Abdullah Ibrahim: Drawing from the well at the source

Abdullah Ibrahim was an adult before he learned his father had been murdered when he, Abdullah, was only four. He’d grown up believing his grandparents were his parents and his mother was his sister. Perhaps that’s why his life has always seemed a search for truth; why his greatest album is called The Journey.

The South African pianist/composer thinks musicians are miscast as entertainers, being more akin to healers. Certainly in concert, whether solo or with a band, Ibrahim casts a potently hypnotic spell. “You’re blessed,” Duke Ellington told him, “because you come from the source.” To Ibrahim’s ears, jazz as diverse as Count Basie and Thelonious Monk merely echoed the local grooves he’d heard in childhood, and he became the first non-American after Django Reinhardt to expand the music’s language in a major way. It was the astute, magnanimous Ellington who exposed both artists to US audiences.

Abdullah Ibrahim. All photos: Shanna Jones.

Born in 1934 in Cape Town, Ibrahim was baptised Adolph Brand, and from the age of seven was driven to play piano, despite this being considered effeminate in the prevailing culture. In fact once he started gigging (at 15) he was so bullied that he took up karate and became a black belt.

Cape Town was a melting-pot and Ibrahim a sponge, soaking up its music – whether the church’s, the indigenous Khoi-san tradition, classical, Indian, swing, bebop or the avant-garde – and melding them into something uniquely South African. His Jazz Epistles (with trumpeter Hugh Masekela) recorded the country’s first jazz album in 1959, just before the 1960 Sharpeville massacre triggered increasingly draconian laws that prohibited mixed-race bands and audiences. Ibrahim described jazz as a release-valve from “the fist of apartheid”, with players and listeners continuing to defy those laws. Then a curfew was imposed, police harassment intensified, and he was routinely arrested, handcuffed and interrogated for the crime of daring to make music.

By 1962, when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and the African National Congress banned, the regime had exterminated the jazz scene. Ibrahim left, settling in Zurich. There his partner persuaded Ellington to come to hear him, and the album Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio resulted. When he moved to New York in ’65 he was snapped up for appearances at Newport Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall, and then led the Ellington Orchestra for five concerts in the Duke’s absence – a rare and scary honour. He was embraced by such pioneers as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, before, in 1968, returning to Cape Town, where he converted to Islam, and made a pilgrimage (or Hajj) to Mecca in 1970.

In 1974 his Mannenberg became the black South Africans’ rallying cry, but after the Soweto uprising in ’76 and his giving an illegal ANC benefit concert, Ibrahim fled to New York. There he officially joined the ANC, whereupon the regime cancelled his citizenship. His music remained his key link with his homeland during this long exile: his compositions often paeans to freedom, with a steely spine of defiance. In 1990 the newly-freed Mandela invited him to come home, and he did, profoundly moved by the experience, and performed at Mandela’s 1994 inauguration.

The Journey (streaming on Apple Music and Spotify), made seven years after the Mecca pilgrimage, starts with the blithe, frisky Sister Rosie, followed by Jubulani (Joy), which approaches a deeper ecstasy. But the main event is Hajj, an almost programmatic depiction of the pilgrimage. The rolling nine-beat rhythm, maintained by Ibrahim’s left hand and three drummer/percussionists, creates a sense of constant motion, against which fellow South African and monster bassist Johnny Dyani ranges freely, colouring the music with constant arco and pizzicato invention. Three horns (including trumpeter Don Cherry) work in a block to answer Talib Rhynie’s call-to-prayer-like oboe statements. Eventually that dialogue subsides, and the solos mark different points on the journey, with Carlos Ward’s alto as piquant as the smell of exotic spices, and Hamiet Bluiett’s clarinet conjuring both bustle and mystique. Like all the great composers and improvisers, Ibrahim’s music is wordless story-telling – from the source.