cut-tabs so that racist audiences would not be offended by displays of black excellence. When your oupa reminisces about watching movies like Stormy Weather at the bioscope, this is what he saw:

Take five minutes out of your day today to watch it, remember the genius hidden from history by racism, and offer tribute. Oh, and be amazed…


Thabang Tabane’s Matjale takes malombo across all kinds of borders

Thabang front.jpg
Thabang Tabane

Grandmothers are powerful. It was the late Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile’s grandmother, Madikeledi, who planted in her grandchild the love for deep SeTswana tradition and language which became the root of his work. And it was Thabang Tabane’s grandmother, Matjale, who endowed her son, the late Philip Nchipi Tabane, with a rich legacy of traditional healing sounds, and her grandson with the spirit he brings to his drumming. “She used to call me that I must be with her at all times,” Thabang told Afropop Worldwide music writer Banning Eyre (http://afropop.org/articles/thabang-tabane-introduces-his-debut-album ) “So I think that’s where my father saw this, that I am a boy who can take this thing further. Because no-one taught me how to play drums…music was in me. So I think that’s the calling I had with her.”

If you know malombo music, your image of Thabang is probably of a very young man, enriching with all manner of percussion his father’s dazzling, flamboyant, guitar and song. But Thabang Thabane has not been that youngster for a long time. He’s 39, and over the dozen years before Philip’s death in May this year he took an increasingly front-of stage role, when first the death of the elder Tabane’s wife, and then his father’s declining health, made performing increasingly difficult. Thabang began working on his first album as leader two years ago, recording it in the family’s Mamelodi home. But the stresses of his father’s final time meant that it wasn’t ready for release until September. Now it’s out (https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/matjale/1427593376 ), and named for Matjale.Matjale.jpg

There have been many attempts to define and ‘own’ Malombo music, from the highly reductive labels ‘music accompanying Venda exorcism rites’ and ‘sound of the malombo drum’, to the various sonic concepts resulting from the break-up and re-formation of popular malombo groups under different leaders. The music cannot be confined by any of these.

For a start, it can’t be reduced to the word ‘music’ – at its origin, malombo represents not simply the sounds accompanying certain ceremonies, but the entire philosophy that those ceremonies embody. Tabane the elder rejected any attempt to call his work ‘music’ (never mind ‘jazz’), and his son continues that line of argument: “Malombo is spirit…healing…The stage is the platform for me to heal people [because] my grandmother is with me all the time.”

The most detailed study of the malombo sound so far was undertaken by Dr Sello Galane in his 2010 doctoral thesis (https://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/24447/Complete.pdf?sequence=9 ). If you’re interested, and have not yet done so, read it. Galane acknowledges the syncretism that performing malombo in modern social settings and overseas brought. He also traces a dozen phases in the development of the malombo sound, with Phillip Tabane as its undisputed architect.

Matjale brings us what’s probably a thirteenth phase in the music’s development. The album comprises 10 tracks, mostly Thabang’s own compositions or developments of ancestral themes, with some drawn from his father’s work (Father and Mother and Ke Mmone, the latter based on Ke Utlwile) and one Venda song taught to Thabang by veteran percussionist Mabi Thobejane (Nyanda Yeni; see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5HpESss0PE   )

So what does this new malombo bring? There’s much that feels faithful to the music’s roots: the prominence of rich percussion textures and the focus of lyrics on important social themes, for example. Nyanda Yeni talks of drought; Babatshwenya attacks xenophobia in his home town: “We are all one; we should not do this…” There is still dazzling guitar work, this time from Sibusile Xaba. He’s clearly been influenced by Philip Tabane, but equally clearly is a voice in his own right. Xaba’s guitar work is edgier: less

Sibusile & Thabang
Guitarist Sibusile Xaba (centre) with Thabang Tabane

flamboyant, but quietly subversive of any expectations your ears might bring. And then there’s the stuff that’s new. As my colleague Kwanele Sosibo (https://mg.co.za/article/2018-08-03-00-reserved-thabang-tabane-wants-to-keep-his-sound-simple , and who also wrote the album’s thoughtful liner text) has noted, the sounds of Thulani Ntuli’s electric bass feature in a way you’d not have heard in historic malombo, even in its most popular incarnations.

The bass does two things. It provides the groove that younger ears crave. “I know that mdala’s music could be difficult for people…I want [this] to be simple on people’s ears,” he told Sosibo. Ntuli, though, is a sensitive enough player not to shove in front of rhythm or lyrics.

Additionally, the bass reaches outwards, underlining a shared sonic space with pan-African and diasporic sounds. That’s most explicit on the opener, Richard, a dedication to the highly influential Camerounian bassist Richard Bona. Tabane says Bona’s onstage discipline reminds him of his father’s stern approach, and his innovation has constantly impressed. Another track, Freedom Station – that surely has to be named for Steve Mokoena’s sorely missed music spot? – even flirts briefly with soul. The final novel element is Thabang’s voice. He has told interviewers he never thought of himself as a vocalist until a Xhosa healer from Amampondo (with whom he was working in the combined ensemble PedXulu) urged him to release the “inner voice” with which his mind accompanied his drumming.

Richard image.jpg
Album art for the track Richard

Thabang sings nothing like his father. Where Philip bent his voice around phrases with a rounded sound that was almost a yodel, Thabang’s singing declares him a drummer. His declamations, growls, whispers and breaths don’t only convey compelling messages, they also enrich and embellish the rhythms.

Thabang Thabane wants his music to heal, and that it surely does – including providing balm for the ache of emptiness his father’s bereft audiences feel. Because this is, unmistakeably, malombo that genre fans can embrace with joy. But it’s malombo for today – malombo crossing borders: generational, musical and geographic. It would never have worked for this album to simply ‘cover’ the malombo tradition. Philip Tabane was an impossible act to follow because he wasn’t any kind of ‘act’; he was 100% authentic. With Matjale, Thabang Tabane has shown us that he is, too.Thabang back

Ariel Zamonsky, Juana Pires Rafael and the spaces between genres

Do genre categories help us to find music we’d like, or hide music we might love? A new album from the bass/voice duo helps us interrogate the labels.


Thobekile Mbanda

Why can’t we just let a song be a song? The Women’s Music Collective concert in Melville last Sunday (30 September) presented a mind-opening diversity of music, from Joyce Moholoagae’s dramatic, moving rendition of Purcell’s baroque When I am Laid in Earth, to Clare Loveday’s Cycles (originally written in synergy with a Nandipha Mntambo dance performance), Thobekile Mbanda’s original,  tradition-inspired, iLobola, and Nongoma Ndlovu’s neo-soul-flavoured Hot Mess.

“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.” Don Cherry

See the problem there? If I want to give you some indication of what certain songs sounded like, I usually have to paste on some label or other relating it to a genre you might know …But genre labels can easily blur what makes a particular piece of music distinctive. The academic concept of music genre has multiple resonances: about the listening communities that coalesce around genres, the social power hierarchies they can embody, and more. But mostly, in the world of modern music-making, ‘genre’ is crudely equated with ‘marketing category’. And if you don’t fit one, the shops, websites and venues may literally have nowhere to put you.

(The Francophone musical world doesn’t have quite the same problem. As obituaries following the death of Charles Aznavour last week, eg  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/01/charles-aznavour-obituary explained, the French have a whole genre called chanson: secular songs embodying elements of storytelling, either emotional or social. The French word literally means ‘song’, and both Ndlovu’s and Mbanda’s works would have sat quite comfortably there, without any need to cram them into some marketing category. Chanson lets a song just be a song.)

juana Pires Rafael

Another of the performers last Sunday was vocalist Juana Pires Rafael who, with partner bassist Ariel Zamonsky, has just released the album Entre dos Mundos (between two worlds) https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/arielzamonsky . Zamonsky is a familiar sight on bandstands, working with everybody including Nduduzo Makathini and Mandla Mlangeni (who get a shout-out in a track title). With Rafael, he’s begun touring as a duo, and their track Vidala Para Mi Sombra also features on the soundtrack of the recent South African movie Catching Feelings https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dMpjFICgtM&t=0s&list=PLkLimRXN6NKxvPFGllGWei00rKqAuCFIV&index=14

Ariel Zamonsky

The sleeve notes give us the broad outlines of the story in the songs: people seeking their identity while in another country (Zamonsky, like Rafael, was born in Argentina, but he has been in South Africa since 2005; she joined him in 2016.) “The music’, says the sleeve notes, “can transmit most of our interrogations and findings in a way words would never be able to, by stripping the ideas of their grammatical sphere, and giving them an ethereal, spiritual and energetic level beyond our comprehension.”

“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.” Miles Davis

Ariel album cover
Entre Dos Mundos

All 11 tracks – six, co-compositions; five, by Zamonsky – feature gorgeous improvisation from voice and instruments, and I could quite happily hang an unapologetic ‘jazz’ label on it for that reason. The quality of the imagining and playing certainly merits it: the rhythm section features three of South Africa’s most empathetic co-players: Yonela Mnana on piano and Tumi Mogorosi or Siphiwe Shiburi on drums. But I’m hesitant to pin down Entre dos Mundos like that, because I think it could also speak powerfully to audiences who might not find ‘jazz’ a persuasive designation.

Zamonsky’s bass displays the sensitivity and range we’ve come to know well, from the solid, steady underpinning he gives to a multitracked Rafael on Sunny Day, to his intricate exchanges with Mnana and Mogorosi on Mi Alma. Rafael’s voice holds both a breathy delicacy (something that gives Mnana the opportunity for matching, fragile, light-handed excursions) and a capacity for melancholic darkness. She uses both, intelligently and to moving effect, interpreting lyrics and soaring in wordless vocalese.

Mnana, Zamonsky, Rafael

If you like Latin American music, the Zamba Del Inmigrante offers that rhythmic flavour most strongly – with a beautifully strong, contained, solo from Zamonsky. If you’re seeking a more South African jazz feel, Transkei has the chords. But this is essentially liminal music, quite deliberately pushing at the borders of genres and origins: that’s what it’s about. As listening, it’s compelling: sensual in the richness of its textures, without compromising the thoughtfulness of its guiding ideas. And worth adding to your collection based not on any preconceptions about what genre it fits, but rather based on Ellington’s aphorism that there are really only two kinds of music: good, and the other sort. This is definitely the former.

RIP Otis Rush (1935-2018): let’s hear it for the lefty

In 1966, during a broadcast of I Can’t Quit You

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.

May his spirit rest in peace.

Heritage Day humbug – why do we erase the legacies that are really worth remembering?

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.

Nguni bull.jpg

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.

Vlakplas.jpgPerhaps 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.

freedom-charterHow 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.

lib proj onstage
The Liberation Project on stage

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.

Lib Proj



Bheki Mseleku: remembering a brilliant Earthling

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.

Bheki Mseleku

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.

Celeb.jpgI 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.

Night terrors

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.

Midnight healing

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.

One hand on the keys, the other on his sax

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.”

International respect

COVER042Which 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?

Family legacy

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.

The young Bheki

70s soul

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.

Universal man

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.”

with good friends including Eugene Skeef (l)

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.

b@club 606 london.jpg
Playing at Club 606 in London