Abdullah Ibrahim… African Music Is His Inspiration



At age 81, South Africa’s Ibrahim Abdullah continues to wax strong on the international jazz scene as a foremost pianist and composer. Rave reviews about his 2015 Adelaide Jazz Festival performance testify to this feat and his long and glorious career. Since he first fled South Africa in 1962, Ibrahim’s increasingly spiritual and meditative jazz has won followers across the world, making him an icon at home. African music is his inspiration!

International recognition and acclaim have come to a few jazz musicians in Africa – for using African music as vehicle for self expression. Honour and fame have greeted some others for taking jazz – in its naked, straight- ahead fashion – to an extremely creative limit: Among them are trumpeter Michael Falana of Nigeria who played avant- garde jazz with the esoteric Don Cherry in Germany before his final exit from the scene; Fela Anikulapo Kuti whose straight-ahead jazz eventually transformed to the passionately Afro centric Afro beat, a bold fusion that can be described as ‘modal’ jazz; Kofi Ghanaba (Guy Warren of Ghana), a percussionist whose rhythmic concept demonstrated by his drums of passion – is well articulated and defined in his Africa speaks, America answers album. But South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim (formally known as Dollar Brand) is demonstrating an unparalleled commitment: his compositions and piano-playing continue to astound audiences for the emotional impact and spirituality. His writing and playing complement each other in terms of exploration and illumination with an expressive range that does justice to the subject matter. As a pianist, Ibrahim ranks very high among his peers with a technique and approach comparable to Oscar Peterson or Wynton Kelly.

My encounter with Ibrahim at the 2004 NorthSea Jazz Festival in Capetown remains unforgettable. The memory has continued to linger: His poise. His sense of rhythm. His depth. The intensity. The emotion.He has been decorated with many accolades and descriptions including ‘Keyboard Maestro,’ ‘virtuoso soloist’ and ‘composer of emotive melodies.’ He is all of them and more! One of Africa’s biggest artists abroad, he continues to keep the flag flying, enjoying the same level of recognition and acceptance as Nigeria’s Fela Sowande, piano virtuoso and pioneering composer of modern African art music.

A highly individual pianist-composer, Ibrahim is influenced by Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk, especially his South African heritage. Abdullah Ibrahim who, until the 70s was known as Dollar Brand, performs exploratory originals that are full of strong melodies and spirituality.
He started on piano when he was seven; and was a member of the Jazz Epistles, recording South Africa’s first jazz album in 1960. Ibrahim went into self-imposed exile from the apartheid system in 1962, going to Zurich. Duke Ellington heard them perform and arranged for recording sessions. Ibrahim was also sponsored by Ellington at the 1965 Newport jazz Festival.

In 1966, Ibrahim worked with the drummer, Elvin Jones, otherwise, he has generally been a bandleader. Ibrahim has recorded for many labels in settings ranging from a piano soloist and head of a large band to his septet, Ekaya including numerous sessions for Enja. Ibrahim, who visited South Africa in 1976, has returned home several times since its liberation from apartheid.

As a matter of fact, when South Africa celebrated 10 years of freedom in 2004, he was top of the bill at that year’s North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town. He was there with a formidable trio, which featured him on piano; Belden Bullock, bass; and George Gray, drums.

Ibrahim’s spiritual and melodic South African folk music is always worth hearing; his individuality has always remained incredibly impressive. Previously recorded in live setting at the Montreux Jazz Festival, he knocked his audience out at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2004 with a tune called South Africa, dedicated to his country. The pianist added his emotional voice to the proceedings to give the ensemble sound the cultural identity it deserved. While Ibrahim has received acclaim for his piano playing, he is also at ease with nine other instruments. Early in his musical career, he played drums. In Beautiful Love on the album, Mantra Mode, Ibrahim plays drums, featuring on percussion in Knysna Blues in 1993. He is heard on flute in two tracks of Mindiff, which he recorded in 1988; and on xylophone in the famous Duke Ellington sessions.

Having studied Cello at the Julliard School of Music in 1967, Ibrahim employs the instrument in Hamba Kahile recorded in 1968, African Horns in 1975, The Art of Abdullah Ibrahim (1975).

Few people know that Ibrahim is a poet with works already published. Ibrahim’s Twelve Tone Pius Finale is published in six books in different parts of the world. The pianist’s poetry also appeared in Cape Herald between July 1968 and February 1969 when he was the newspaper’s columnist. His column was ironically called, The World Of Dollar after his previous name, Dollar Brand. Four different poems of the pianist-composer can be found in liner notes of four albums.
Having had to fight at the age of seven against the stereotype that the piano was a ‘feminine instrument,’ Ibrahim rose to be South Africa’s musical ambassador. With more than 200 albums and 300 compositions, Ibrahim has won followers all over the world. His film scores for movies are numerous and brilliant. Now back in his country after many years in exile, Ibrahim shuttles between his Cape Town and New York homes, and also travels to Europe, North America and Asia.
Despite all these achievements, Ibrahim’s roots remain deep in the South African soil. His music still contains the repetitive, but inventive Marabi cultural groove.

“Whether performed in America, Europe or Japan, our music moves people. It heals them,” says Ibrahim whose performance at the 2004 North Sea Jazz Festival (now Cape Town International Jazz Festival, usually referred to as Africa s Grandest Gathering) was his first.

Though held in high esteem overseas for his prolific compositional skills, little of his works has found itself into South African music academy. Like Fela Sowande of Nigeria, Ibrahim enjoys more recognition and acclaim overseas than his country—South Africa. It was only recently that he received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Cape Town, Western Cape and Natal. The doctorates from the three universities were in recognition of his contributions to music. Some of his recorded works include Ode To Duke Ellington, African Portraits, African Piano, Zimbabwe, Anatomy Of A South African Village, African Market Place, African Dawn and others.

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