The music of Abdullah Ibrahim has many similarities to that of his early mentor and constant inspiration, Duke Ellington. His playing is characterized by that strong hand and decisive touch, stark chords and cavernous voicings; there is plentiful structural use of trills, arpeggios, and vistas of space; there are insistent stride lefts, resonant pedal tones, bold and rugged landscapes of unforgettable, unimaginable lands, especially evident in solo performance. In a broader sense, there is the prolific pen, the indelible live impressions, the massive integrity.
…As Abdullah Ibrahim has said: “I am not a musician. I am being played.” That’s a little like Duke, in a wry self-interview, asking himself, “Besides God what sustains you?” and answering, “Not besides. How does one manage without God?”
Fred Bouchard; excerpted from the liner notes to Africa: Tears and Laughter
None the less the black man’s African music inevitably suffered, in his white world, a sea-change more radical than this: for it came into contact, and then conflict, with the musical manifestations of the New World, particularly as exemplified in the white hymn and march. The hymn offered a substratum of western tonic, dominant and subdominant harmony; the march provided also the four square beat of military discipline: and these elements became, in musical terms, literally a prison against which black modal melody and polymetric rhythm beat -violently, yet not in vain, for from tension is generated ebullience. Combat may lead to liberation; pain may heal.
The story inherent in his music is indeed the story of Africa. The Township phase is childhood and adolescence, and escape into euphoria; the American phase grows up to confront tension and anguish, personal, social, religious and political; while the African phase is reaffirmation, both because it musically reintegrates the seemingly contradictory aspects of his experience, and also because it is a direct imaginative statement of Moslem belief.
Starting from barrelhouse blues, enriched by Ellington’s symphonic sonorities, and tautened by Monk’s brittle pianism, he honky tonks the barrelhouse train into jungle or desert, handing the music back to his ancestors. The sharper the juxtaposition of opposites the more positive is the effect: snatches of African tribal ditties and communally pounding drums meld with British missionary hymns and sanctimonious-sounding European chord sequences to generate not only corporeal virility, but also spiritual ecstasis. Black ostinati interact with white evangelical harmony and flower, through the catalyst of American jazz, into a regenerative experience that overrides time and place. The most African movements prove, pointedly, to be also the most universal.
Within the ragbag of races and conventions that make a global village, the disparities of straight line and circle, reconciled, forge new life in an act of praise…balanced on a razor-edge between hazard and hope.
©Wilfred Mellars, excerpted from the notes to Autobiography (Plainesphere)