Abdullah Ibrahim

Pianist and 2019 NEA Jazz Master
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Marina Umari

Music Credits:

Excerpt of “Mannenberg” (or Cape Town Fringe] composed and performed by Dollar Brand from Cape Town Fringe.

Excerpt of “Mannenberg, Revisited” and “The Mountain” from the cd Water from an Ancient Well, composed and performed by Abdullah Ibrahim.

Excerpt of Vary-Oo-Vum, from the album, The Jazz Epistles: Complete Recordings, composed by Dollar Brand, performed by The Jazz Epistles.

Excerpt of “Kippi” from Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, composed and performed by Abdullah Ibrahim.

Excerpt of “Eclipse at Dawn” from The Song is My Story, composed and performed by Abdullah Ibrahim.

Excerpt of “Chisa,” from the album The Enja Heritage Collection: African River, composed by Abdullah Ibrahim and performed by Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya.

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Jo Reed: The music you’re listening to is called “The Mountain.” It’s composed and performed by 2019 NEA Jazz Master, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine reed. Abdullah Ibrahim’s music combines the rhythmic influences of South Africa with the improvisations of jazz. Born Adolph Johannes Brand in Cape Town, South Africa in 1934, he was known professionally as “Dollar Brand” before changing his name when he converted to Islam in 1968. Throughout most of Abdullah’s life, the racial oppression in South Africa was pervasive, segregation was enforced, and opportunities and the freedom of movement was strictly curtailed for black South Africans. Abdullah grew up in one of the designated black areas outside of Cape Town in a home filled with music and in a family deeply involved in the AME church.

Abdullah Ibrahim: What happened was it was apartheid system. We were robbed of our traditional belief system. So, our traditional medicine was banned because it was witchcraft. Our belief systems were banned because it was deemed to be witchcraft. But now the spirituality, how could the people carry this on within this horrendous situation that the regime created for us. The best way that we could express that spirituality was in the church. So it had a deep political narrative to it. The African American Episcopal Church—the AME Church—they sent bishops to Cape Town to open churches in our communities. My grandmother was one of the founding members of this AME church in this enclave outside of Cape Town where I grew up. So, for us it was an expression of our spirituality, but also there was the connect with the African-American experience in the United States. But also for the rest of Africa. The AME church served as a home for our vision, for our perspective of freeing ourselves and expressing our spirituality in our own tradition.

Jo Reed: And church music was pivotal in expressing that spirituality.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Well, I still have my grandmother's hymnal. So I still play those hymns. In South Africa, we have at least seven different nations. So, in the spiritual belief systems, people actually gravitated of course through to their own environments and their own communities. You find that one hymn would sound quite differently and the music fascinated me. And so I was exposed to all of these different deliveries over Sunday of the music, and of course it was also the traditional music of Africa. And especially in Cape Town.

Jo Reed: Cape Town was culturally rich and diverse. It was a crossroads between Europe and Asia, West and East, North and South, with different cultures blossoming and interacting.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Because of, as you alluded to, now there's international dynamic that happens in Cape Town so I was attracted to this. In spite of what the regime wanted to do with us is really to curtail our freedom of thought. In Cape Town, where I grew up there is every kind of music. We have a Chinese community especially in Cape Town. Some of my friends were Chinese. Then we have an Indian community. When I was about 14 years of age, 15 years of age. I studied Indian ragas and talas. And of course, English, the British English. We were closely connected with that. We grew up playing in dance bands, and interested in music from prison. Dance bands for example, we played in the square, square dance and [inaudible]. But what they did was take those Irish reels and put the African beat to it. It was this broad range of experience that we had, and so today was just the melting point.

Jo Reed: And from the United States came the sounds of jazz.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Jazz music I listened to was Willis Conover, Voice of America. In fact, when I went to the United States, I looked him up but he had passed on so I met his wife. So Voice of America for us was the key. I think he came once a week. And of course that's where we could hear all the jazz music, but our local radio stations also played jazz music. And then I thought of being a pianist—interested in boogie-woogie. So I listened to Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis—boogie-woogie.

Jo Reed: When Abdullah heard jazz on Voice of America, he immediately recognized the resonances of traditional African music.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Playing in the dance bands for example, we played—the dance bands that I play, that I started with in Cape Town, big band was the Tuxedo Slickers—and our signature tune was “Tuxedo Junction.” What else did we play? “Song of India,” Glenn Miller, Joe Liggins, and Basie, and our own traditional music, and sometimes you couldn't differentiate whether it was [inaudible] or whether it was Basie. It was that close because it had this call and response. Traditional music basically is model. There're no core changes. It is a model. We adapted that modal experience with Western harmonies and Indian music. It is so compact and is vast within South Africa, musically, that we had access to.

Jo Reed: As apartheid tightened its grip on black South Africans, music became a potent means to proudly claim or reclaim musical traditions and break through the imposed cultural limitations. Abdullah Ibrahim and saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi became key figures in this movement.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Apartheid was built on the premise that we will forever be workers because we do not have the mental capacity to deal with intricate things like mathematics and science. And it was made legal. So we were all being relegated to being workers. That was—so the musicians, when we started playing the music and said, "No, wait a minute, this is not correct." And when I met with Kippie, Kippie Moeketsi, we said, "Wait a minute, we have to break out of this subservient idea that they're trying to relegate us to." We started questioning what was happening around us. And the key to this was really through the music because the music—it opened up the world for us. And Kippie Moeketsi was like an inspirational force. He was the one that said to us, "Listen, well, I understand I play Mozart, but we have to look at our own music here, our own traditional music. So we started researching our own traditional music and then we realized the complexity of it. The traditional music is inspirational even today.

Jo Reed: Kippie Moeketsi and Abdullah Ibrahim would join with Hugh Masekela and would begin the path-breaking group, The Jazz Epistles, who recorded South Africa’s first jazz album. Their distinctive style and harmonies blended the traditional and the modern.

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Abdullah Ibrahim: I met with Kippie, we used to play outdoor, and the music was challenging because it was like nothing they had heard in the community. We said, "We're taking this to another level." So we decided, "No, we need to get other musicians to fall.” It was just at the time of the Sharpeville massacre, and there was this renewal of energy that we had to liberate ourselves. That was how the band was born and it was accepted in the communities. We played so many concerts and then somebody organized for us to record and it was quite unique because during that time the recording studios were controlled by white producers who told us what we need to play. So, Jazz Epistles was a breakthrough for us in many ways politically, musically, socially.

Jo Reed: And Abdullah believes jazz itself with its fearless self-expression was particularly antithetical to apartheid.

Abdullah Ibrahim: There's no past, there's no future—there's only now. So jazz music from my perspective is the highest developed form of music ever in the history of the planet. And this is what jazz music does. It really gives you that insight into yourself because you constantly challenge yourself.

Jo Reed: To the South African government, jazz symbolized resistance. The government closed a number of clubs, harassed musicians, and began to target The Jazz Epistles. The group broke up, with some of them going into exile. In 1962, with the ANC banned and Nelson Mandela in jail, Abdullah Ibrahim left South Africa and settled in Zurich with his fiancée Sathima Benjamin. There, he met many jazz musicians, but the one who stands out is the one who played a crucial role in Abdullah’s career—Duke Ellington.

Abdullah Ibrahim: We were playing in this little club and it was great for us, because I met all of the jazz musicians who came through there. We played concerts, we used to go to the concerts, and hang with them and play sessions with them. We were playing there and Ellington came. Normally I would be able to go to Ellington, to the concert, but that one particular night the club owner didn't want us to go. This sort of club, there were only ten people [inaudible] they didn't want to let us go. I was very angry with him anyway. So we were just about to close down, when Sathima walks in with Ellington and his whole entourage. I don't know. She convinced him that he must come and listen to us. So he came, and said, "Okay, in two days’ time, you’re all coming to Paris to come in to record." I said, "What?" So we go to Paris, and Ellington takes us into this recording studio.

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Abdullah Ibrahim: I think, for me, it was a great endorsement because some of the songs that I played. He commended us on the structure of the song [inaudible], and the harmony, and the melody, and how we approached it.

Jo Reed: Ellington would become a lifelong friend and mentor. In 1965, Abdullah and Sathima, now married, moved to New York City—a hotbed of jazz. Abdullah expanded his musical influences hanging out and playing at Ornette Coleman’s house, jamming with people like John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, and Billy Higgins. Duke Ellington asked Abdullah to sit in and lead his band on a few gigs. Abdullah also played at the Newport Jazz Festival, toured the United States with Elvin Jones, and performed at Carnegie Hall.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Well that was a really incredible time. The experience for me was great to meet with these people and hang with them and to learn from them.

Jo Reed: Another person Abdullah hung with and learned from was the great Thelonious Monk.

Abdullah Ibrahim: It was in New York—was at the Vanguard. I went to see him. When I first heard Monk in Cape Town, people used to tell me I'm crazy, and I said, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This is home. This is home." What really was amazing for me was that this negative things that they were saying about him, even musicians, pianists... he can't play, doesn't know what a scale is. So I went to the Vanguard and I went up and I introduced myself, I say, "I'm from South Africa. Thank you very much and thank you very much for all this inspiration." And he looked at me very quizzically and walked away. He walked to the other side of the room and he kept on looking at me, looking at me, and he came back and he said to me, "You are the first piano player to tell me that." It was like a wakeup call for me to understand from a creative perspective, what this was all about.

Jo Reed: Abdullah returned to South Africa in 1968. And in 1974 he wrote what would become the unofficial national anthem of South Africa, “Mannenberg.”

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A beautifully rhythmic, joyous song. It holds out such optimism it doesn't seem as though it would be the anthem for a people who were so horribly oppressed.

Abdullah Ibrahim: We knew what was going to happen in the end, that we were gonna be liberated. There was no doubt about that.

Jo Reed: But while Abdullah and others might have had confidence in the ultimate outcome, the situation was dire for black South Africans in the mid-1970s.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Family members were shot, the people disappeared—we still cannot find where these people disappeared to. I mean people were being shot, arrested. And I had a group of young musicians—they were all into "I left my heart in San Francisco." I say, "Wait a minute, our house is burning." We went into a studio and I had written about, five or six songs that I wanted to record. So we started recording and then we had a break and I was playing on a grand piano. We're on a break and I look there in the corner was a little upright piano—(singing)—that was the first song that came out. And the musicians came—(singing)—“okay, let's play it!” And we played it for about 15 minutes, 17 minutes it was. But the engineer kept rolling, he didn't even tell us that he was recording. We thought we were practicing the song. Then we realized that we had captured the mood of the people and the mood of the country.

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Abdullah Ibrahim: And we made copies ourselves. We sold 20,000 in two weeks.

Jo Reed: After the Soweto uprising in 1976, Abdullah played benefit concerts for the ANC—which was still banned.

Abdullah Ibrahim: The ANC came and asked me and said, “Will you play a more active role in this and really take the music to the world? Try to make people understand that we are not terrorists.” So then, I played a lot of [inaudible] concerts and that for me was eye opening on an international basis, to play the music to people because it gave me another perspective, another insight.

Jo Reed: It wasn’t long before he and his family were in New York—exiled once more.

Abdullah Ibrahim: You would dream that you were at home, and then wake up to reality. I wouldn't wish exile on anyone.

Jo Reed: Although in exile with all that means, Abdullah’s music continued to flourish. Since 1983, he’s led the band Ekaya, an ever-changing group of New York-based musicians. He teaches his music to the band in a way Duke Ellington would appreciate.

Abdullah Ibrahim: If I have a new song, introduce it at a rehearsal, I would just start playing it while they are busy getting their instruments together, I'd just start playing it. And then maybe the saxophone player would say, "Hey what are you doing?" And I'd say, "You heard," and then we work from there. I don't tell them what to play, or how they must play it.

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Abdullah Ibrahim: And I think this is always something that I learned from Ellington. He actually writes the song for the musicians. You had that dynamic of the musician actually being comfortable in his own. And then if you put it all together, you get the unique sound. And Ellington was a master at that.

Jo Reed: In 1990, Nelson Mandela freed from prison invited Abdullah Ibrahim—whom he called “our Mozart”—to return home to South Africa, and in 1994, Abdullah received another invitation.

Abdullah Ibrahim: Yeah, I was invited to play at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. I mean it was in Pretoria at the Union Buildings, and that day at that event where the whole world was there.

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Jo Reed: But as glorious as that day was, years of living under apartheid had taken their toll.

Abdullah Ibrahim: I just go into Pretoria, because Pretoria was a place like, you were absolutely terrified even to walk the streets because you could get arrested. It was an enclave, it was an all-white enclave so playing there—it was scary because you still had this syndrome of not being able to go into places and it took some time. It took some time to understand what was happening, that we were liberated. It had changed.

Jo Reed: Abdullah Ibrahim has worked in a number of genres—from ballet to opera to scoring films. He continues to perform worldwide as a solo artist, with his bands, and as a guest performer with classical orchestras. He divides his time between New York, Cape Town, and Germany. In addition to performing, Abdullah has established M7, a music academy in Cape Town and spearheaded the creation of the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra. Throughout Abdullah Ibrahim’s extraordinary career, there are philosophical threads that remain constant. One is preparation: he has said music is 95% practice, 5% performance, and that practice itself is a necessary challenge to the ego.

Abdullah Ibrahim: It’s almost like you're traveling somewhere, and you're so obsessed in reaching your goal, and reaching there, that you miss everything on the way. You miss everything on the way. So actually the goal is not important. This is also the principle of playing the music. Your intentions are just as good as the result. So you have to establish your intention first, and then everything else comes. Because if you set your intention, you have no control over what comes next. That's destiny. You can't control your destiny, but you can control your intention, well, hopefully. So the same thing with practicing, is that practice and practice and practice and train and train. They are not secrets. They are only basics. All the great jazz musicians, always said, "You practice all of that stuff, for years and years and then you forget about it."

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Jo Reed: And the other thread woven throughout Abdullah’s career is his certainty rooted in traditional South African beliefs that music is healing, and that musicians have the opportunity and the obligation to take on the role of healers.

Abdullah Ibrahim: The traditional music is the healing songs. So this was our duty and our role in society. When we became industrialized, and we've been in cities, now we tend to be entertainers. And I think this is where, for me, jazz music and jazz musicians is—it's a wonderful and self-enriching experience when you speak to the masters, and understand the road and path that they've taken, the selfless path. That at least is something that we can hopefully pass on.

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Jo Reed: That’s 2019 NEA Jazz Master, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. If you want to see the full 2019 Jazz Masters Tribute Concert with performances by a range of jazz artists from Jason Moran to Christian McBride to Terri Lynn Carrington, just go to arts.gov. I was there, it’s great!

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts—so please do and leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Pianist and 2019 NEA Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim combines the musical influences of his childhood in Cape Town, South Africa, which include traditional South African songs, gospels and spirituals, and Indian ragas, with the improvisation of jazz to create a sound that is distinctly his. Born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1934, he was known professionally as Dollar Brand before changing his name when he converted to Islam in 1968. Ibrahim, along with Hugh Masekela and Kippi Moketsi, formed the short-lived but impactful septet The Jazz Epistles who recorded the first South African jazz album, Jazz Epistles, Verse 1. Because of the limits imposed on black South Africans by the repressive apartheid government, Ibrahim left the country. He traveled first to Zurich, where he met Duke Ellington who recorded him, and then to New York City, where he met everyone else and played in Carnegie Hall. He returned to South Africa briefly and in the mid-1970s composed what became the people’s national anthem, “Mannenberg.” Exiled once more, he returned to South Africa at the invitation of Nelson Mandela and performed at Mandela’s presidential inauguration. In this podcast episode, Abdullah talks about his many diverse musical influences, his deep love of jazz (which he calls “the highest form of music”), living and performing under apartheid, exile, and the musician as healer. We pack a lot into this podcast, but Ibrahim has had a long, rich life.