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Bheki Mseleku: ‘He could play anything in any key’

I taught with Bheki Mseleku in the music department, which was at Technikon Natal’s City  Campus, before the merger to form the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Before I met Bheki, I’d encountered his music. I have quite a clear recollection of that. I was a student. I remember sitting in my car with Lex Futshane and Feya Faku. I can’t remember if there was anyone else. Feya had got a recording of Bheki’s album Celebration. We were listening to it in the car. That was the first time I’d ever heard him and I couldn’t believe it was a South African musician because I just found it so super advanced, such an international sound but so local at the same time.

A lot of people think of McCoy Tyner as Bheki’s piano influence. There’s a lot of the same kind of sound in the way they play the piano, which is more as a percussive instrument. It’s almost like Africanising the instrument: a kind of attack. When I heard him, I heard an African Chick Corea. That’s how it sounded to me at the time. 

Years later I was teaching at the Natal Technikon and there was a guy there called Reagan Jacobus. He was in charge of student affairs or something. Somehow he had hooked this thing up to bring Bheki in. We were never clear what his actual position was. In hindsight I think, effectively, his position was artist in residence. Demi Fernandez was asked to assign him six periods of teaching per week. When Bheki came into the department, we were trying to figure out how to make use of him because he was such an incredible musician and artist. He couldn’t fit into the conventional timetable, as it were. 

In the beginning, Demi would have preferred to put times into the timetable, but Bheki preferred to work at night. And so, ultimately, his interactions with students were in this loose, informal way. The students were always around practising and he was also practising in the Arthur Smith Hall. Ultimately he wanted to put a band together.

Feya and Lex were teaching for us at the technikon as well. Guys like Sandile Shange were around. And then Bheki also started to attract musicians from out of town.

Lulu Gontsana, for example, was based in Joburg. I think he had had enough of Joburg and was looking to get out of there. For a time we were able to hook up some teaching at Technikon for Lulu as well. He came down to play.

There was also a drummer from Zimbabwe, Jethro Shasha, he came down to play. There was also Bheki’s longtime associate Enoch Mthalane. 

This group of musicians was playing the music that would appear on Bheki’s Home At Last album. He was bringing these tunes into rehearsals. Effectively, he was workshopping them with us, trying out different musical forms and so on. For us it was like going back to music school because so much of his older stuff, which we just loved, was above our heads. It was very advanced musical information. 

It was kind of ironic because we were the guys who had gone to music school and he hadn’t. But he knew so much more about music. When I got into this thing, Bheki was a multi-instrumentalist and he seemed more interested in playing the saxophone than the piano. I ended up playing piano and on the occasional tunes where he did play piano, I would play second keyboard. 

The opening of the ICC in Durban in 1997 was one of the gigs we did and then we did a few in Jo’burg.

A music teacher and one-time bandmate of Bheki Mseleku’s, Neil Gonsalves remembers the experience as akin to being a student in a professional band. ( Doug Mostert)

I felt like I was never ready to play his music. It was like a step too far. I always felt like a student in a professional band. I felt like I wasn’t doing it justice. But Bheki was super-cool and super-patient. He’d spend a lot of time with us, not just teaching us the music but teaching us the information that we didn’t have. He was a generous cat as well. With Bheki, there was much more than the music. The music was serving something greater. There was always this extra dimension, a kind of spiritual aspect. 

On that front, I was not really in that inner circle, but Bheki did try to connect with the musicians on that level as well. He was always sharing books. And the books were basically esoteric things. Some of the musicians were more open to that and some less so.

With Bheki … he had this kind of presence and a reputation. He represented this kind of figure and everybody knew what a supreme talent he was. But also, he was kind of elusive in a way. You couldn’t completely understand him. There was some stuff that was operating at another level. When someone has this sense of mystery and you speak about them, there’s always a certain element of theatre when it comes to performance time. You are kind of sitting there and wondering, well, what is gonna happen next. There is always that aspect. 

Speaking for myself, I wasn’t up to Bheki’s level. I’ll never be, but it was the expectation I had for myself. In rehearsal we’d go over things, certain kinds of rhythmic and harmonic things and he could hear everything. You play one note wrong, out of a hundred notes, and he could hear that note. So you were trying to do something that was better than your best at the time.

His music was very demanding technically and harmonically. Most times, if you’re playing a typical jazz tune, you might go through one or two keys. With Bheki’s music, most often, you were going through three or four keys. And the chords were extremely extended … For musicians, we learn hundreds of different scales for the purposes of improvisation. But the truth of the matter is that with most jazz we improvise over, we are using a small percentage of all of those. With Bheki’s music, you are using all the scales and all the keys.

It was similar to Coltrane. Coltrane was also one of those guys where some of his music can almost be a musical étude. It’s an exercise intended to extend the musician and his capacity, to push them to go beyond. If you are comfortable as a musician, playing the Great American Songbook, the Real Book and all of these standards, you will be at a certain level of expertise and everyone will recognise you as a professional who is extremely capable. When you are dealing with Bheki’s music, it’s significantly more difficult than your standard repertoire. It’s like if you are used to swimming in shallow water, and suddenly you can’t feel the ground under your feet. That’s kind of what it’s like.

Around musicians of his stature there is always this stuff of legend. I’d hear from musicians like Brian Thusi that after Bheki would do a gig, he’d stay at the club and practise the whole night through. I’d believe that because I saw that for myself, sometimes him practising for days at a time. He’d built up certain kinds of resources. He’d spent a lot of time meditating. So he was able to do this with very little food or nourishment. Brian says he’d have a Real Book in front of him. He’d learn a tune and then just tear the pages out of a book. He knew he’d never need it again because he’d memorised it. 

My experience of him was that he could play anything in any key. Sometimes we’d come to a rehearsal and we’d been checking the tune the day before. We’d start playing the tune and then try to figure out what’s gone wrong. But it would be that Bheki had forgotten what key he’d taught it to us in and had started playing in a different key. 

Obviously he was a genius and had that gift, but I think he also had a desire to search and seek and look for some kind of truth, in terms of life, the universe and making sense of things, and music became a part of that. It became an expression of that search. And I think he began it quite young in life.

I remember playing with Tu Nokwe as well, playing a tune in her repertoire that he’d written. As soon as I heard that tune, I knew immediately that this was a Bheki Mseleku tune. It had all those hallmarks of that stuff that we’d play so many years later. He was advanced from a young age and I think he held himself up to the highest standard.

The Neil Gonsalves Trio’s Blessings and Blues is available via social media and on digital platforms

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