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Bheki Mseleku: An activist on his own terms

In 1985, I met Bheki Mseleku in Botswana. In April that year there was an event called Freedom Melody: a whole lot of bands got together and played. The African Jazz Pioneers were there, I think, and the Jazz Survivors from Zimbabwe.

Bheki came through for that and then there was Bra Hugh Masakela’s band, Kalahari, and Bra Jonas Gwangwa’s band that I was playing in, called Shakawe. He came and he guested with Shakawe, playing tenor saxophone at some point. 

Bheki just astounded everybody. He played both piano and sax, sometimes at the same time. He was just very musical. He was like, I would say, a Mozart. If you listen, harmonically he plays within the structure of the rules, often. His approach is within functional harmony, whereas other people would go outside and do other things. He often used the functional harmony. 

Even though Bheki had a great technique and could play very fast, the other thing is that he was very strong on melody. That, I think, was quite a remarkable feature of his.

He was really quite influenced by McCoy Tyner, who played with John Coltrane. There is a lineage there between Tyner and Bheki and then into a whole lot of the new crop of South African pianists. I think he’s had quite an extensive influence on most of them. 

It’s a question of melody and also inflection of a sound from here. He vocalised quite a lot of his lines, which set him apart from Tyner and that tradition over there. But I remember, at the time, people were saying: “But hey, you are not playing South African music?” 

There was a contestation. I regarded it thus: with Bra Hugh and Bra Jonas, we were playing struggle music. It was kind of overtly against the system. Whereas Bheki was always … For example, when I went to London and I saw him some place and I said: “Well, have you been in touch with anyone from home?” He turned and said: “Where’s home?”

So he was not nationalistic in that way of thinking: “Okay, I’m in exile and South Africa’s there. It’s a dream and I can’t wait to get.” This is how the expansive dimension that he brought was different to the kind of thrust of the day, in terms of what a cultural activist should be doing. 

I think I’d say, in hindsight, if you look at the influence and what the interests of the young people have been, they’ve been more geared towards exploring what he could bring, and exploring harmony more than [having] the marabi and the mbaqanga tradition being carried on and continued.

Also, Bheki would sing a simple song and get the heavy jazz guys to join in and he wouldn’t think of it. He wouldn’t compartmentalise, in any way, whatever he was doing.

Also, I find with musicians, there is a tendency that the greater the profile of the musician, the more deference you give them in social situations. Bheki was just Bheki whoever he came across. If he had money he’d give it away sometimes and just be very unmaterialistic.

In 2003 he heard me playing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. He came up to me and said: “Wow, you’ve grown. It’s really an inspiration.” That made me happy; that he had listened.

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