Abdullah Ibrahim – A Well-Known Brand Name

Interviewed by Seth Jordan

Some still know him as Dollar Brand, others by his adopted moniker of Abdullah Ibrahim, which he began using in the late 60’s after his conversion to Islam. Either way, the piano styling of this remarkable South African musician have made their indelible mark in both the jazz and world genres for over half a century.Now 66, Ibrahim was born Adolphe Johannes Brand in Capetown in 1934, and quickly nicknamed “Dollar”. Learning the piano from the age of 7, he honed his early talent in the church. By the late 40’s he was already playing with local jazz big bands.

In the early 60’s alongside trumpeter Hugh Masekela, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, he was a central figure in South Africa’s own “progressive jazz” movement which took its lead from the New York-based sounds being articulated at the time by John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk amongst others. His “Jazz Epistles” group, which included Masekela and Gwangwa, broke new musical ground, with a distinctive African influence added to the jazz improvisation.

He left South Africa in 1962 due to the worsening political situation and, in a now-legendary meeting, his new Dollar Brand Trio was “discovered” by Duke Ellington while playing in Zurich, Switzerland club. Ellington quickly arranged a recording session with Reprise Records, and the Trio began playing the major
American and European jazz festivals to enthusiastic acclaim. Brand/Ibrahim’s powerful tonal clusters, repeating African melodies, and creative improvisations were to become his trademarks.

He returned briefly to South Africa in the mid-70’s, but found the conditions so oppressive that he went back into exile in New York. He finally returned to live in Capetown in 1990.

His discography as both a leader and sideman lists well over a hundred album credits, including “African Space Program””, “Ekaya”, “Tintinyana” and “Black Lightning”. He composed the award-winning soundtrack for the ’88 French/African film “Chocolat”. His most recent releases include “Cape Town Revisited” and
“Township One More Time”.

His last performances in Australia occurred on a solo tour in the early ‘80s. He recently returned for an exclusive one-off Melbourne performance with his
current trio.

SETH JORDAN spoke to him for “Rhythms”.

Abdullah, as a child you played piano in the family church. What drew you to play there, and how closely related to African-American gospel were the songs that you learned?

Both my mother and my grandmother were pianists in the church, so I was exposed to it at an early age. It was part of a family tradition, Sunday church and Wednesday night prayer meetings. My grandmother was a founding member of the AME church in Capetown, that’s the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was
founded in Philadelphia USA, by and African American pastor, Richard Allen, who had come up from the Southern states. He was refused entry into an all-white church, so he began his own. Since our church was linked to theirs, I learned many American spirituals and hymns at a young age. And of course many of those
songs had originally come from Africa.

So how did you make the leap from the holy songs of God to the jazz tunes that some people back then thought were the devil’s own music?

Yeah (laughs) that old story! Actually my family was very supportive. They sent me to the local school teacher to learn how to read music. Jazz music by then was already part of the South African tradition. American jazz music was very popular and we had our own local jazz bands. During that period, the swing era, you could hardly distinguish whether a riff was a Basie riff from America, or whether it came out of the townships.

So the music you played in the 50’s with big bands like the Streamland Brothers and the Tuxedo Slickers was really a mix of American swing and traditional African tunes?

Exactly. At that time the South African music was called marabi, with its roots in the Maraba township in Pretoria. It was a basic three-chord progression with a repeated melody, and a bit of room to play solos on top. But we mixed it with things like “Tuxedo Junction” written by Erskine Hawkins, tunes by Joe Liggins, Basie, yeah, all of that old stuff.

I’ve read that there was also a link between South African songs and some of the early New Orleans jazz tradition too. Is that correct?

Yeah, there was a strong connection. We had a Confederate ship called the “Alabama” that came to Capetown, and that brought the minstrel influence to us. There’s a close link, almost like a socio-economic-cultural connection, specifically between New Orleans and Capetown. Street parades, carnival time, even the population mix. In New Orleans you have Basin Street, the red light district, musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, who was Creole, and then in Storyville you had the African descendents, the blacks like Louis Armstrong and all the others. Well in Capetown you have the so-called “colored” community and their musical influences, right up alongside the black community and their music. So there’s always been a very similar dynamic.

When you were recording in the early 60’s alongside Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa as The Jazz Epistles, your first album was hailed at the time as being the first modern jazz recording out of South Africa. Was there a sufficient audience there for this new, more contemporary sound?

There was always a large audience for what we were doing then. People were hungry for any new sounds. We were being denied so much; there was a really massive response to new and different musical ideas. People just wanted to listen to everything.

Unfortunately, so many black South African musicians felt it necessary to actually leave the country right at that musically fertile time. Was that a difficult decision for you to make personally or a very clear-cut one?

It was both. It was very difficult, but we knew we had to leave after the Sharpeville massacre. It became quite evident that we were coming under closer scrutiny from the government regime. We started to be identified as part of the resistance movement. When we decided to leave it was partly that we wanted to
pursue, to strive for our own excellence as artists, but it was also quite clear that we were subject to harassment and arrest just like everybody else. It was terrible to have to go, but our concern was more for the condition of our people, our families, rather than for the music.

Once you were in Europe, and then later in New York, you were able to mix with a very wide circle of other musicians. You’ve often cited both Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington as major influences. I believe there was a time when you actually got to lead the Ellington Orchestra for a few dates. Was he ill?

No, he was writing music for the film “Anatomy of a Murder” on the American West coast, and his band was on the East coast. So I was asked to play piano for about five of their concerts. Playing with Ellington on record was one thing, playing with him in concert was another, but being asked to take his place
inside there was absolutely terrifying. The scope and depth of Ellington was never really been fully appreciated. Those of us who access the music and who actually met those masters, Ellington and also Billy Strayhorn, are in absolute awe of their achievement and how far they were able to penetrate that realm of
musical understanding.

With retrospective tributes and more academic examination of his music occurring around the world, do you think it’s being better understood today?

I hope so! Whatever type of music you’re involved with, jazz or whatever, you’re touched by Ellington one way or another. His influence has been tremendous. There are big problems though. I’ll give you an example of how he is misrepresented or misinterpreted. We’ve checked with a number of students coming out of these jazz schools, and if you ask any one of them to play something like “Take The ‘A’ Train”, one of his most popular songs, and none of them are actually even able to play the melody line correctly. It’s because it’s been passed on from one transcriber to another, and then onto the students in this totally incorrect mode. With Ellington, as with Monk, you have to listen very, very carefully and understand the depth and the nuances with which they wrote.

I don’t think I’ve heard or read of anyone ever saying anything unkind about Ellington. What’s your own personal memory of the man?

I sat with Duke talking for many hours after concerts. His vision was far beyond just the music. It led us to feel, even at that time, that we don’t need missionaries, what we need are visionaries. And he was one of those rare people. A truly unique man.

Once you were living in New York, did it feed your own creativity to be working amongst that imaginative collection of musicians who were there at that time?

Sure! It was a marvelous rare moment, a time when people of like mind we’re all getting together at the same point. In New York there was John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins. We were all like a close-knit unit. Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, we were all friends, but more
importantly we were striving for excellence. We practiced for many hours a day with a vengeance.

Do you still spend much time in New York?

Not so much these days. I’m more involved with my projects in South Africa.

You’ve been quoted in the past as saying that South Africa is a political model for the rest of the world. Are you still feeling that way?

Of course. We have to commend our leadership that was begun by President Nelson Mandela. And also all of those unsung heroes whose names never appear in the media, but who we know have been very important, and still are, in the development of our community and our nation, and of us as individuals.

I also saw a wonderful quote of yours where you said, “South Africa is the only place in the world where a revolution has been made to the accompaniment of four-part harmonies”. Music really did play a major role in the people of South Africa gaining their freedom, didn’t it?

That’s right. Our experience has always been communication between individuals and family. Whatever we do is in the context of the extended family, which is the basis of harmony.

There has been some criticism of the ANC-led government since Mandela’s departure. Are you still feeling supportive of what is happening now?

Many years ago my martial arts teacher said to me, “To make a revolution is very easy, but afterwards it becomes very difficult”. So we understand what it is that we hope to achieve. We do have immense problems, but we’re facing them. We were left with a legacy of a society in disrepair. We have to recreate a new and
viable nation now. It’s not easy.

You’ve set up your own Conservatory in South Africa in the last few years for
teaching young students. What’s the plan?

The original idea was that it would just be a music academy. But as we started teaching we realized that especially in the disadvantaged communities, we had to deal with issues beyond just giving people performance skills. For example we had to deal with giving them a sense of focus, increasing their attention span. Health care is still an issue for our students. So we created a project called
M7. Music, movement, meditation, martial arts, medicine, menu, masters. Music of course covers all of the expected areas of musical learning; movement, basically we dance; meditation and martial arts addresses focus and discipline; medicine looks at the health care needs; menu pays attention to aspects of nutrition; and masters deals with all of the available teachers in these different disciplines.

We’ve started a project in Capetown, sending out several of our lecturers into the primary schools. We’re looking now at securing a new, more adequate building of our own, because our enrollment has grown tremendously. We’re also getting requests from international students to come and study. In Johannesburg we have a new Sounds and Images company “Masangeta ”, which means “miracle”, which has pooled its resources with an old friend of mine from my record company, along with a CEO from a diamond jewelry company. We’re using the business expertise and marketing skills of these associates to market a couple of new CDs, and we’ve just bought a building in Johannesburg, and one whole floor there will house M7.
So we’re working so far in Johannesburg and Capetown.

Has it become easier for young musicians in South Africa to find venues to play at, to tour, and to record?

We don’t take that attitude anymore. It’s not our dispensation to be waiting for others to offer us these things. We now have a free market economy, so we have to create our own opportunities. Create places to play, create record companies, create an entirely new infrastructure, both educational and commercial, to offer to these young players.

Is there better interaction between white and black musicians these days?

I think so. I’ve just created a 15-piece big band that is all black, but I’m also working with a 60-piece chamber orchestra from the classical field and they’re mostly white. Our M7 lecturers come from all ethnic groups. It’s precisely what the entire struggle was all about, you know? There are regional separations of
course, but in the end there’s only one culture, and that’s the culture of truth. It’s one’s heart’s deepest wish.

What’s your take on the increasing infiltration of rap and hip-hop styles into South African music in recent years?

Infiltration? We outfiltrated it! We rapped a long ago, we just didn’t call it that. We exported it to the world! My daughter is one of the rising stars of rap music at the moment in New York. She calls herself “What What”.

So you think the homeboys in Brooklyn would admit to rap originally coming from South Africa?

Well you’d have to ask them. The thing is that in the Diaspora there’s really no difference, whether it’s the Dreamtime from Mornington Island, or songs of the people from the Kalahari, or a rapper in Brooklyn, or haiku from Hokkaido. It all comes from the same place.

Abdullah, you’ve still out there, playing WOMAD festivals, performing around the globe. Are you still enjoying going out on tour, and life on the road at his point in your career?

“Enjoying” may not be the right word (laughs). But really this travel thing is getting too strenuous. Because of all of my activities in South Africa, from next year they’ll be less traveling time available. We’re also creating a new festival in Capetown, so perhaps it’s an opportune time to start touring a
little less now. But, God willing, I’ll still be staying very busy.

Author: Seth Jordan