It is ironic, given the circumstances of his long exile from South Africa, that no one creates a more romantic, pristine Africa through music than composer-pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. He evokes bustling market places and placid savannas, beaming children and wizened elders. There are no traces of the butchery that too often passes for its politics, or the larceny that pervades its economies, in Ibrahim's idealized Africa. Ibrahim's vision of Africa is so strong that, for an hour, he can replace the realities of pre-teens brandishing AK-47s and roadsides littered with bloated corpses with dusk-lit images of tranquil village life.
No Abdullah Ibrahim recording does this as poignantly as African Suite. This is not a suite in the strict sense of the term; rather, with the exception of a solo piano reading of the pensive "Aspen" and a strings-only take on "Blanton," the album is a well-sequenced collection of Daniel Schnyder's arrangements of previously recorded Ibrahim compositions for the pianist's trio and a 20-piece string orchestra. Nor is this anything resembling a concerto for Ibrahim's considerable gifts as a pianist; instead, Schnyder's charts present the trio and the orchestra as a unified ensemble. While Ibrahim is out front much of the time, he is not the dominant element; instead, he slips out from the orchestrations, makes his points, and recedes, letting the strings carry their share of the load.
The program has a gentle ebb and flow that gives it the bearing of a film score. As titles such as "Mindif," "The Wedding," and "Tintinyana" are well-known to Ibrahim's listeners, they will find themselves immersed in a familiar story, one that ends far too soon.