Beyond the Stars

This record comes at a time when everyone is looking for Bheki Mseleku, whether in the current jazz moment in South Africa or in London where he was exiled. Since Mseleku’s passing on the 9th of September 2008, there has been a noticeable growth of interest in his life and work. Hisinfluence on current jazz voices in South Africa is vast –compositionally, pianistically (some follow him as a saxophonist) and philosophically. As someone who believed strongly in ideas of afterlife and reincarnation, it is not difficult to see significance in Mseleku’s sudden re-emergence into current conversations around jazz globally.

Towards the end of Mseleku’s life (one of many lives, as he believed), we begin to see some kind of conflict emerge within his notion of home. Perhaps this was partly due to insufficient recognition back in South Africa, relative to that received by his fellow exiled contemporaries in the post ’94 moment. His only South African release, 2003’s Home at Last (Sheer Sound), poses significant questions about what constitutes our notion of home. Is home a geographic location? Is home a spiritual construct? Is home a people who inhabit a particular space, their dance and song? His departure back to London in 2005 suggests that thecountry of his birth might not have provided him with all the answers to such questions.

Having listened many times to Beyond the Stars, both in tears and in absolute bliss, the album provides a variety of responses to these questions of home. Compositionally, Mseleku takes the listener on a sonic pilgrimage from the beautiful and organic landscapes of Durban, to the vibrant city energy of London and ultimately towards the innerdimensions of one’s being. The record opens with ‘Cosmic Dance’, which is deeply anchored in South African musical expressions and traditions, and concludes with ‘Transcendence’, a reminder that the ultimate goal is totranscend all physical limitations, and travel towards nirvana. In this way, Mseleku prepares us and victoriously paints a divine summary of his life story. 

Though Mseleku was in London at the time of the recording, his memories of South Africa are further evoked in tunes such as ‘Izanusi’ (The Diviners) and ‘Ekhaya’ (Home), which signal his lasting connection to the music of his people, music which he absorbed in his upbringing in South Africa. While ‘Izanusi’ deals with an ancient Zulu music style referred to as amahubo (popularized by Princess Magogo), ‘Ekhaya’ is based on a later genre called marabi (this style emerged in the early 1920s), moving through its characteristic I IV V progression whilst Mseleku also draws closer to home throughhis use of maskanda articulation. 

In ‘Isango’ (The Gateway), Mseleku opens in a reflective mood and soon develops a subtle groove. Later in this track he brings in his signature chants, again borrowing from the Nguni tribes of Southern Africa. His improvisation invokes the spirit of McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, whom he looked up to. Keeping that in mind, some of Mseleku’s greatest influences came out of the diaspora in the Americas. This chapter of his story is beautifully narrated through ‘Light of Love’, both in his choice of harmonies and his improvisation.

Though Mseleku had previously recorded a lot of composed and arranged music, on this record it feels as though he is deliberately modulating between what exists in the present, and future possibilities. In that dichotomy, Mseleku also explores what lives in the liminal space – that which is divorced from the realm of the known past, but has not yetreached the present. It is this part that exists ‘beyond the stars’, where Mseleku has finally found his home.

For the ones that are left behind, the reflectiveness of this record becomes a portal for healing. While it is clear how Mseleku generated healing vibrations for himself through the record, it is with the same intensity that our encounter with this work is located in the healing rivers of Mseleku’s tears. 

Let me take no further time from you. If you have not listened to this record, now is the time to do so.


Nduduzo Makhathini

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One thought on “Beyond the Stars

  1. Yebo! Thanks as ever for your tireless efforts towards the proper memorialisation of Bheki Mseleku. You hold the torch of his light so high and so bright that he will forever be in our humble midst. Camagu


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