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Abdullah Ibrahim shares a world of emotions with his piano

Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash
Abdullah Ibrahim brings universality to his South African music

South African Jazz pianist and Composer, Abdullah Ibrahim was named the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master last year.  Carl Pogue takes a closer look at the artist, his life and music.Abdullah Ibrahim has covered a lot of territory – geographically and musically.  Listen to the recordings from his time in South Africa, Europe, Asia, and the U.S., and you’ll hear his spectrum of sounds - whether it’s from last year, or six decades ago when he performed under the name Dollar Brand.

He’s an artist sharing stories; believing the role of a musician is that of a healer.  A song like this – a version of Dreamtime from his latest release “The Balance” – might strike you as wistful, or ominous, or elegant.  One description isn’t more apt than another

Born Adolph Johannes Brand in Cape Town in 1934, he grew up in Kensington, one of the roughest ghettos in all of South Africa.  His father was murdered when he was four, and in his teens the Apartheid regime was in place.  He lost friends to addiction and prison, but the piano saved Brand. Entry to musical conservatory was denied due to his race, so he studied on his own.  He said in a Guardian interview, “We realized that though WE were in bondage, our MINDS were not.”

As a young man, Brand bought so many 78 recordings from GIs docked at the local port, that he got the nickname “Dollar.”  It stuck.  He played with swing bands at 15, forming a trio in 1958, and then The Jazz Epistles, which featured Hugh Masakela.  Brand was a pioneer in a city with an eclectic mix of ethnicities and styles – reminiscent of the early jazz scene in New Orleans.  During this time he met singer Beatrice Benjamin, who provided support and encouragement during a period of relentless practicing and musical exploration.  Five years later they would get married. 

The 1960 Sharpeville massacre strengthened Apartheid rule, making it more difficult to perform live. Jazz was a sophisticated display of freedom, unity, and defiance, and the nationalist ruling party did everything possible to snuff it out.  By 1962 the African National Congress was banned and influential member Nelson Mandela sent to prison.  Brand and Benjamin left for Europe. 

A major turning point occurred in 1963 when Benjamin convinced Duke Ellington to hear Brand play at a Zurich club.  Ellington was impressed, and arranged for a recording in Paris.  Shortly thereafter, the couple moved to New York, and Brand began touring with Ellington, and Elvin Jones and received a grant to study at Julliard.

Despite more work and notoriety, Brand was in a spiritual rut, and his health was slipping.  Alcohol had become a problem.  In ’68 they returned to Cape Town and converted to Islam: becoming Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima.  He stopped drinking, focusing on music and martial arts.  Ibrahim’s experiences with jazz luminaries in the U.S. equipped him with even more gifts to share with his homeland, and he founded a school in Swaziland.         

1974 marked Ibrahim’s release of "Mannenberg" - a galvanizing song that captured the mood throughout the townships, eventually boiling over to the Soweto uprising in 1976.  Soon after, Abdullah and Sathima fled, returning to New York.  Ibrahim overtly joined the ANC, and the Apartheid government severed his citizenship.  During his second, 16-year period of exile, Ibrahim took greater control of his affairs, forming the record label Ekapa.

Apartheid rule proved to be disturbingly resilient, lasting until the early ‘90s. When the ANC ban was repealed, Ibrahim was able to reunite with Mandela, who was released after 27 years in prison.  In ‘94, the newly established National Assembly elected Mandela as President, and Ibrahim fittingly played "Mannenberg" at his inauguration

I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to The Balance album during this Covid pandemic.  In the future – when I reflect on this disruptive period in global history, I’ll regard it as a soundtrack for what I’m currently experiencing.  Phases of frustration, anxiety.  At times a sense of helplessness.  But serious introspection… and a growing realization that moments of great upheaval can present opportunities for meaningful change. 

Now, when I revisit Ibrahim’s classic albums, I have an even greater appreciation for his ability to capture such a wide array of emotions in musical moments.  Turmoil tempered with joy; darkness giving way to light.  He’s been composing from that perspective for his entire life.