Today, on my friend Abdullah Ibrahim’s 80th birthday, I commence bringing to this blog archival posts and essays from the Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mantra Modes blog (1999-2014.) That blog will be shut down and its contents will be integrated here under its own category.
A PERSONAL APPRECIATION (2003; updated 2014)
I came to Abdullah Ibrahim’s music out of a giant love and regard for the music and artistic kingship of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and, especially, Thelonious Monk. Although I was quite certain about the pantheon those geniuses inhabited, and the meaningfulness of the gifts my long, abiding , engagement with their music had brought to me, instantly, in the aftermath of hearing Abdullah Ibrahim for the first time around 1976, he became my personal favorite musician.
Much later I would strike up an association with A.I. and his family that proved more than meaningful…it proved to be a fortuitous, life changing experience. We eventually would even develop a loose professional association, sharing ideas about the business implications of what he termed peoples’ music. I was grateful to spend many moments with Abdullah and his wife Sathima. The memories abound!
Still, there was a time when it didn’t make much sense to me. Without a doubt, I took our relationship for granted. (How many persons are so fortunate to even meet their favorite musicians?) Despite the accrued hours of listening accumulated over more than twenty-five years and my exposure to tens of musics and hundreds of musical artists, it wasn’t until 1988, while I sat with Abdullah Ibrahim at a table in the student center at Middlebury College in Vermont, amidst the bustle of both lunchtime and my own ignorance, that I would be given the opportunity to comprehend just how it was a particular musical arrow made its way into a particular heart, my heart.
Abdullah took out a felt tip pen and, after unfolding a paper napkin, proceeded to draw profiles of the earth’s continents in a rough projected map. Then he began to quickly note the similarities in harmony, instruments, and approach of a wide variety of folkloric musics until he had identified multiple “centers of musical science,” (as he put it,) at which point he began to tell me of the migrations of various peoples, their musical knowledge, and other kinds of knowledge, over vast ocean and land distances. These routes he called “paths of transmission”. He explained to me how this led to both a cross-pollination of musical science at the same time such transmissions guaranteed the “sound basis” for each tradition remained rooted in the sublime simplicity of “the original musical science”. He added, “This history is not commonly known! Very soon the napkin was a tangle of centers and routes. It looked like some sort of plant self-organizing along seemingly random tendrils to birth additional offshoots.
Abdullah didn’t upset this metaphor when I brought it up, he only realigned my consideration to encompass the web so drawn within the image of a “vast system of rivers” along which the “verbal and nutritional and sound and color and healing and herbal and movement sciences” travelled over eons. I became struck with a startling comprehension of how the river system provided necessary nourishment and harmonization which served to vitalize the propagation of the human spirit. We sat in silence, no further speaking was necessary, nor did it ensue.
Later, I came to understand something about my sensitivity to sound.
Abdullah recounts his first meeting with Thelonious Monk in the early 60’s, a meeting at which, after Abdullah’s introducing himself to his forbearer, he was thunderstruck by Monk’s “being one of God’s ancient scientists, an ‘African King'”
Never will I forget walking out of a movie theatre in Montpelier, Vermont, on a brisk July night in 1988 having just viewed the movie Straight, No Chaser with Abdullah and our friend Deborah. As we hit the sidewalk Abdullah did a Monk-like dance down the street. As we stopped at the corner, he was reminded of the difficult construction and harmony of “Brilliant Corners”. Right then and there he sang it to us. He sang more ‘proper’ melodies of certain Monk songs by way of explaining how often musicians ‘unable to really deal with Monk’s music,’ would simplify Monk’s compositions. Silence: Abdullah seemed to get very somber.
It’s a lifetime’s work to deal with Monk.
Just as suddenly Abdullah brightened and turning to Deborah, also a pianist, he told her,
To play Monk you must dance!
Abdullah once told me there were three levels of his music: (one) “there is the ensemble music…very powerful and being expressed for the peoples of the world;” (two) “there is solo piano…which demands much more attention and won’t provide its rewards for everybody;” (three) “finally, there is our singing ‘unit’ which is by invitation only, may be perilous for the unprepared, and, is the connection!”
I asked him if he got nervous before performances.
“Afraid? Always. I never know what message I will be asked to deliver.”
The Ancestral Relation
May such inspiration impact the reconciliation and healing of
South Africa, Africa and, the COSMIC AFRICA (source of ‘all’)
that has at its center the Original Mountain out of which flows the One Creative River that formulates a Spiral
and describes the Timeless Circular Ocean
out of which the Human Spirit is able to sip and taste
Nobility, Majesty, Truth and Beauty.