Africa may be the ancestral home of jazz, but there are few African-born jazz musicians of renown. The best known is undoubtedly Abdullah Ibrahim. A multi-instrumentalist, Ibrahim is justly famed for his sublime piano playing. Born Dollar Brand in South Africa, Ibrahim, who will turn 75 this October, has led an incredible and very complex life.
To summarize, Ibrahim was raised in a ghetto as "coloured" under the Apartheid system. Ibrahim’s father, a member of the Sentso tribe, had been murdered when he was four, a fact he discovered only in adulthood. His grandmother had founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church, and she and his mother served as church pianists. Ibrahim fell under the piano’s spell and demanded piano lessons at age 7. Baptized Adolph Johannes Brand. he was dubbed "Dollar" because he would purchase 78 RPM swing records from black GIs who docked during WWII. His playing was influenced by everything from Monk to Debussy to Christian hymns and South African choral performances. He hit it off with future wife Beatty Benjamin, a schoolteacher, when he was asked to accompany her to play Ellington at a concert. His Dollar Brand Trio recorded South Africa’s first jazz album in 1960, but finding himself persecuted under apartheid, he left for Europe in 1962. After Beatty persuaded Duke Ellington to come hear him play in Zurich in 1963, Ellington took Ibrahim under his wing, and he graduated from Julliard in 1967. Returning to Capetown in 1968, he converted to Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1970. After yet another self exile Nelson Mandela invited him to return home in 1990, and Ibrahim played at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. He is touring to promote "Senzo," his latest CD - a solo piano extravaganza similar in form to what he is about to present.
The audience quiets as the concert commences. A gray-haired Ibrahim enters from the audience’s stage right. He’s dressed entirely in black and carries only a mysterious book (with large lettering in magic marker) and a white towel. As a prelude to performing, he repeatedly presses his palms together before sitting down to play.
The next hour is a tour de force. But let me set the scene: This matinee show takes place at a matinee show at at Yoshi’s, a relatively new club in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and parents may bring their tiny tyke (or tykes) for an additional $5 each. Most of them tune out, but some of them do tune in for a brief while. In any event, they are all gone by the end of the show, a performance which demands the concentration of a concert hall performance (but is set within a nightclub attached to a restaurant, with the accompanying inevitable distractions).
Ibrahim maintains that he doesn’t know where his music comes from, or, when he plays solo, what tunes he plays. His atmospheric music is meditative, building up walls of sound, as though one were swooping above different landscapes on an invisible cloud with his piano as a soundtrack for the voyage. It is best categorized by a combination of stride piano, delicate fingering, and atmospheric, meditative lyrical phrasing - at time building up a wall of sound with cathedral-like cadences. A listener might envision traversing different landscapes with the music as your soundtrack. There are no recognizable tunes but phrasings are reminiscent of some of his compositions. One struggles to describe it without dragging in that hackneyed word "spiritual" but spiritual it is. His gleaming black shoes, set apart at angles of 45 degrees , tilt on his heels as he taps the pedals and hums along.
After Ibrahim has performed for an hour straight, he pauses, bows, and returns to play for another 55 minutes. He has not spoken a word. Later on, Ibahim will return to play another set, shorter this time but equally vibrant.
Music on CD: "Senzo" is Ibrahim’s latest live recording, which he has been touring to promote. If you buy it, you might also want to check out 1980’s "Dollar Brand at Montreux," which shows you how his style has evolved. Other great recordings include "Water From an Ancient Well," "Ekaya," "African Space Program" and many, many others.