Remembering jazz legend Bheki Mseleku

2016-09-11 13:03
Bheki Mseleku

Cape Town - South African jazz and American jazz have always had a close relationship.

From Hugh Masekela inheriting Louis Armstrong’s old trumpet, to Duke Ellington setting up recording dates for a young, exiled Abdullah Ibrahim.

From Harry Belafonte taking singers like Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu under his wing, to Don Cherry exploring free jazz with Blue Note Johnny Dyani.

Then, of course, there is the story about Alice Coltrane giving the mouthpiece that John Coltrane used on the album A Love Supreme to Bheki Mseleku [born Bhekumuzi Hyacinth Mseleku].

Pianist Afrika Mkhize, the 2011 Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist, says South African jazz has always looked up to African-American jazz as a big brother, constantly seeking approval.

"When I heard Bheki Mseleku, I realised I didn’t need a big brother any more," he says. "Bheki Mseleku made me feel comfortable within my own skin."

Mkhize’s father, Themba Mkhize, had a long history with Mseleku. They grew up in "almost the same township", he says.

Mkhize recalls his father playing Mseleku’s albums when he was a young boy and, as a young pianist, he sat copying every note of his music.

Mkhize eventually met Mseleku in 2006 and it was then that he decided he wanted to pay tribute to the man by having a big band playing Mseleku’s compositions.

He began notating big-band arrangements of Mseleku’s music and imagined being able to perform the tribute in front of Mseleku.

Sadly, he was still battling to raise the funding when Mseleku died in 2008.

"Then I felt even more strongly that I had to do this," he says.

He soldiered on and eventually received some funding from Swiss backers and his dream was on its way to being realised.

'I don’t want this music to die'

On October 14 last year, Mkhize took to the stage with his big band to perform compositions from Mseleku’s various albums, Celebration (1992), Meditations (1992), Timelessness (1993), Star Seeding (1995), Beauty of Sunrise (1997) and Home at Last (2003).

"I was amazed, man," he says. "People flew in from Durban, Cape Town and other parts of the country."

The performance was so popular that Mkhize approached the National Arts Festival about bringing the project to Grahamstown, which he did over two nights.

Mkhize has completed 10 charts of Mseleku’s music and plans to complete another 10 this year, which he plans to get into universities’ music schools.

“I don’t want this music to die,” he says.

Eugene Skeef met Mseleku in the 70s when Skeef was a cultural activist in the black consciousness movement, alongside Steve Biko.

“Bheki was one of the musicians of choice of the movement as a creative voice of change during apartheid,” says Skeef. “We became close friends during this period.”

Skeef, who now lives in England, is making a documentary about Mseleku, titled Bheki Mseleku – Keeper of the Home.

When out in South Africa last year filming interviews for said doccie, he asked Mseleku’s oldest brother, Langa, to take him to his brother’s grave.

“When we arrived at the arch leading into the Merebank Hindu and Muslim Cemetery, Langa came to a standstill and ceased to speak,” recalls Skeef. “I was confused as to what had caused this sudden change in him.

“He told me that he couldn’t remember the spot where his brother was buried,” says Skeef. “I found it difficult to believe that a cultural icon of Bheki’s magnitude had lain in an unmarked spot, unattended for close to seven years.

“I immediately embraced the distraught Langa and vowed to remedy the situation.”

That day in the cemetery resulted in the formation of the Bheki Mseleku Memorial Appeal and Legacy Project, and a few weeks ago, in August, an unveiling of Mseleku’s new tombstone was held, followed by a concert celebration at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Jazz and a traditional feast at the original Mseleku home in Lamontville.

A profound influence

“Bheki was a seminal musician in terms of what can be regarded as contemporary South African jazz,” says Skeef. “I say this because he was a key member of several groups that influenced the shape of jazz in our country, especially in the 70s.”

“Three of these groups are The Drive, The Jazz Ministers and Spirits Rejoice,” says Skeef. “In each of these bands, he was by far the most advanced in his understanding and application of progressive jazz harmony.

“Without Bheki, these groups would not have become the ground-shifting creative outfits they were,” he adds.

British flautist Eddie Parker, who recorded with Mseleku in the 90s and notated a significant amount of his music, recalls Mseleku the disciplinarian, the man who would drive him to figure out his compositions no matter how technically complex they were.

“He wouldn’t compromise or simplify his music so that others could play it,” he says. “He would rehearse and rehearse and rehearse until the musicians got it. His music sounds simple and singable and danceable, but there is a huge amount of craft concealed behind the simplicity,” says Parker.

Mseleku’s music has had a profound influence on many young South African jazz musicians too.

Pianist Bokani Dyer says he learnt from Mseleku that there is no point being “technically brilliant” as a musician, if you are “spiritually blocked”.

Pianist Thandi Ntuli describes Mseleku’s music as “sacred documents” and says only a deeply spiritual human being, with a strong awareness of “their source”, could have created it.

Drummer Kesivan Naidoo says: “There was a way I played before Bheki and a way I played after – he changed the way I heard music.”

He recalls how Mseleku opened his mind to how music could be used for spiritual enlightenment when he began playing with him at the age of 19.

“I will never forget that phonecall when he booked me for the first time, says Naidoo. “I was in Cape Town at the time, still a student.”

“When I got to Johannesburg and we finally met him in person, he gave me a hug and said: ‘This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,’” he says.

In the late 60s, guitarist Themba Mokoena played with Mseleku in the bands Black Magic and Durban Expressions.

“I stayed with Bheki at his home in Lamontville,” says Mokoena.

He says that Mseleku’s love and passion for music were so developed that he helped shape the young guitarist, mostly through his dedication to practising his instruments.

The Durban Expressions would move to Joburg, but always saw it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things; the plan was to work hard and get to tour the rest of the world.

Mokoena remembers that Mseleku used to repeat the phrase “Asizanga ukuzohlala la eGoli” (We are not here to stay in Joburg) during this time.

However, owing to a bad relationship with a promoter, the band ended up broke with no instruments.

Mokoena would end up joining Gibson Kente and Mseleku would join Philip Tabane’s Malombo and get to tour the world.

No interest in material acquisitions

Skeef recalls hiding out in the suburb of Yeoville with his lover, Mary Edwards, in the 70s.

“Bheki used to frequent our home quite a lot and play Mary’s piano sometimes for three whole days without stopping,” he says.

By June 1980, Skeef, Edwards and Mseleku were heading to Europe via Switzerland.

“When Mary and I decided to flee into exile, Bheki joined us, as he could not see a viable future in South Africa for the kind of musician he wanted to develop into,” says Skeef.

Skeef recalls the trio stopping briefly in Luxembourg and visiting the Monument of Remembrance.

“Bheki took his tenor sax from its case and improvised a solo dedicated to the memory of thousands of Luxembourgers who volunteered for service in the armed forces of the Allied Powers during World War 1,” says Skeef. “Many a passer-by and tourist stopped as they were spellbound by Bheki’s plaintive playing.”

Mseleku would eventually settle in Sweden on the advice of Abdullah Ibrahim and with the assistance of Johnny Dyani.

However, by 1987, he was on his way to London to live with Skeef.

The same year he made his debut performance at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where he astounded the crowds by playing piano and saxophone at the same time.

“Bheki was what I would call a troubled genius,” says Skeef. “He was a sensitive soul; I often felt the world was not a gentle enough place for him.”

Skeef says he had no interest in material acquisitions.

“He didn’t see the need to save for a rainy day, because for him the sun always shone, even on the rainiest day, in terms of the light of his spiritual awareness,” says Skeef.

It’s like he is watching over us

Standing on the balcony of Joburg jazz club The Orbit, as Shabaka Hutchings and the Ancestors take a well-deserved break between sets, I stare up at the face of Mseleku, painted as a mural.

A few days earlier, Hutchings had been waxing lyrical about how he had discovered Mseleku’s 1992 album, Celebration, in a local library as an 18-year-old.

“The first thing that struck me about this album was the feeling of the music. It had so much joy,” he says. “It felt like it was so much more than the intricacies of how he was creating the music; it invoked the feeling of why this music was being made.”

Hutchings was in South Africa to launch his new album, Wisdom of the Elders, recorded with a top-notch South African band, made up of some of the leading jazz lights in the country.

The Orbit’s Aymeric Péguillan fills me in on the mural’s story.

“We wanted to pay tribute to a South African musician,” he says. “Two names came up – Zim Ngqawana and Bheki Mseleku.”

Péguillan says they decided on Mseleku because there are so many musicians to whom he is a huge influence.

Drummer Justin Badenhorst, who doubles as a visual artist, suggested a mural and so, in July 2014, on one of the coldest weeks in Johannesburg, Badenhorst began to paint.

“It took him two days, hanging on some scaffolding, freezing cold, with an iPad in his left hand,” says Péguillan, chuckling at the memory.

As Péguillan and I chat on the balcony, The Orbit’s punters hurriedly finish their cigarettes in anticipation of the next set as Mseleku towers above us.

It’s like he is watching over us, hoping that we spend the time to decipher the messages he has left us in song.

Hoping that we bring the same kind of self-realisation to our own lives, become unblocked spiritual vessels and not be driven by money, greed and spiritual recalcitrance.

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