WATER FROM AN ANCIENT WELL ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
At the heart and soul of jazz in South Africa, an inspiration to his own generation both musically and in the ght against apartheid at home and abroad ABDULLAH IBRAHIM continues to be an important inuence for a new generation of improvisers. MARCUS O’DAIR talks to the great pianist ahead of his latest tour this month
By the time he performs at this year’s London Jazz Festival, Abdullah Ibrahim will be 77. Not quite as venerable as Sonny or Cecil or Ornette, let alone the immortal Dave Brubeck. However, by the time he performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, the man born in Cape Town as Adolphe Johannes Brand had lived through a change every bit as dramatic as his seniors witnessed decades earlier in the US civil rights movement. The end of apartheid was something many thought they would never see – although, Ibrahim insists, “We always had hope.”
tunic he previously favoured, he seemed content to let the younger members of his seven-piece Ekaya ensemble render his compositions, and left his hands resting in his lap for minutes at a time.
Such a low-key role won’t be possible on this visit: three of the four dates of his short UK tour are unaccompanied. Presumably the performances will be closer to his Senzo solo album of 2008 than last year’s ensemble record,
Like the equally powerful but almost diametrically opposed force of bebop, bought with such enthusiasm from American sailors that he earned the nickname ‘Dollar’, apartheid had arrived around the time of the pianist’s first professional gigs. Bebop inspired him, with friends including trumpeter Hugh Masekela and alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, to form the Jazz Epistles, the first black group in the country to record an album. Apartheid drove him abroad almost immediately afterwards, the oppression only increasing as the government struggled to keep control in the aftermath of 1960’s Sharpeville massacre. It was in exile that he won the support of Duke Ellington, who got him a record deal and a slot at Newport. Soon he was working with the A-list of the American avant-garde: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Sunny Murray.
For all the exalted company, however, it was only after his conversion to Islam, when Dollar Brand became Abdullah Ibrahim, that the pianist truly came of age. From this point on, he has managed to reconcile his love of jazz with his love of the homeland then being systemically brutalized by apartheid, now in a period of prolonged convalescence. In the subsequent four decades, Ibrahim has set out in his music to justify his belief that jazz is a fundamentally African, rather than African American, art form. Whether or not he is right has never been the point. The conversion to Islam and reconnection with his African roots turned him, in the words of Ian Carr in The Rough Guide To Jazz, “from a very good musician into a great one.”
Ask Abdullah Ibrahim what we can expect from his performance at this year’s London Jazz Festival and he laughs. “I have no idea. I don’t play programmed music.” He will commit only to “some of the old compositions, some new compositions, and a lot of improvisation”. Maybe he’s been reading Whitney Balliett. In London 18 months ago, Ibrahim was the model of the elder statesman. Wearing a suit rather than the Mao
‘I’m inuenced by many, many cultures and many experiences. But at the core of it is a concept that is in some sense universal, which is the principle of devotion’
~ ABDULLAH IBRAHIM
Sotho Blue. Even Abdullah “sound of surprise” Ibrahim is happy to confirm that we can expect the segued approach, meditative and mesmeric, heard on Senzo. ‘In all traditions, in all nations, there is the tradition of storytelling that goes on for hours,’ he explains. “Not sound bites that last for a couple of seconds.”
His may be instrumental music, but the storytelling metaphor is apt. The pianist, who once dedicated a reported 20 hours a day to woodshedding, long ago began to concentrate less on the ability to speak fast than on actually having something to say. If his music comes across as harmonically and melodically simple, it is only because it is so distilled: a chef-like reduction not only of everything learned in a professional career dating back to the late 1940s, but also of an unusually panoramic worldview. “We are contemporary cyber-space people,” he chuckles. “We cannot deny it. So I’m influenced by many, many cultures and many experiences. But at the core of it is a concept that is in some sense universal, which is the principle of devotion.”
For Ibrahim, that devotion, at least in the religious sense of the term, is to Islam. But as an internationally touring musician who has spent so much of his life in exile, his Muslim beliefs sit alongside numerous other cultural influences. He has returned regularly to South Africa after his departure in 1962, both during apartheid (until his outspoken opposition, following the 1976 Soweto uprising, made him persona non grata) and since the regime’s downfall in 1994’s landmark democratic election. But he has also based himself in Switzerland and America and, although he returns regularly to his homeland, currently lives in Germany.
Jazz, in particular Ellington and Monk, has had an enormous impact on Ibrahim, as has the marabi township dance and goema carnival music of South Africa. Perhaps equally profound, however, has been the influence of Japanese martial arts – or, more accurately, ‘budo’, a term that encompasses philosophy and ideology as well as physical training. “Karate is one of the aspects,’ he explains, ‘but it’s more a total universal approach. It encompasses all nature, the trees, the water, the sky, the stars, the flowers.”
He’s not quite Monk meets Mr Miyagi, but there is something almost Zen in the serenity and insight Ibrahim exudes in both his conversation and his music. Unlike some who aspire to sapience, however, he remains mischievous; if there is any truth in the commonplace that life is a game, Ibrahim is one of the few who very obviously enjoys playing it. Giggling, he quotes Bruce Lee on the subject of ageing – “you don’t get stronger, you just get smarter” – and is equally tickled by the possibly apocryphal words of an unnamed tai chi master: ‘Slow down, I’m in a hurry.’
Perhaps the key is humility: he is stately but never superior. “A few years ago,” Ibrahim recalls, “my budo teacher gave me an eighth degree black belt. I said to him, ‘Why do you give this to me? I don’t know anything’. He said, ‘That’s why I give it to you, because me too, I don’t know anything’.” Eighth dan is no mean achievement. Although a black belt is sometimes seen in the West as the martial artist’s ultimate goal, indeed
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