Abdullah Ibrahim‘s solo performance at The Fugard last night was captivating! The beautiful piano was setup in a cozy theatre illuminated by soft blue lighting. With almost a sellout performance Ibrahim held delighted jazz enthusiasts captive with 1.5 hours of incredible uninterrupted sets. The distinguished musician’s performance was impeccable. He began with sheet music but quickly pushed it aside and played from his heart and soul.
At 82, Ibrahim’s fascinating life has been full – from his upbringing in Cape Town’s District Six to his political activism, spiritual enlightenment, and friendship with Nelson Mandela. His impressive career includes extensive worldwide tours, record and production companies, and collaboration with other famous jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and John Coltrane.
“Ibrahim’s solo program Senzo is described as his monumental defining work. It transcends category, combining the intimate and universal in a unique way hinted at in its title. Senzo means ‘Ancestor’ in Chinese and Japanese. The word echoes the name of Ibrahim’s Sotho father, in whose language it translates as ‘Creator’.”
Baptized Adolph Johannes Brand, Ibrahim was born in 1934 in Cape Town. He grew up listening to traditional Khoisan songs, Christian hymns, and gospel tunes. His grandmother was the pianist for a local Methodist Episcopalian church. His mother was the choirmaster.
Ibrahim, who also sings, plays flute, saxophone, and cello, is legendary for solo performances that glide his compositions into long, unbroken sets.
Ibrahim’s mother was from a “coloured” (mixed-race) family. In adulthood he discovered that his Sotho father was murdered. 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 and grew up believing that my mother was my sister. That code of silence was created by the system. I had a lot of bitterness at an early age.”
Ibrahim’s Cape Town
“The Cape Town of Ibrahim’s childhood was a melting-pot of cultural influences, and exposed the young Dollar Brand, as he became known, to American jazz, township jive, Cape Malay sounds, and classical music. Out of this rich blend of the secular and religious, the traditional and modern, Ibrahim developed a distinctive style, harmonies, and musical vocabulary that are inimitably his own.”
Ibrahim began piano lessons at seven and made his professional début at fifteen. He played bebop with a Cape Town flavor and formed several bands including the Dollar Brand Trio and the Jazz Epistles. Formed in 1959, the Jazz Epistles included saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, trombonist Jonas Gwanga, bassist Johnny Gertze, and drummer Makaya Ntshoko – all notable South African musicians. That year, he met and first performed with vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin. They married six years later.
Ibrahim plays an increasing role as an educator in a still deeply traumatized country.
Resistance, Europe, USA
“After the notorious Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, mixed-race bands and audiences were defying increasingly strict apartheid laws. Jazz symbolized resistance, so the government closed a number of clubs and harassed the musicians. These were difficult times for musical development in South Africa. Some members of the Jazz Epistles fled to England with the London musical King Kong and stayed in exile.”
In 1962, with Mandela imprisoned and the ANC banned, Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin left the country. Later, Gertze and Ntshoko joined them and the trio took up a three-year contract at the Club Africana in Zürich, Switzerland. There, in 1963, Sathima persuaded Duke Ellington to listen to them play. This led to a recording session in Paris – Duke Ellington presents the Dollar Brand Trio – followed by invitations to perform at key European festivals and on television and radio.”
In 1965, the couple moved to New York and appeared at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival on the West Coast. In 1966 Dollar Brand led the Ellington Orchestra in five concerts followed by a six-month tour with the Elvin Jones Quartet. In 1967 Ibrahim received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to attend the renowned Julliard School of Music.
Life in the USA gave Ibrahim the opportunity to interact with progressive musicians, including Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Ekaya, and Pharaoh Sanders. 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, by his insistence on a South African idiom he disseminated and created an appetite for South African music.”
Return to Cape Town
In 1968 he returned to Cape Town, converted to Islam, and took the name Abdullah Ibrahim. In 1970 he made a pilgrimage to Mecca and then moved his family to Swaziland where he founded a music school. Ibrahim returned to Cape Town in 1973.
District Six was the hotbed of the jazz explosion, a “fantastic city within a city”
In 1974 Ibrahim recorded “Mannenberg – Is where It’s Happening” which soon became an unofficial national anthem for black South Africans. After the Soweto student uprising, in 1976, he organized an illegal ANC benefit concert. Before long he and his family left South Africa and returned to the freedom of New York again.
“In 1990 Nelson Mandela, freed from prison, invited him to come home to South Africa. He reflects the fraught emotions of acclimatizing there again in Mantra Mode (1991), the first recording with South African musicians since 1976, and Knysna Blue (1993). Ibrahim performed at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.”
Abdullah Ibrahim has been the subject of several documentaries. In 1986 a BBC film Chris Austin’s A Brother with Perfect Timing, and A Struggle for Love by Ciro Cappellari (2004). He has also composed scores for films, including the award-winning soundtrack for Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988) and Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Tilai (1990).
For over a quarter-century Abdullah Ibrahim has toured the world extensively, appearing at major concert halls, clubs, and festivals. His collaborations with classical orchestras have resulted in acclaimed recordings, such as my favorite African Suite.
Since he first fled South Africa in 1962, Ibrahim’s increasingly spiritual and meditative jazz has won followers across Europe, the US, and Japan.
Currently Ibrahim divides his time between Cape Town and New York. In addition to composing and performing, he started a South African production company, Masingita (Miracle), and established a music academy, M7, offering courses in seven disciplines to educate young minds and bodies.
In 2006 he spearheaded the historic creation (backed by the South African Ministry of Arts and Culture) of the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra. “The eighteen-piece big band further strengthens the standing of South African music on the global stage.”
South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim is known as “a man of inspiration”.