June 21, 2024


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Abdullah Ibrahim – He could have lost all connection with South Africa, but he chose not to: Video

09.10. – Happy Birthday !!! Born in one of South Africa’s worst ghettoes, he went into exile with a style of jazz that made him famous internationally and an icon at home. Maya Jaggi on the musician who now believes that Islam and eastern philosophy saved his life and deepened his music.

Soon after September 11, when a gunman rampaged through the Swiss regional parliament in Zug, Swiss television interrupted its news coverage for an unscheduled broadcast. It was Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Suite, recorded in 1997 by the pianist and composer in Fribourg cathedral, with string players from the European Community Youth Orchestra. “It’s because of the healing power of music,” says Ibrahim, who believes musicians are miscast as entertainers when their role is more akin to that of healers.

Since he first fled South Africa in 1962, Ibrahim’s increasingly spiritual and meditative jazz has won followers across Europe, the US and Japan and made him an icon at home. In the 50s as Dollar Brand (he took the name Abdullah Ibrahim in the 60s when he converted to Islam), he led Cape Town’s short-lived flowering of bebop-inspired jazz. When the apartheid clampdown came, he became one of the most successful, and – with some 100 albums – prolific, musicians in the exodus, alongside the singer Miriam Makeba and the trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

For Rob Allingham, a music historian and archivist at Gallo records in Johannesburg, Ibrahim was unique in “making it in the international jazz world without qualifications”. A protege of Duke Ellington, he developed free-form jazz in New York in the 60s, playing with John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Yet his fusion draws on Cape Town roots. Nigel Williamson, a music critic and compiler of a recent Ibrahim retrospective CD, says that “more than anyone else, Ibrahim united African roots with 20th-century American jazz; he’s always had a profound sense that jazz is African music”. Ellington told him: “You’re blessed because you come from the source.”

“He could have lost all connection with South Africa, but he chose not to,” says Mandla Langa, a writer who was the African National Congress-in-exile’s cultural attaché in Europe. “He aligned himself with the liberation movement, creating a bridge between the country and exile.” His mainly instrumental compositions, charting the trials and sorrows of exile and apartheid yet with an insistently celebratory lilt, became wordless expressions of freedom and defiance. Unlike many exiles, he survived to perform at the 1994 presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, to whom he had dedicated a jauntily upbeat tune. Backstage, Mandela returned the compliment. “Bach? Beethoven? We’ve got better,” he said.

Ibrahim, who also sings, plays flutes, saxophone and cello, is legendary for solo piano performances that elide his compositions into long, unbroken sets. On his new CD, African Symphony, his trio is recorded for the first time with a full orchestra, the Munich Radio Symphony, in arrangements by the Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder. For the Guardian’s jazz critic, John Fordham, Ibrahim’s music “hides orchestras in single chords [and] drum choirs in bursts of low- register hammering”. Schnyder says Ibrahim “wanted to evoke huge African landscapes. He hears even piano music in colours. There are stories behind every piece, which relates to the late Romantic idea of the symphonic poem.”

Uniting audiences for jazz, classical and “world” music, Ibrahim insists on their connections. He notes that Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata – originally dedicated to the black violinist George Bridgetower – was incomplete at the first performance “so they improvised. Classical trumpeters improvise too, it’s no big deal.” His approach is to absorb everything. “Indian ragas or Stockhausen; for us it’s music, it doesn’t matter where it came from.”

Recently in London with his trio, Ibrahim, now 67, is a tall, dignified figure, in loose clothes. He speaks in a weary murmur about the “unroutine routine” of being on the road. A voluble and often amusing raconteur, he can be enigmatic or sharp in nailing a political point. According to the author Margaret Busby, he is a “wonderful storyteller in words and music”. Of the term “world music”, Ibrahim says scornfully: “If what I grew up with in South Africa is world music, I don’t know what it means. Perhaps it’s to identify it as folklore. But what makes it separate? Satchmo [Louis Armstrong] said, ‘All music is folk music: I never heard a horse sing.’ The only criterion I have is whether it moves you.”

Ibrahim returned to Cape Town soon after Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. He and his wife, the jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, now move between their house there and an apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel. They have a son, Tsakwe, who is a pianist and guitarist in Cape Town, and a daughter, Tsidi, in New York, who is a rapper known as What What.

Ibrahim plays an increasing role as an educator in a still deeply traumatised country. M7 is his academy for “our music”, aimed at fostering the well-being of young musicians. It opened in Cape Town in 1999. “It started off with me wanting to teach people to play, but it goes far beyond that,” he says. The seven “Ms” embrace not only music but martial arts and “menu-mastering”. Among the staff are musicians, homeopaths and acupuncturists. “It’s a reflection of our insight as it unfolds – how to live a more holistic lifestyle.”

In September last year Ibrahim was diagnosed as having prostate cancer, but considers himself “fortunate because I changed my lifestyle 30 years ago”. A vegetarian, teetotaller and karate expert, he is a devotee of the 17th-century Japanese samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi, who distilled the philosophies of Zen, Shinto and Confucius. Ibrahim says: “Practising martial arts, one has a better sense of one’s own physical routine; I identified that something was not right.” A New York neurologist – “who happened to be a piano player” – recommended eight weeks’ radiation therapy, and he now appears clear of the disease. His cancer, and South Africa’s Aids pandemic, highlighted a need to broach taboos. “At M7 we’ve broken the code of silence which can be devastating in communities. Apartheid compounded taboos normal in any society; to protect children, many things were hidden.”

He was born in 1934 in Kensington, Cape Town, reputed to be the worst ghetto in South Africa. Baptised Adolph Johannes Brand, he found out only in adulthood that his father, Sentso, was from the Sotho people, and had been murdered when his son was four. Ibrahim’s mother, Rachel, was from a “coloured” (mixed-race) family . Ibrahim says: “There was heavy, simmering racism – anti-African feeling – in our communities. My grandparents gave me their name so I’d be classified as coloured; I thought they were my parents. I grew up believing that my mother was my sister. That code of silence was created by the system. I was saddled with a lot of bitterness at an early age.” At 17 he ran away to look for his real father, “ending up drifting into trouble”. When his grandmother, Margaret, was dying, “she sent me a note saying my father was a Sotho, murdered by a so-called coloured thug. We’ve never been able to find the dossier.”

His grandmother founded a local branch of the African Methodist Episcopalian church, brought to South Africa by African-American missionaries along with gospel and spirituals. She and his mother were church pianists and he fought for piano lessons at the age of seven. “I had a hard time, because the piano was only for little girls. But there was something about the instrument… there are many things I discovered, and am still discovering, through the music.” It proved a lifeline in District Six, the vibrant but crime-ridden “coloured” neighbourhood at the foot of Table Mountain, which was later bulldozed by the apartheid regime. “We grew up drinking alcohol and smoking pot, and I lost a lot of close friends to gangs and prison; they died of addiction or were murdered. The thing that saved me was the music. In all that horror it was at least clean; you were dealing with something beautiful.”

He was refused entry to both medical school and music conservatory because of his race, “so I decided to study on my own – I’m still studying. The quest for knowledge was insatiable in the ghetto.” He read everything in the public library “three times”. “We were reading Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, Shakespeare, the Bhagavad Gita, Confucius. We realised that though we were in bondage, our minds were not.”

He picked up the nickname “Dollar” buying 78 swing records from black GIs in the seaport during the second world war. “We never regarded the music as foreign; it was just the music of our brothers and sisters in another part of the world.” He began performing at the age of 15, as a vocalist, then with big swing bands such as the Tuxedo Slickers, playing ballroom “quicksteps and foxtrots. I became a very sought-after pianist. I played wherever I could get paid.” He was often caught up in turf wars among the gangsters, or tsotsis , who ruled township nightlife. “I was very sickly and used to get beaten up – perhaps that’s why I took to martial arts.”

The bebop of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk arrived in the mid-50s. “It totally changed the picture of South African jazz,” says Lars Rasmussen, Ibrahim’s discographer and editor of Cape Town Jazz: 1959-63 (2001). “The smaller combos started playing bebop; the scene exploded, and Abdullah was number one.” By 1961, Drum magazine in Johannesburg announced that “Cape Town jazz is now the tops”. The pianist has likened the Cape melting-pot to New Orleans, the cradle of jazz 50 years earlier. His influences include not only “Christian hymns played with a Cape Town beat”, township jive and Debussy, but Cape Malay carnival music, Khoi-san songs and the choral tradition (“Ours is the only revolution that happened in four-part harmony”). For Langa, Ibrahim “reclaimed Cape music associated with ‘minstrels’ and ‘coon carnivals’ and gave it a new life”.

“Abdullah was the one who said, ‘we must add an African touch’,” says Rasmussen, who sees him as heir to marabi players, who performed non-stop for hours on guitars or harmoniums in the shebeens. Ibrahim recognised boo gie-woogie as derived from African drumming, the samba as reaching Brazil via Angolan slaves: “It’s the same beat all the way up the coast of Africa.” In the swing era, he says, “you couldn’t distinguish whether it was a Count Basie riff or out of the township”. When he began to compose “at a very early age, I was compared to Monk and Debussy. But for us, what Monk did was so natural; the rhythmic approach people found weird was totally in the African tradition. When I met him, I said thank you for all the inspiration. He was so surprised; he said, you’re the first piano player to tell me that.”

While jazz represented total freedom of expression, there was pressure to conform. “They didn’t want to deal with the music when they heard the compositions,” Ibrahim recalls. “People called the police to stop me practising; they came with guns.” “They thought he was a madman,” says Rasmussen. “Abdullah was a loner. People wanted to dance and get drunk to music, but he wasn’t an entertainer; he had a spiritual message, even at that time.” Before Ibrahim became a Muslim, according to the late saxophonist Basil Coetzee, he was a “very arrogant, heavy character with no respect for anybody else”. Ibrahim says, “what they saw as arrogance was my refusal to toe the line creatively. I said, ‘I’m not fitting into any groove’.” In Busby’s view, Ibrahim would “hold his own in the company of gangsters or monks”, and she suspects Musashi’s samurai influence: “If you expect him to act one way he’ll act another.”

Brand met Beatty Benjamin, then a schoolteacher and singer, in 1959, when his unorthodox playing had left him “living on the streets of Cape Town”. He was asked to accompany her at a concert. “I thought, wow, beautiful lady, what’s she going to sing?” She chose Ellington, and the relationship grew from there. The couple have often performed and recorded together, and were married in London in 1965. Ibrahim says: “Sathima’s given me a lot of support: it was an endorsement, that in spite of what everyone else was saying, I was on the right path.”

Moving between Cape Town and Johannesburg, he had formed the Dollar Brand trio in 1958. The following year he led the Jazz Epistles, a septet including Masekela, the trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, and the father of South African jazz, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. “They found each other and wanted to play modern jazz, hard bop,” says Rasmussen. The first South African band to record a jazz LP, jazz Epistle Verse 1 (1960), they rivalled US musicians in technique and sophistication. It was “like a music lab,” Masekela recalled. The jazz players epitomised the “New African” – urban and Americanised in defiance of policies denying black people a permanence in the cities other than as a labour pool. With its mixed audiences, jazz symbolised resistance. Not only were the Epistles adopted by gangsters to “show the white folks what we could do”, but with their varied ethnic origins they were a “showcase” for the ANC’s united front.

District Six was the hotbed of the jazz explosion, a “fantastic city within a city”and, says Ibrahim, “where you felt the fist of apartheid it was the valve to release some of that pressure. In the late 50s and 60s, when the regime clamped down, it was still a place where people could mix freely. It attracted musicians, writers, politicians at the forefront of the struggle. We played and everybody would be there.”

But the Jazz Epistles broke up when Masekela and Gwangwa followed Makeba to London in 1960 with the “jazz opera” King Kong, about the boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini. Many stayed on in exile. Ibrahim refused to go. “I said, this isn’t about what’s happening in the country, it’s entertainment. It was supposed to be our big break, but I said, we’re not playing our own music.” He found a garage in Cape Town with a piano and drums and a bed, and practised 20 hours a day for a year, wood-shedding, in Charlie Parker’s term. “That’s when I got the idea of solo piano. I was able to pull it together.”

He felt himself a pioneer in an African tradition. “If you want to be a jazz musician you go back to Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Monk. With us, we were the first; there were no improvisers before us. We had to devise our own vocabulary… with any improvisation, you’re going into uncharted waters, putting your life on the line. But jazz music helps you do that without fear.”

The 1960 Sharpeville massacre heralded a crackdown by the Afrikaner Nationalists (in power since 1948). Mixed-race bands were forbidden, black musicians barred from playing in all-white nightclubs, and a 10pm curfew left them prey to tsotsis or police, who would come to the concerts and interrogate people. Under the pass laws, Ibrahim was “arrested on a daily basis; they’d handcuff you to a fence. You needed permits to go anywhere, saying who the audi ence were, who you were playing with.” Clubs infringing the rules were closed down. “Jazz was an answer to the suppression, and the rulers knew and feared it,” says Rasmussen. “They killed the whole jazz scene.”

In 1962, the year Mandela was imprisoned and the ANC banned, Ibrahim and Benjamin left for Europe. They settled in Zurich, where Benjamin persuaded Ellington to hear her husband play at the Cafe Africana in February 1963. Within four days he had arranged a recording session at his Paris studio. Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio (1963) established Ibrahim as a world-class pianist in the footsteps of Ellington and Monk. The newly-weds moved to New York in 1965, and Ibrahim led Ellington’s orchestra in five east-coast concerts (“exciting but scary – I could hardly play”). Yet when they played at all-white debutantes’ balls, in the intermission “we were herded into the kitchen. I said ‘fuck it, I’m back in South Africa’.”

The early days of “free jazz” were a “fantastic time when everybody arrived in New York City: Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Cherry. We were drawn together in a quest for excellence beyond capacity – like a musical Bauhaus. Older musicians said, ‘you’re breaking the rules’. We said, ‘we know the rules so we can break them’. They thought we were playing free, but we were highly technically skilled.” Yet Ibrahim moved away from abstract jazz. “It got to the point where you couldn’t eat; nobody wanted to listen. I used a very esoteric language. But you realise there are no secrets, only basics. When you have all that technical information behind you, it’s not necessary to manifest all of it. It can be implied by playing one note if your delivery is sincere.”

There was a political rationale too: “That’s what brought us right back home: we were forced to deal with very basic issues, like being in exile; children dying of hunger. In what way can you assist? You become like the voice of the voiceless who have been forced into silence. In some sense we’re blessed, because the struggle kept us oriented at the same time as pursuing personal aspirations.”

But by the late 60s, his health was in decline. Langa recalls the pianist’s drinking bouts as legendary. Ibrahim says: “It’s like being confronted with yourself. That was the realisation that my lifestyle was leading somewhere I didn’t want to be.” Told by his doctors to “straighten up”, he stopped smoking and drinking. Then came a “cleansing period” and a realisation that what was missing was ritual: “I went back to church; I didn’t find it there. I went into all religions – the Gita, I Ching. Then I realised most of the friends I grew up with were Muslim. Cape Town has a rare harmony, intermarriage.”

He returned to Cape Town in 1968 and converted to Islam. It added Arab elements to his music, which over the years has “become more a quest of the inner self”. In 1970 he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. “I never realised there was so much inner joy and peace in prayer,” he says. “The most beautiful, potent aspect of Islam is the unity of things; you can’t throw anything out of the universe. This realisation has been a driving force for me.” In a 1986 Arena film for the BBC, A Brother With Perfect Timing, he said: “Composition means you have to be composed so the message can flow through you – it’s like a state of Zen. It serves as a purification, and it’s a high. The only way down is to let yourself become the vessel of the Almighty.” “But for religion, Abdullah would have been dead”, says Langa, remembering Ibrahim’s drinking. “He’s very disciplined, single-minded. Martial arts and music became self-reinforcing themes of his life.”

After a spell in Swaziland, Ibrahim returned to live in Cape Town in 1973, definitively embracing his musical roots. The peak of a creative outpouring was Mannenberg – Is Where It’s Happening (1974), inspired by the Cape Flats slum where many of those forcibly removed from District Six were sent. As Allingham notes, “from the first bar, you know it could only have come out of South Africa”. Robbie Jansen, who played alto saxophone, says: “In that week we recorded eight albums’ worth of material. Every song we played just once.” It was, he adds, “very difficult to play African music in South Africa then. I was learning to read music, and Abdullah said, ‘take that book away; you don’t want to learn to be American, you want to play like yourself’.”

For Ibrahim, Mannenberg “captured the sound of the mood of the people; all our lives were crystallised in this song”. That mood culminated in the 1976 Soweto students’ uprising. It was prescient, says Langa. “The tune became a popular metaphor for all the townships where the trouble brewed.” African music found a new audience, says Jansen, “because of the revolutionary sound”. The album went double gold in the country and remains an unofficial national anthem.

Soon after Soweto, and only days after organising an illegal ANC benefit concert, Ibrahim fled the country with his wife and two young children, vowing not to return before free elections were guaranteed. Settling in New York, he openly joined the ANC and the regime cancelled his citizenship: “We were cut off from the country.” There were other costs, including the backing of US record companies as his support for the armed struggled became more explicit. Langa says: “Americans want their cultural icons sanitised. Wearing your politics on your sleeve can be problematic.”

Since the mid-70s Ibrahim has been with the Munich-based label Enja,which gave him creative freedom. He also formed his own label and music publishing company, Ekapa (“Cape Town” in Xhosa) in 1981. “One of the reasons I’ve survived is because I take charge of my own affairs,” says Ibrahim, whose wife acted as his manager while in exile. Matthias Winckelmann, head of Enja, says Ibrahim never compromised in his music “and in that sense he’s not a commercial artist”, though his records sell steadily, an average of 30,000 to 50,000 each. “He sees himself as someone who takes care of your health. It’s different to the west, where music is seen as the art of making money.”

In exile Ibrahim introduced his South African sounds to American musicians, including saxophonist Archie Shepp and drummer Max Roach. “Even though he was successful on the club circuit,” says Langa, “by his insistence on a South African idiom he disseminated and created an appetite for South African music.” His combos have included the Ekaya (Home) septet and big bands such as African Space Programme, whose musicians he dubbed “afronauts”. Kalahari Liberation Opera (1982) played across Europe, and Cape Town Traveller (1999) premiered at the Leipzig Operhaus. His film soundtracks include Chocolat (1988) and No Fear, No Die (1990) for the French director Claire Denis, and Tilai (1990) for Burkina Faso’s Idrissa Ouedraogo.

Jansen, who toured with Ibrahim in the early 90s, says he is a “great composer but not easy to work with. A lot of musicians hardly like him because he’s the boss – he has that attitude.” Charles Alexander, publisher of Jazzwise magazine, recalls Ibrahim’s reputation in the 80s as “a prima donna, wanting star treatment like Elton John – at odds with the spiritual side to his playing”. In Langa’s view, “he could come across as aloof and cutting, but that must have been a mechanism to survive, because he’d seen what the world can do to musicians who are too giving of themselves”.

Langa sees Moeketsi as a decisive influence. “He died a pauper’s death. Abdullah decided to take control: he wouldn’t devalue himself; he’d demand things given routinely to other – especially white – musicians. This rankled.” Ibrahim is known to demand from audiences the respect given classical performers: “He wants total silence and the piano to be 102% in tune,” says Jansen. “If someone moves a chair, he stops the concert and goes home.” Yet Ibrahim feels he has mellowed. “I used to walk out if people weren’t attentive. Now we adapt to the natural rhythm of the universe.”

In Germany in 1990 he met Mandela, who invited him to go home. Ibrahim found the return fraught. “It took a long time to be reacclimatised.” After Mantra Modes (1991), his first recording with South African musicians since 1976, in Knysna Blue (1994) he speaks movingly of taking the cable car up Table Mountain – a whites-only prerogative under apartheid. “I met a lot of people from the townships who were also there for the first time. It was a moment of reconciliation and rediscovery, of dealing with demons.”

His new production company, Masingita (Miracle), is backed by South Africa’s only black-owned diamond company. With four successful CDs in the country, Ibrahim is optimistic. “We have access to the airwaves, to business; you can have your own pressing plant. We shouldn’t wait for others to do things for us.” His influence has been manifest, not least on pianists such as Bheki Mselekhu, Paul Hamner, Sipho Mabusi and the late Moses Molelekwa, who committed suicide this year. Yet according to Steve Gordon of Cape Town’s Making Music producers, “we still lack an arts infrastructure; there are limited venues outside major cities.” “The music scene is tough,” says Langa, now director of South Africa’s Independent Broadcasting Trust. “But Abdullah is a survivor. His decision to keep straddling two worlds is not so much a creative impulse as a survival imperative.”

Ibrahim plans an M7 performance space at what was once the entrance to District Six, with healing foremost in his mind. As one who has done much to bring South African music to the world while raising its status at home, he wants new academies and concert halls to draw international crowds. Only then can he give up the road. “I hope that instead of my coming to them, they’ll come to me.”

Life at a glance: Abdullah Ibrahim

Born: Adolf Johannes Brand, October 9 1934; Kensington, Cape Town, South Africa.

Education: Trafalgar high school, Cape Town; 1967 Juilliard School of Music, New York

Married: 1965 Sathima Bea Benjamin (one son, Tsakwe; one daughter, Tsidi).

Some albums: 1960 Jazz Epistle Verse 1; ’64 Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio; ’73 African Sketchbook ; ’74 Underground In Africa; Mannenberg – Is Where It’s Happening; ’76 Black Lightning; Blues For a Hip King Africa; ’79 Africa – Tears and Laughter; ’80 African Marketplace; ’83 African Dawn; ’86 Water From An Ancient Well, ; ’87 Zimbabwe; Banyana; ’88 Mindif; ’89 African River ; ’91 Mantra Mode; ,’92 Desert Flowers; ’94 Knysna Blue; ’95 Yarona; ’97 Cape Town Flowers; ’98 African Suite; 2000 Cape Town Revisited; ’01 Ekapa Lodumo; African Symphony.

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