A call came through this morning from a mutual friend who actually introduced us; our friend, prodigious musician Bheki Mseleku apparently passed away on Tuesday night. At the time of writing this, the details are as yet unavailable as to how or why or where this happened.
To say that Bheki was an authentic genius (in a world full of fakes) would be a gross understatement. He played several instruments with equal brilliance – piano, saxophone, guitar, and he was a prolific composer, vocalist and all around recording artist.
Sometimes if he felt like it he’d play more than one instrument – at the same time. He played with some of the greatest in the world: Joe Henderson, Abbey Lincoln, Pharoah Sanders, and Elvin Jones, amongst others, and yet he always remained true to his South African roots and soul.
I met Bheki eight years ago when he performed at a new years’ eve gig on Robben Island. Before then I knew his music and his reputation as an excellent musician. I was expecting to meet a difficult, aloof person who would not want to give me the time of day. Boy was I wrong.
Bheki had time for everybody, sometimes to a fault. He talked and interacted with everyone who demanded it of him, and he was equally giving of everything he had. Material possessions were never important to him, and if you asked him for the shirt on his back, he would have gladly given it to you.
I asked him about this once, about how I did not see the wisdom in just giving until you had nothing more to give. He replied: “If you asked me for something, clearly you need it. And besides, everything can be replaced.”
Bheki was deeply spiritual, which is very different from being deeply religious. His spirituality transcended creed, and he was embracing of all faiths, as long as it made sense to him and made each of us a more conscious human being. By the time I met him he was a teetotaller and would not even be in a room where people were smoking.
Filmaker Khubu Meth once offered her home for an after party after Bheki performed with a group of students from a technikon in KwaZulu-Natal. We all rushed to Khubu’s house after the show, hoping to hang with him.
By the time Bheki arrived with his group, the house was full of cigarette smoke. He walked in, pinched his nose, calmly explained that he cannot be in a house full of cigarette smoke because of the bad energy emitted, and walked away.
Yes, Bheki was eccentric. He would sometimes disappear from his friends and family for weeks if not months on end, and he could be completely unpredictable. I only saw him lose his temper once, when the group of musicians that was going to be playing with him at the then North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town were complaining about long working hours and not enough compensation. Bheki responded quickly that the only people allowed to complain were those that came on time to rehearsals, and those that had already learnt their music off by heart. Everyone just shut up and played to Bheki’s music.
Bheki tried to fit back into South Africa after a couple of decades living and playing in London, but it never really worked for him and I suspect he never found the home he thought he was coming back to.
By the time Bheki died we hadn’t talked for a couple of years. His friends were all disturbed to read a story in a newspaper about a month ago reporting that he was in a mental institution. This was never confirmed, but it really does not matter anymore. We are left with a beautiful legacy of his music.
You’ll be sorely missed, Bheki. See you on the other side.
Kgomotso Matsunyane is a writer, producer and partner at T.O.M. Pictures, an award winning TV and Film Company in Jo’burg.