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

Before establishing his Nineties trio, Ibrahim led a larger group he called Ekaya, whose raucous horn section seemed to create a celebratory semblance of the homeland that was then out of reach--Ekhaya being the Zulu word for home. By contrast, much of the composer's work now suggests the hard work of rebuilding South African society.

Like Ellington, the pianist still juggles a multitude of projects: He writes folk songs and operas, works with large orchestras and alone. African Suite, his latest on Enja, features his trio paired with the Youth Orchestra of the European Community. Ibrahim collaborated with conductor Daniel Schnyder to rearrange some of the pianist's best pieces for string orchestration, emphasizing the symphonic elements lurking within even his most overtly African traditional material.

For Ibrahim, even such complex arrangements derive from the African vocal and storytelling tradition. "I write songs," he says simply. "If you want to learn traditional African drumming, you have to learn the language first. You play the language." In fact, most of Ibrahim's compositions have lyrics. A few of these, he says, have been recorded, while others have appeared in the album notes. (One of his forthcoming projects involves rerecording all his instrumentals with their original lyrics.)

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

Along with these traditions, Ellington's presence remains evident throughout Ibrahim's work, an essence he described with an old anecdote. "During the apartheid years, there was a state of being--you would almost say it was like 'cool' now," he says. "Jazz musicians sort of adopted it. We'd call it 'perfect timing.'" Amid the turmoil of the times, "cool" suggested exerting a minimum amount of effort while achieving maximum results. "Duke was like that in music."

Today that Ellington aura still gives Ibrahim's stuff a certain regal bearing not quite out of place in a man who considers himself a populist. His composition "Mannenberg" is the unofficial national anthem of the new South Africa. Lifting the title from a local town, Ibrahim recorded a definitive version of the tune in the mid-Seventies, with a stirring tenor-sax solo by Basil Coetzee. The track quickly became a staple movement song. "It appealed to everybody, across all lines, all barriers, because we kept it in the genre of the traditional music," Ibrahim says. "It was like saying we are endorsing our right to be us." When democracy was finally established and Nelson Mandela elected president, Ibrahim was invited to perform at his inaugural. He remains awed by the sight of a quarter-million people peacefully blanketing Pretoria, the capital and citadel of apartheid. "There was a sense of euphoria, but there was also a sense of urgency," he remembers. Ibrahim also got a special endorsement at that time. After attending one of his shows, Mandela went backstage and said, "Bach? Beethoven? We've got better."

Better or not, Ibrahim is among his era's most eclectic composers. He recently toured with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the great South African a cappella vocal group, and he plans a joint project in the near future. "Joseph Shabalala [Ladysmith's leader] and I did a television program in South Africa several years ago and did two songs," he says. "We went into the studio and walked towards the studio door, and Joseph said, 'What are we going to do?' And I said, 'Start singing.' And by the time we got into the door we had both songs. We're all parts of South Africa. We're parts of the whole."

Ibrahim's pride in being an integral part of his community led him to establish a music academy last year with facilities in Cape Town and Johannesburg. "We call the project M7, which is also the jazz symbol for a major chord," he explains. "It encompasses music, movement, medicine, meditation, martial arts. Our disenfranchised communities do not have access to these facilities.

"I was denied access to universities, denied access to medical school, denied access to music conservatories," he continues, hitting a sonorous verbal stride. "Apartheid exists everywhere. It's all part of the separation of things. That's why we started this project. We are unifying all these disciplines which in traditional society were all united, then scattered."

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