The Indestructible Beat

South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim found a mentor in Duke Ellington, a fan in Mandela, a community in American free jazz, and a muse in his once-lost country

Abdullah Ibrahim remembers when playing his music could literally be a matter of life or death, when merely coaxing a song in praise of his native land and culture was a call to revolution. Beginning in 1959 he led what some have termed the first modern jazz band in South Africa, the Jazz Epistles. The group's very existence was considered an act of defiance by the apartheid regime. So was its sound--a form called township jazz, which Ibrahim describes now as an assertion of black cultural pride.

"It was a response to the self-imposed sense of worthlessness," says the Cape Town native, speaking over the phone from his part-time home in New York City's Chelsea Hotel. "We were saying that what we had was valid. Besides the music itself, we said we'd play regardless of what you say. It was part of the whole resistance movement."

"Bach? Beethoven? We've got better": pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim
"Bach? Beethoven? We've got better": pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim

Ibrahim, who brings his trio with bassist Belden Bullock and drummer George Gray to the Dakota this week for his first local appearance in more than a decade, remembers the price paid by musicians who refused to play by Pretoria's rules. "Families were incarcerated and shot," he says. "Some people went to prison. The music was banned. People were cut off from the country, sent into exile."

Ibrahim, now 65, was known as Dollar Brand at the time (he changed his name after converting to Islam in 1968). He now speaks of those days in a tone even quieter than his usual sandy whisper. A bandmate in the Epistles, Kippie Moeketsi, was among apartheid's casualties. It was Moeketsi who first brought the proud style and sound of cool jazz and bop to a South African music scene dominated by swing and traditional marabi (a fusion of Dixieland and tribal musics). Ibrahim fondly recalls the gifted alto saxophonist playing a Mozart clarinet concerto by heart. Moeketsi was also a vociferous opponent of the ruling regime, and when Ibrahim and Epistles trumpet player Hugh Masekela left the country in the early Sixties, Moeketsi stayed. When he died years later, he was penniless and broken down, banned from most clubs by authorities.

That Ibrahim eventually found good fortune was a matter of just that. By 1963 he and his future wife, singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, had resettled in Zurich, where Ibrahim performed regularly at the Africana Club. One night he caught the ear of Duke Ellington, who invited him to a recording session. When Benjamin walked in, Ibrahim recalls, Ellington asked her, "What do you do?" She told him she sang. "Well, we'll start with you."

The legendary bandleader recorded her with the backing of Ibrahim's trio and pianist Billy Strayhorn, and the sessions produced two classic albums: 1963's Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, and Benjamin's own A Morning in Paris. (The latter was accidentally lost for decades, then recovered and released just two years ago on Ibrahim's longtime label, Enja.) Ibrahim subsequently appeared with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and even led the group some half a dozen times. Duke remained a mentor to Ibrahim until his death in 1974. Two years later, after a brief return to South Africa, Ibrahim and Benjamin moved with their two children to New York City. The pianist spent 14 years there before returning to his Cape Town home in 1990, after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

During his long exile, Ibrahim established himself as a brilliant and imaginative musician and composer on the international jazz scene. He was a key player in New York's free-jazz circles of the early Sixties and a collaborator with the likes of Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Max Roach, and Don Cherry. "We used to play total improvisation," he remembers. "It was fantastic, but nobody wanted to hire us. That avant-garde period when we were all in New York City actually was a climax of our individual quests for perfection, because we used to practice 20 hours a day. Then we realized we had accomplished what we had wanted to do."

Although he remains well below the radar of the general public outside South Africa, Ibrahim is held in rare esteem by jazz aficionados. More than any other artist, his music brings American jazz full circle to its African roots. You can hear the continent in his subtle phrasing and percussive attack, in the chattering bustle of such pieces as "African Marketplace," in the openness of his arrangements evoking the sweeping landscapes of the African savanna. Yet Ibrahim has also become conversant in Ellington's tonal colors, Thelonious Monk's syncopation, and the intricacies of European classical music. You can hear the blues and gospel he loved as a child, and the Arabic music from his later Islamic studies. The pianist seems to have absorbed the entire history of jazz and re-Africanized it, creating a synthesis that feels both magical and natural.

 

Ibrahim is a soft-spoken man, but his voice still resounds powerfully, as if drawing on some subtle reservoir of hidden strength. In conversation he picks out parallels between jazz improvisation and solutions to the lingering effects of apartheid. When talking history, he speaks in terms of hundreds of millions of years. He's contemplative, much like the music in his post-apartheid period.

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