Abdullah Ibrahim: Grace Under Pressure

From apartheid and exile to belated recognition, the newly-minted Jazz Master's storied career is a case study in artistic endurance

Abdullah Ibrahim (photo: Gabrie lBertogg)
Abdullah Ibrahim (photo: Gabriel Bertogg)

“Could you please hold it a moment?” Abdullah Ibrahim asks, staving off my question. “Just so I can prepare my tea.”

We are sitting in a small conference room at Ibrahim’s Washington, D.C. hotel a day after he’d been honored at the Kennedy Center’s 2019 NEA Jazz Masters tribute concert. A server stands before us, pouring hot water. Ibrahim isn’t brusque in pre-empting me; he doesn’t even seem particularly annoyed. But the 84-year-old South African pianist and composer personifies dignity. He insists on a certain respect, a certain protocol.

“It’s actually very hard to find someone who’s going to work out in his band,” says saxophonist and flutist Cleave Guyton, Jr., who plays with Ibrahim on his new album, The Balance, released in late June by Gearbox Records. “It’s not just about finding a person who can play like Abdullah wants—it’s also about having the right manners. They have to be a serious musician, but they also have to be somebody who has a particular attitude and can be a gentleman.”

It makes sense. Ibrahim—who performed as Dollar Brand into the late 1970s—endured South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime, and his music, a potent compound of jazz and South African influences, became a symbol of resistance to and liberation from apartheid. No less an eminence than Nelson Mandela described Ibrahim as “South Africa’s Mozart.”

Along with dignity comes grace, which anybody who has heard his music surely knows. And they were on display in Ibrahim’s acceptance of the Jazz Masters fellowship. Appearing on the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall stage to a standing ovation, the tall, slender, besuited pianist stood silently for a long moment after the applause had died down.

“Good evening, esteemed NEA members, jazz musicians, and guests,” he finally said. “I am deeply honored by this award. And I dedicate this award to my grandmother, who sent me to the local school teacher in Cape Town for piano lessons. She insisted on Sunday church attendance, instilling an inspirational bedrock that still inspires and guides me.”

He continued, “I dedicate this award to my mother, who played piano for silent movies in Cape Town. That was my first introduction, for me, into the art of improvisation. I dedicate this award to all my family, friends, mentors, and musicians who have and still inspire my quest to strive for perfection. Thank you. We are blessed.”

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If his acceptance speech packed in a lot of autobiography, it still only scratched the surface of an eventful, sometimes traumatic life. He was born Adolph Brand in 1934 in the Kensington neighborhood of Cape Town. His father, Senzo, was of the Sotho ethnic group and was murdered when Ibrahim was four. His mother, Rachel, was of mixed race and, like young Adolph, was classified as “coloured.”

He had to beg for the piano lessons his grandmother, a church pianist in the local African Methodist Episcopal congregation, agreed to send him to when he was seven. Ibrahim was enamored with the sound of the instrument—and the education he received would provide him with a firm musical foundation. “The school teachers would study via correspondence course with the Royal Academy in London,” he recalls. “My first primer included Pinetop Smith and Louis Jordan, and folk songs from Europe and America, as well as the classical repertoire. I studied Indian ragas and talas. Those teachers in the township gave us a very broad perspective of music from all over the world.”

The music of the township itself was not part of the curriculum, but it didn’t need to be—marabi and mbaqanga music were all around him. So were langarm, the dance tunes popular with young white South Africans, and Christian hymns, played at home and in church. And so was jazz, brought in by the American soldiers and sailors who came into port in Cape Town during World War II. Ibrahim began hanging out at the docks, looking for GIs who would sell him their Duke Ellington and Art Tatum records—a hustle for which his friends nicknamed him “Dollar.”

Rigid racial segregation had long been the norm in South Africa, but the apartheid regime began when Ibrahim was a teenager, at the same time that he was beginning to play music professionally.

“It pervaded all existence,” he says. “It even became much more difficult to be creative. One of the laws that was passed said that as a musician, you could only play with other musicians designated to your own ethnic or tribal group, and to audiences of your own ethnic or tribal group. But we found ways to transcend these barriers. The only way to police us was when we were playing in public places, so we played privately. In homes, in communities, and we created our own venues.”

In 1959, having made a name for himself in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Ibrahim formed a new band with trumpeter Hugh Masekela called the Jazz Epistles—a sextet that is generally regarded as South Africa’s first significant bebop outfit. Technically, the band was illegal; all of its members came from different tribal and ethnic backgrounds. Bop, however, was not well understood by the authorities, and the Epistles took full advantage, making music that incorporated a multicultural mélange of influences and calling it modern jazz. They boldly hit the nightclubs, performing in the black venues of Cape Town’s bustling District Six as well as whites-only establishments.

“What we did was to hide it in plain sight,” Ibrahim tells me. “But you still had to be very subtle. We wrote a composition called ‘Scullery Department.’ When we played in white institutions, white clubs, you couldn’t mix. During intermission, black musicians had to go into the kitchen. And so [alto saxophonist] Kippie Moeketsi started writing a tune, and I wrote the bridge, and we said, ‘What shall we call this song?’ We’re in the kitchen, so ‘Scullery Department.’ It was like a code: The people knew that it meant segregation.”

The Jazz Epistles recorded one album, Jazz Epistle: Verse 1, in January 1960. Two months later, however, came a watershed event in the history of South Africa: State police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters in the northern township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. It led to a severe government crackdown on black South Africans, in particular large group assemblies (including concert audiences). Small groups weren’t immune from being targeted either; black musicians were banned from white clubs, and police began disrupting even the Epistles’ rehearsals. Finally, Masekela, Moeketsi, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa joined an international touring company for a musical, traveling to London and ultimately remaining there in exile.

Ibrahim initially resisted emigrating, certain that he was on the verge of a big break. But by 1962, as state oppression intensified, he left South Africa and settled in Zurich along with his future wife, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, and the remaining Epistles.

It was in Zurich that Ibrahim found the break he’d held out for in Cape Town. When Benjamin met Duke Ellington as he toured through the city in the winter of 1963, she invited him to come see the Dollar Brand Trio at a local club. The great bandleader and composer was impressed—and became a champion of Ibrahim’s music. Within just a few days, he had arranged a recording session for the trio in Paris, under the auspices of Reprise Records.

Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio reveals a pianist heavily indebted to Thelonious Monk and Ellington himself, but not much of an overt South African influence is on display. After Ibrahim married Benjamin and moved to New York in 1965, he began flirting with the avant-garde. But he stayed away from the defiant cultural identity of the Jazz Epistles. Drugs and alcohol soon threatened to destroy his career altogether.

In 1968, he converted to Islam, took the new name of Abdullah Ibrahim (though he would continue to perform as Dollar Brand for another decade), and purged himself of his addictions. Islam, he says, taught him about unity. “Like our illustrious poet Rumi says, there’s only one sound,” Ibrahim observes. “Everything else is an echo.”

Meeting Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, Ibrahim was astonished and inspired to discover that they had taken cues from the Jazz Epistles record. “That period, going into the 1970s, was a period of defining one’s own identity—and not just in Africa,” Ibrahim says. “It was a global point in time where people said, ‘We need to affirm our own.’ So that for us was important in terms of the music.”

With that in mind, Ibrahim set out to mine every aspect of his own experience and incorporate it into his work: mbaqanga street music, marabi and langarm dances, European classical works. The gospel chord progressions he heard in his grandmother’s church, above all else, became the foundation of his sound.

“The harmonic progressions that Abdullah uses—it speaks to what I try to tell my students all the time about being an artist: You have to be true to who you are,” says trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who has toured frequently with Ibrahim. “His progressions carry the weight of the folk traditions of South Africa’s music. But he’s taken them into different directions because of his knowledge of jazz, and it’s one of the things that has created a very unique sound.”

Ibrahim moved back to Cape Town in 1973. The apartheid government was in the middle of forcibly vacating District Six and resettling its residents in the township of Mannenberg—a policy that inspired Ibrahim’s composition “Mannenberg,” which he recorded in Cape Town in the summer of 1974. With its instantly memorable tune and a groove that drew from gospel, jazz, and marabi, the song (released stateside as “Cape Town Fringe”) became a massive hit. It also became a celebrated anthem of anti-apartheid resistance—and the unofficial theme song of the 1976 Soweto youth uprising.

It was transformative even for some of Ibrahim’s sidemen. “The first time I played ‘Mannenberg,’ or ‘Cape Town Fringe,’ however you know that song, I could not believe the response from the audience,” says Horace Alexander Young, who served as Ibrahim’s saxophonist, flutist, and musical director in the 1990s. “It was in New Orleans, and there were people from South Africa who were in the audience, and they started singing with jubilation and a shout because that tune meant something to them that it did not mean to the audience there who had just come to see the jazz musician Dollar Brand. When you get in that element, you really start to see that the music is way beyond being a sax player on the stage, playing some tunes and waiting for your solo.”

Ibrahim’s iconic status was affirmed when he performed, with a full symphony orchestra, at Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration as president of South Africa. It was there that Mandela styled the pianist as South Africa’s answer to Mozart. “Bach? Beethoven?” Mandela said. “We’ve got better.”

By the 1980s, Ibrahim was a respected veteran on the scene in New York, where he had returned after arranging a benefit for the banned African National Congress had made him a state target. He frequently performed as a solo pianist but also had trios and a large ensemble. His band Ekaya, which he started in 1983, included high-profile musicians like bassist Buster Williams and drummer Ben Riley but also made room for younger, less experienced artists—not unlike Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In fact, a number of Blakey veterans, including saxophonist Craig Handy, bassist Essiet Okon Essiet, and trombonist Robin Eubanks, also passed through Ibrahim’s ranks.

Being in the band, of course, meant learning South African rhythms. For some, it was a challenge, though others had an easier time. Essiet, for one, was the son of Nigerian immigrants to the United States. “South African rhythms and styles are different from West African,” he says. “But I could hear it and relate to it. Abdullah would show me rhythms and feels from songs that I had never played before. It was a great learning experience.”

Young, meanwhile, benefited from a remarkable coincidence when he auditioned for Ibrahim in 1988. “My aunt was South African, and my uncle was a missionary there with the AME church, part of a group that built churches in Cape Town,” he says. “One of those churches is the one that Abdullah grew up in. He had actually heard my uncle give sermons as a little boy, but he didn’t know any of that. But in my first audition, he told his manager that when he heard me play it reminded him of being a little boy sitting in the AME church in Cape Town. There’s no way Abdullah could have known about my family, but he made that comment about what he heard in my playing, in a completely unsolicited fashion.” Young remained with the band, on and off, for 17 years.

For many years, Ibrahim provided arrangements for the band, though it was best not to get too comfortable with them. “We had to make sure we brought a pencil to rehearsal,” recalls trombonist Ku-Umba Frank Lacy, “because sometimes he would come in and change our parts. He would give us notes to write—we would do that, too.”

But by 2009, the pianist had done away with even revisable charts. “Nobody arranges Abdullah’s music [now],” says Cleave Guyton, Jr., who has worked as Ekaya’s musical director for over a decade. “Because Abdullah might not hear it that way tonight—he might hear something different. So we do it spontaneously every time. He sits at the piano and says, ‘You play this note, you play that note, you play that note, you play the melody.’ And that’s how he does it.”

Obviously, this requires each musician to know Ibrahim’s compositions thoroughly. That’s easier than it seems. “He has a firm grasp on writing a simple melody that just makes you want to cry,” Guyton says. “And we just ask him, ‘Oh my God, how do you think of these things? That’s so simple!’ But it has nothing to do with technique. It has to do with life, and something that touches your heart and soul.”

“He’s a perfectionist,” adds Andrae Murchison, Ibrahim’s current trombonist. “He loves to rehearse until it’s as clean as it can be. But really, the gig is musically pretty simple. At this point it’s mostly ballads and everything is slow, focused on sound.”

On The Balance, Ibrahim performs alongside Murchison, Guyton, tenor saxophonist Lance Bryant, baritone saxophonist Marshall McDonald, bassists Noah Jackson and Alec Dankworth, and drummer Will Terrill. Only two of the album’s ten tracks, “Tonegawa” and “ZB2,” are new compositions, and Ibrahim plays them solo. Ekaya is featured on Monk’s “Skippy”; five longtime staples of Ibrahim’s book, including the title track; and “Jabula,” a new variation on his 1969 composition “Jabulani.”

Ekaya also plays on the enigmatic “Dreamtime,” which Ibrahim premiered with his trio in 2012 but still refers to as a new piece. “‘Dreamtime’ is this idea that everything is really a dream,” he says. “The only reality is a dream. We see this teacup; this cup was created because somebody dreamed of the idea. But you can’t see the dreamer—so maybe the cup is an illusion, still just part of the dream. This is the principle of the music also: illusion and reality.”

Notwithstanding his long residency in America, Ibrahim has spent much of his life wandering the world as an exile from his homeland. Today he maintains a house in South Africa, but primarily lives outside of Munich, where his fiancée is from. (Benjamin died in 2013.) What does it mean, then, to receive the highest available accolade for a jazz musician in the United States?

“It’s stunning,” he says, with characteristic grace. “It’s almost like I’m still trying to fathom what it is. When arriving here and seeing all this, it really is an incredible accolade that I gladly accept. But I also understand that it’s a beacon in the road that we should not stop at. It should act as an incentive for us to work harder to achieve our perfection.”

Those who know Ibrahim are not so measured regarding the honor. “I think it’s way overdue,” Young says. “He should have gotten it a long time ago. Sometimes jazz gets viewed through such a narrow lens, and it starts with some of us jazz musicians who have become more conservative than our rebellious predecessors. They were trying to play some music that was not about conformity, that was about expression that society itself would not allow. Abdullah’s music can represent a quiet protest, it can represent a revolution, and it can represent a block party, all at the same time.”

“He’s like a father figure; he’s become that for all of us,” Murchison says. “It’s not planned, like we’re trying to be like him, but the way he leads by example, that stuff just rubs off on you subconsciously. You can hear it in his music; it’s a reflection of him. You hear the compassion and sincerity, the high class. The dignity.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.