It’s tough to be a prophet in your own country. Bheki Mseleku has a list of credits and accolades that is as long as your arm, yet it’s hard for him to rustle up a decent audience in South Africa. He’s played and recorded with the supreme masters of African-American music like Joe Henderson, Abbey Lincoln, Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, and the Young Turks of British jazz like Steve Williamson and Courtney Pine.
But in the vast (and inappropriate) venue of Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Arena, where he was appearing on a double bill with Cuban piano wizard
Chucho Valdez last week, he could barely muster a few hundred hard-core fans. Still, those who were there did respond to his masterful set with rapt attention and a standing ovation at the end.
But why do so few South Africans know or care who Bheki Mseleku is? He will play to sold-out houses in Europe and the United States, and his albums go like hot cakes out there. But ask a young South African about him, and, if they’ve heard of him at all, the most likely response will be: “Oh, he’s Wendy Mseleku’s uncle, right?”
Now, Wendy (may she rest in peace) was a young woman of blossoming talent in the world of local pop music. Bheki, on the other hand, is a superbly honed, internationally recognised intellectual giant in the complex and unpredictable world of jazz music. It is no disrespect to the memory of Wendy to say that we’re talking about chalk and cheese here.
The years of deprivation, Bantu Education, and across-the-board alienation have certainly played their part in making the South African public less than eager to take on anything that has the whiff of intellectualism about it. We have inherited a culture of supposedly struggle-orientated contempt for anything that might be construed as high art, with the unpleasant associations of elitism and Eurocentrism that it invokes. (You only need to look at how the legacies of great artists like Gerard Sekoto, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Dumile Feni and many others are ignored in the new South Africa to get what I mean.)
And yet jazz at its best speaks to the deepest and most subtle parts of the human soul, with an unmistakably African accent. And when someone takes jazz as far out on a limb as Bheki does, Africans should sit up and listen — no matter how hard it might be to follow the complex arguments his music proposes.
Elitist Bheki ain’t. On the contrary, he’s the most unassuming brother you could meet. And when I say his music is deeply intellectual, the statement should be read in the context of a man who has had no formal musical education, and who cannot even read or write in the accepted, European-originated system of musical notation.
There are, after all, other routes to profound enlightenment than the rigid limits of the academy. And profoundly enlightened, and enlightening, Bheki’s music certainly is.
Bheki came into jazz through his father, who had a piano, a collection of jazz and classical records, and a passion for music, which he instilled in his son within the confines of their township house on the outskirts of Durban. When his father died, Bheki somehow managed to hold on to that passion — even after the piano on which he would have been taking his first shaky steps on the road to brilliance was chopped up for firewood because the family was so poor.
He would move hungrily round the township of Lamontville in search of any house that happened to own a piano so that he could practise and work out his own interpretation of the sounds he was listening to. And, being Durban, the sounds were eclectic.
“I would listen to Muslim music coming out of the mosques, and Hindu music coming out of the Indian shops,” he says. “And then there were Cape musicians like Mankunku who would bring that Lusikisiki sound into Durban — not to mention all the black American jazz that we would listen to on the radio and on gramophones.
“A true jazz musician is one who is open to all cultures — even if he was in touch with extra-terrestrials, he would incorporate that sound into what he plays. You can’t be scared of new ideas.”
It is not entirely impossible that Bheki Mseleku has indeed been in touch with a number of extra-terrestrials in the course of his journey through life and music. There is something spiritual and other-worldly about him, and about his music, that defies categorisation. His sound is rigorous, constantly searching for a purer truth. And in every session that he plays, he takes the audience and musicians along with him on a journey in search of a higher plane.
Why would such a widely recognised artist choose to return to his home town of Durban, where the pickings are so lean, when, out of meagre beginnings, he has been able to lay the world at his feet, and choose in which direction he should set off next?
His answer is that, even though South African musicians have a lot to learn (even the most celebrated among them), “there is something here that you don’t find even with the best of black American musicians”. Whatever the cost, he needs to stay closer to the source.
“Apartheid cut our umbilical chord,” he says. “It separated us from a previous generation of music and musicians” — many of whom had set him off on his personal road to jazz and enlightenment.
He not only wants to give back what he has learnt on that extraordinary journey, he also wants to ensure that the great music of the past is given its proper place in South African life and learning.
Like I said, Bheki Mseleku might well be a prophet without a place in his own society. But at least he has around him a small band of apostles who might well carry his extraordinary word into the future.
John Matshikiza is a fellow of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research
Archive: Previous columns by John Matshikiza