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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and his enduring anthem 'Mannenberg'

Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand), Moers Festival 2011
Michael Hoefner
Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
Abdullah Ibrahim, Moers Festival 2011.

Adolph Johannes Brand was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1934 and was later to be known as “Dollar” Brand and eventually Abdullah Ibrahim. He went on to draft the first Black South African jazz band, The Jazz Epistles, and they recorded the first jazz record from Africa. Their sole record was called Jazz Epistle Verse 1 and released in 1960.

Piano lessons started for Ibrahim at seven years old, and included all the music that surrounded him —including the Bushmen who spoke a language with "click consonants."

Ibrahim blended those sounds with Christian hymns, gospel tunes and spirituals heard from his grandmother, who played piano and from his mother who ran the choir at that same local African Methodist Episcopalian church.

The Cape Town of his childhood was a melting pot of cultural influences that brought young Ibrahim to explore American jazz, Township jazz, Cape Malay music as well as classical music and a long suit of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. This unique blend of secular and religious, traditional and modern, distilled in the youngster a musical vocabulary inimitably his own, and Ibrahim blossomed into South Africa’s most distinguished pianist and a world respected master musician.

Ibrahim did not get to the top of the mountain without going through the brutality of Apartheid, the system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until it was abolished in 1991.

The horror of daily life continued to compound over time until he moved his children and wife away from their homeland, first to Europe where he met Duke Ellington and then to the U.S. where he occasionally subbed for Ellington on tour as pianist and conductor.

During one of Ibrahim's visits back to South Africa in the early '60s, he went into a record store and studio in Cape Town with his ad hoc band and five tunes he’d composed and arranged. Taking a break from the session he left the grand piano walked over to an old upright that had been modified and sounded like a harpsicord.

These notes became the unofficial theme of anti-apartheid fighters in South Africa, a song named after the township where the first people to be displaced from their homes in central Cape Town were moved to a township called Manenberg.

They saw their heritage in this music. This song was played over and over through loudspeakers mounted on car roofs driving through the townships everywhere and it resonated and solidified this pride of who and where they were.

Mary McCann is a poet and performer and madly in love with music. She?s written three one woman shows and had her poetry published by Arizona State University. Broadcast radio was her life from age 17 on. In 1999 she had a pioneering role in Internet radio during the dot com boom in Silicon Valley. Mary is currently the World Music Director at AOL Internet radio and one of the narrators for BirdNote. She started at KNKX in June of 2008 as the host of the Saturday Jazz Matinee.