Abdullah Ibrahim: A Focus on Spirituality

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Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is making plans for the future and looks forward to recording with a pair of orchestras.

(Photo: Tom Mesic/INNtöne Jazz Festival)

At this year’s INNtöne Jazz Festival in Austria, Abdullah Ibrahim vividly demonstrated the intimacy and cosmic beauty of solo piano to a hushed crowd of 800. The South African native played as if he were communing with the natural surroundings, creating verdant rolling soundscapes throughout his 90-minute set.

In front of him was a tattered spiral notebook that at first glance looked like a setlist. But it was a crossword puzzle of song titles that reminded him of where to go on the keyboard when the time was right. Without uttering a word during the set, the 84-year-old weaved a series of tunes interspersed with recurring fragments of such well-known songs as “The Wedding” and “Blue Bolero.”

Known by the name Dollar Brand until his conversion to Islam in 1968, Ibrahim is a recipient of a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters fellowship. And recently, he released his first new album in five years, The Balance (Gearbox), recorded with his longtime septet Ekaya (translation: “home”). The program enchants with lyrical upbeat beauties featuring the full band and dazzles with Ibrahim’s solo meditations. It’s a perfect balance of the master’s repertoire; hence, the title.

During a two-hour conversation with DownBeat prior to his INNtöne performance, the relaxed, youthful-looking Ibrahim discussed the cruelty of the South African government during the apartheid era, his exile from his homeland and his return to perform at the 1994 presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, who called him “our Mozart.”

Congratulations on receiving the NEA Jazz Masters Award this year. What was it like going to Washington, D.C., to perform at the Kennedy Center for the awards show?

At first, I didn’t quite catch the scope of it. It was nice to be honored in the same breath with all the great musicians I’ve always aspired and still aspire to [emulate]. They continue to be my teachers and mentors without them knowing it. It was also getting the recognition of my music. It was not just an accolade for myself but also my band Ekaya. They were ecstatic about it. [Saxophonist/flutist] Cleave Guyton and [bassist] Noah Jackson were there playing with me.

And the award itself?

It was like being honored by my Japanese Budo teacher, Sansei Tonegawa, who I’ve been practicing nonviolent martial arts with since 1960. He’s taught me to enter places where I hadn’t been before but with an understanding that you are well-equipped to handle the situation. He gave me a diploma that was a license to teach Budo.

So, I said to him, “Master, you’re giving me this diploma, but I don’t know anything.” Then he said to me, “That’s why I gave it to you. I don’t know, either.” He was saying it was the beginning of a new phase. And then you have to strive harder.

When you and I spoke at the 2004 Cape Town Jazz Festival, you said, “Many of us fell into drinking alcohol, smoking joints, womanizing. We thought that was what the music was all about. We couldn’t explain what it was that we were feeling, but I finally realized that music is a deeply moving spiritual experience. It’s guidance from God.” Do you still believe in that guidance?

Absolutely. We were living in this horrendous regime [in South Africa], but at the bedrock of our understanding of who we were—and what we were—was our parents and other mentors, along with the unsung people in the community. We were living where everything was negated. Our traditional medicine was banned because it was considered witchcraft. So much was called witchcraft, but this is what our mentors helped us understand. It has nothing to do with religion.

From early on, in the community and with my parents and family, the focus was on spirituality. We mixed with everybody—Christians, unbelievers. We all understood that this was the cosmology of living together. I’ve carried this understanding to what we are doing with the music. It encompasses everything.

And that relates to your life as a jazz musician?

For me, jazz is the highest form of music. Early on I’d listen to Louis Armstrong and Count Basie and the boogie-woogie playing of Albert Ammons. We used to play in house parties, carnivals, in church on Sunday, at picnics, and I’d play with this stride-piano sound. What I liked was the incessant drum sound. I found that the bass lines were actually the same rhythm of traditional Swazi drumming. Boogie-woogie gave me a way of developing my left hand. It was a grounding point for training independence between the left and the right hands. So I was playing this along with music from Africa.

Can you talk about the origin of Jazz Epistles in the late 1950s?

I had been composing and—being opposed to playing alone—wanted to play with a band, so we could start to break boundaries. The boundary we had to overcome was this governmental thought process that blacks were inferior. We were forced to live in a system that said we do not have the mental capacity to deal with intricate things such as mathematics. But for me, I knew that was wrong from listening to the various styles of traditional African music and realizing their complexity.

So, we were forever relegated to the role of being subservient. I started composing music that wasn’t logical. We had already gone through the whole process of playing the traditional music, the church music and the carnival dance music. But then swing came along. There’s massive complexity that people miss. When I started getting on to jazz, I loved [Thelonious] Monk and Herbie Nichols and Duke Ellington.

Your playing is also steeped in classical music. What did that bring to your playing?

It still informs it. But you first have to talk about the government in South Africa and not wanting the music to include intricate things. But with the African music, a lot of that trickles down into the communities. When I started playing things on that level, I was booed off the stage: You know, “What the hell are you doing?”

In Cape Town, across from a cinema, there was a cafe that had an old, broken grand piano. The gangsters in town were always having a holiday there. I used to compose in that room, and you’d get completely stoned even if you didn’t smoke. They liked the music because they could see pictures. I didn’t know if it was because they were enjoying the music or their joints.

I listened to everything. We had a gramophone that broke, but we didn’t have money to fix it. So we spun the disc with one finger. I was 14. I played one 78 over and over, but the label was so old I didn’t know what the music was. Years afterwards I discovered it was Debussy’s “Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun.” My ears were open to this, and I transcended the instruction they were trying to place on us. Then it was The Rite Of Spring and the Brandenburg Concertos.

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