/ 20 April 2021

Bheki Mseleku: Living inside the sound world

Bheki Mseleku’s Beyond The Stars broadens the language for thinking about approaches to the solo piano. (Tapestry Works)

Solo piano as a practice in jazz contexts is still rare in South Africa, both for its practitioners and audiences, at least compared to the massive catalogue of ensemble-playing records. 

Historically, there have, however, been some jazz solo piano record releases in South Africa. Here I am thinking of Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Piano (1973) and Dream Time (2019), Tete Mbambisa’s Black Heroes (2012), Chris McGregor’s Sea Breezes (1987), Bheki Mseleku’s Meditations (1992) and, more recently, my own release of Reflections (2017) and Kyle Shepherd’s Into Darkness (2014). 

Of course, I have not mentioned every single jazz solo piano album ever recorded in South Africa, but some that come to mind and hold particular positionalities within their specific sonic directions and suggestions in the artform.

There could be several reasons leading to this scarcity. In this short piece I consider some thinking about solo piano in South Africa through an interrogation of Mseleku’s recent release. I attempt to link his practice of solo piano, within jazz, to some earlier musical traditions in South Africa. 

Mseleku’s release (Beyond the Stars, 2021) comes as a much-needed intervention to respond to this paucity. It also cultivates a language for thinking about and reflecting on such a work. Thus, it is important to think of this record not only as an important addition to a rather small catalogue of jazz solo piano albums in South Africa, but also in terms of  the opportunities it offers us to think about the meaning of the artform and what it takes to venture into it. 

Solo playing of any instrument is a concept that is less common in South Africa and the continent at large than elsewhere, perhaps because of cultural frames that inform the arts here. Most of our music is performed in the context(s) of gathering, often around a particular purpose and theme. Similarly, our sound repertoires have been built around events that are closely connected to cosmological changes. 

In this sense, our foremothers and -fathers created songs for various rites of passage and celebrations around change in seasons, among other aspects of life that involved broader communities and environments. This has further anchored the relationship between gatherings of peoples and sound productions. It is also not farfetched to say that, in these contexts, most indigenous African peoples played musical instruments to connect with spirit worlds, which adds another layer to the communal aspects of music-making. 

Although the above is true, there is some context to solo playing that is indigenous to some cultures in Africa. For instance, most people in rural areas in South Africa learn to play musical instruments during their years of animal herding. 

As a herder, one spends a significant amount of time alone in the fields while waiting for animals eating and drinking. Because of this solitude, some people would then make musical instruments and play to suspend time spent waiting. 

In this sense, the instrument becomes a companion that a musician enters a dialogue with, as opposed to a tool used only to express one’s ideas. We also see the legacies of such practice in the early maskanda (and perhaps to this day in the rural areas), whereby a maskanda musician would walk long distances accompanied by the sound of their guitar and voice.  

It is within these contexts that I would like to discuss, however briefly, Mseleku’s contribution to thinking about solo piano. Let us for a second visualise someone seated at the piano. It often looks like a spaceship. This is an image I have in my head and spirit, of course, when I think of Mseleku. I see and hear someone travelling into space dimensions. 

This depiction developed in my initial encounters with Mseleku at the Arthur Smith Hall at the then Durban Technikon Natal. Most of us, as students then, knew him as that elder who spends long hours going inside the piano. 

If you had seen Mseleku play, you would agree with this notion: he literally would have moments in which he comes very close to the piano keys. At other times, it was as though he wanted to push his head inside the piano lid. But he also went inside the sounds. It is this travelling away into other spheres that is of interest to me. 

If we were to think about a pianist as someone who throws sounds at themselves while throwing themselves into the sound spheres, perhaps this is one way to understand Mseleku’s deep engagement with the practice. Those who knew Mseleku closely would tell you that he spent hours at the piano, sometimes playing nonstop, overnight. 

This could be likened to the notion of a herdsman who leaves everything behind and ventures into the fields to have conversations with their instruments. It is a search for a type of freedom. Mseleku was attracted to this kind of freedom that playing “alone” offered. 

He had also expressed his dislike of the human conceptions of time, for instance, in the case of a recording session, a rehearsal and even a performance in public venues. He found human “conventional” commitment to time within the frames of a “session” significantly limiting. Instead, he believed in endlessness/timelessness. It is in this belief that Mseleku anchored his practice, compositional approach and his philosophy of the afterlife. He was fond of cycles as a way to understand being or even artistic pursuits. 

It is in these cycles that Mseleku challenges and problematises notions of time. His solo piano approach can be seen as the act of “suspending time”, something also expressed profoundly on his solo piano suite Meditations (1992), which I have also discussed in Encountering Bheki Mseleku: A Biographical-Analytical Consideration of his Life and Music (2018). And in the liner notes to Beyond the Stars I discussed Mseleku’s complicated relationship with “home” — his notion of home transcended geography. Perhaps he  regarded sound as home? 

In this sense, we could think of Mseleku’s years in self-imposed exile — as his friend Eugene Skeef notes, “… sometimes Bheki would ask club owners to lock him inside the club to play overnight” — or his several moments of retreat in the Krishna temple as attempts to suspend time. 

He also spoke about moments of detachment from the material world. Even as a person, Mseleku gave all that he had to others; he related this act to a mode of purification. Thus, to understand Mseleku’s solo piano approach we have to keep in mind both his notions of home and time. 

There seems to be an aspect of “wonder” in Mseleku’s approach to improvisation that is deeply expressed in his solo piano approach. Wonder in the sense that it is beyond human comprehension to fully understand the mystical nature of sound. That leaves humans with one option: to go inside the sound as an experience. 

The closest experience Mseleku likened this mystery to was love, which he understood as being simple until one tries to analyse it. He argued that it is simpler to experience love than to speak about it. I agree with this notion; I accept the impossibility of speaking about the sound, but making an attempt to do so anyway. 

Mseleku’s solo piano works are forms of journeying with the spirit worlds. In other words, Mseleku’s contribution to solo piano lives inside the sound: that is what gives him an immortal status. For us on this side, we can experience a glimpse of Mseleku’s sound worlds through experiencing his music. I am referring to a kind of listening that happens beyond our ears — in the depths of our soul. This I call listening as knowing.  

Recording artist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini wrote this article as a way of thinking through Bheki Mseleku’s Beyond The Stars (Tapestry Works), a recently-released  solo piano session recorded in 2003 in London