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‘Mr Bruce’ remembered: An indelible first impression led to a lifelong friendship

The first time I saw Bheki Mseleku was at a festival in Durban in the early ’70s. The gig was rained out. The promoter had ducked so everyone moved to the shelter of a grandstand. The Expressions, one of the groups featured that day, was a Movers-type, organ-driven soul band with a little portable Farfisa organ. On it was Bheki. He produced some crazy sounds, playing the keyboard with his hands, feet, nose and even his tongue. 

The next big occasion, for me, was at the Bellville Civic Centre in Cape Town with the Sounds Black 77 tour. It was early days yet for synthesisers and here he was on stage doing his thing with the seminal South African group Spirits Rejoice.

I caught up with him backstage after the gig, not realising that I would see him again only in 1995 in Durban, with an outfit from England called Ngoma.

In the meantime, like many creative people during that period, he had gone into exile, living first in Sweden before settling in London, where he established himself on the European music scene.

He told me later about touring the US with Philip Tabane and Malombo, how he once saw his hero, McCoy Tyner, playing in a real dive. This threw Bheki: he couldn’t understand how someone so gifted had to play in a venue where he was disrespected and unappreciated. 

For a while Bheki thought of quitting music. Later in London he hooked up with Russell Herman, who sacrificed his career as a guitarist with District Six and the Kintones to manage “Mr Bruce”, as we called Bheki. (This came from Bheki’s habit of calling people “My broer”.)

Bheki came home, did some gigs in Jozi, went back to England and then came out with Ngoma in 1995. But these were lean times for Mr Bruce. I recall only a handful of gigs that he did at home in Durban, something like four shows in four years. 

For a while he had steady work teaching at the local technikon’s light music department, but only once a week.

Mr Bruce was humble and spiritual and open to all forms of belief. He was into meditation and read widely on all religions. He was respectful to everyone, no matter what their standing in life. 

With his humble nature, he was ripped off in South Africa by people who claimed to have his interests at heart. Bheki was conned out of his piano, a sore point, by a sleazeball who promised to look after it while he went on tour with the British jazz pianist Julian Joseph. He returned to find that he could not get his instrument back. It didn’t really make him bitter — he said he hoped that those desperate enough to rip him off could make better use of the piano than he would.

Occasionally, I’d run into him at a club in the early hours of the morning. We would take ourselves off to talk and on occasion he would even silence the garrulous Sandile Dikeni with his take on metaphysics and other related issues. 

Once I got him jogging on the beachfront. I was surprised, because he was a sedate person who ambled along in cruise mode. 

One of the last times I saw him he was preparing to go back to London, not just for work but because his passport was about to expire and had to return to renew it. He needed a letter for the airlines from my sister, who was treating him for diabetes.

I called him in London once. He was preparing to open for Femi Kuti. I thought it should have been the other way around. 

Mostly, I wanted to tour with him, to record visually what he was up to. He once sent a message saying: “You’ve got it, Mr Bruce. You must join me.”

A week before his passing, he forwarded a new email address via a friend. Sadly, I never got to talk to him again.

Eish my broer, my heart is still sore. Hamba kahle bhuti wam’. 

This article was initially penned in 2008 as an obituary on the passing of Mseleku, who passed away on 9 September that year, a day after the author’s birthday. 

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