Circling the Mountain

(1999) Biography I am a mountain. You call, I echo.
(“Mountain” is both source and metaphor for the sacred message given to people from the heights of cosmic creativity.)

Perhaps the most gifted African musician working within the fused ancestral streams of African+American music, Abdullah Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, is a pianist, composer, arranger, band leader and teacher. He is among the preeminent proponents of music as a healing and transformative tool. He has brought to bear upon his music influences from the artistic royalty of American Jazz and African musics. The thrust of his gifts is an expression of this lineage. His creative intention has been secured through his deep Faith. Abdullah Ibrahim’s understanding of the far-reaching roots of the healing traditions of both music and people’s art is comprehensive.

Many who have encountered Abdullah Ibrahim would also call him a teacher…including many of those who make up his worldwide audience. There is no escaping the transformative power of his music should one approach it with receptivity. In this respect he is both teacher and student, standing as exemplar within the chain of transmission which posits that every person is being inexorably drawn home and is capable of both openness and activation, of being taught and teaching, of following the path and leading others along it.

Born in 1934 and raised in Cape Town, the young Adolphes Johannos Brand was fortunate: his family owned a piano, and, his mother led the choir while his grandmother was the pianist for the local A.M.E. Church. Very early on her hymns and spirituals made an impression on the young Brand, who began learning piano at the age of seven. At some point he was exposed to Meade Lux Lewis and Fats Waller. Later in the forties he first heard the jumping Jazz of Erskine Hawkins, Tiny Bradshaw, Louis Jordan and other American musicians whose 78rpm discs were available for mere ‘dollars’ from the sailors and seamen put in at the great international port.

“We played a lot of boogie woogie back then. It had structure very similar to our native songs. We never regarded the music as foreign; it was just the music of our brothers and sisters in another part of the world. And in our corner there were great piano players: they didn’t play Jazz however; they played tradition…pure African Tradition.”

His musical awareness became enriched by the musical melting pot of the seaport. In Cape Town traditional African tribal musics, Cape Malay songs, hymns, carnival and street music, British low-popular, music of the local communities of Chinese, Indian, and Muslims, ‘Shabeen’ (speak easy,) dance music (called marabi and kwela,) American pop, rhythm and blues, and Jazz were integral to the local musical culture.

While in high school he gained professional experience as the leader of various dance combos. Afterword ‘Dollar’ Brand knocked about the Cape Town music scene and continued to soak up influences. He began his local career as a vocalist with the Streamline Brothers, then as a pianist first with the Tuxedo Slickers, next with Willie Max.

In 1959 he joined forces with the legendary alto saxophonist Kippie Moketsi, and along with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, formed The Jazz Epistles, melding dance music with Jazz. This radical fusion of swinging Jazz and ‘Shabeen’ dance music took Cape Town by storm. More importantly, Brand fell under the defining influence of the worldly Moketsi who filled his ears with the sounds of more Jazz royalty: Parker, Gillespie, and Monk. Kippie Moketsi’s insistence on the dignity of the music and music-making fathered Dollar Brand’s reapplication to the music, a seriousness of purpose which sustains his music to this day.

Commenting after Moketsi passed away in 1983, “Kippie’s life was not wasted! How could it be when it was Kippie who gave us everything we know? We have just built on from what he has taught us.”

Life for professional musicians was not made easy by apartheid. Because music performances required the separate groups to congregate with only their own ‘category’ and because any race mixing was illegal, the authorities made it difficult to produce even small size public concerts. The barriers erected by the ‘state’ to prevent the local musicians from building an audience were severe and effective. The only avenues for establishing a career were to play the ‘white’ nightclubs and be confronted with the full force of the cultural and social scandal or play under the sponsorship of the gangster bosses who kept the illegal nightlife going in the townships.

Expressions of serious artistic intent were especially frowned upon unless the artistry could be co-opted as exotica for the high brow audience. Such was the case with the musical “King Kong” in 1961. Although it showcased township music and attracted the country’s top musicians, it was soon highjacked by the government for public relations purposes. Dollar Brand’s refusal to tour abroad with the cast shifted his identification beyond being merely one of his country’s most popular musicians. Clearly the state’s policies and his artistry and its imperatives were on a collision course by that time.

“While they went overseas I locked myself away, sticking to our musical agenda, doing what Charlie Parker called ‘wood-shedding’…I just played and played, sometimes I’d work twenty hours a day. When I came out I could play.”

In early 1962, Abdullah Ibrahim and his wife-to-be, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, left South Africa where the always horrific political situation was deteriorating into its darkest era. (His departure set him upon an odyssey that would not allow him to return to Cape Town permanently until 1992.) Over the next three years Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima lived for short periods at various spots in Europe, but initially they settled down and shared a gig at a coffee house in Zurich.

During this period, about a year into their stay in Switzerland, Sathima ‘hipped’ the touring Duke Ellington to come check out her boyfriend’s performance at a local club. It was more than fortuitous…the Duke was, in Abdullah’s estimation, a King. This moment would complete the first circle of Abdullah’s career, cycling from the homeland and its kingships to the King of American Jazz, who’s person and music was already singularly central to Abdullah’s own music. Four days later the pianist and the Duke were in the Barclay Studios in Paris at which he recorded one record for Reprise, Ellington’s label of the time. He and his trio appeared at the Antibbes Jazz Festival in 1964.

Also during 1964 Ibrahim began to work on compositions for larger ensemble, several of which were played by the Danish Radio Big Band.While in Copenhagen. He recorded for Alan Bates and Black Lion Records a series of trio records with fellow ex-patriots Johnny Gertze and Makaya Ntshoko. It is also worth noting that in the cauldron of changes going on in the Jazz world at the time, his own music was advancing as well. The Black Lion dates are notable for their lyricism influenced by Ellington, their alchemy inspired by Thelonious Monk and intensity stoked by John Coltrane and the saxophonist’s convictions. Long form compositions, such as the epic “Anatomy of a South African Village,” a five part suite originally written for large ensemble, were startling developments coming as they did on the cusp of a remarkable period in music history about to be overwhelmed by the ‘British’ rock and roll invasion.

Yet, his progress during 1965 also was darkened by new laws in South Africa banning all race mixing. It was now impossible for Brand to present his music in his homeland performed by a big band of South African musicians. After three years of preparation, with a portfolio filled with epic scores, the ‘African Tradition’ big band project was dashed against the rocks of apartheid.

Urged to come to the United States by Ellington, Ibrahim in 1965 played a notable solo concert at Carnegie Hall, and later that year received the highest tribute, being invited to fill the piano chair of the Duke Ellington Orchestra for five dates during its east coast tour. While in New York, he had several encounters with Thelonious Monk which made a lasting impression. Once again a direct line is drawn between ancestral kingship and a musical King.

For the next five years Abdullah and Sathima literally bounced around between Europe and the United States. During 1966 he recorded with the group of Elvin Jones and made an important duo record with Gato Barbieri.

He converted to Islam in 1968, receiving the honored name, Abdullah Ibrahim. His discipline turned naturally toward inward and in support of a renewed spiritual commitment and discipline, deepening the iteration of his music; quickening it, as he himself was quickened.

“Many times I would hear a sound and suddenly it would dawn on me that this was the same pattern being used in a different culture. At a very early age Allah blessed me to recognize the universality of music.”

During this period the pianist recorded prolifically in Europe and Canada, etching gripping extended piano essays for Japo, ECM, Enja and Sackville. These recordings brought him great recognition: they were monumental in their extension of the free-spirited wave of late 60?s creative music while at the same time they were anchored, as a mountain is to the landscape, to both the Jazz and African creative continuum. Ibrahim’s early 70?s burst of music broke over the music world like an irrepressible wave, reconciling for many listeners the free form and the ancestral. With this surge of recording activity he began to impress his distinctive musical gifts on a worldwide audience, staking his early international reputation as an infectious and intense solo pianist. Not surprisingly, his appealing expression of simple, timeless ‘Africanized’ melodies preceded and anticipated the success of Keith Jarrett’s solo work, and a few years later, the insipid, platinum-selling musings of George Winston.

Abdullah and Sathima settled in Swaziland in 1971, yet Ibrahim was often on the road touring and recording. In 1973 he recorded his epic big band date “African Space Program” for Enja in New York City. Sonny Fortune, Carlos Ward, Cecil McBee, John Stubblefield and Roy Brooks would come out of that band to form the nucleas of various small groups that toured steadily in the early seventies and were the first incarnation of the -Ekaya- concept.

The Ibrahim family returned to Cape Town in 1973. Between 1974 and 1976 he made his last recordings with South African musicians (until 1992). The fruits of those sessions would include a stirring vamp, “Mannenberg”, (also titled on the original issue “It’s Where’s It’s Happening” [note 1] and reissued in the United States under the title “Capetown Fringe,”) that became the anthem of the post-Soweto uprising (1976) era with its uncompromising evocation of the peoples’ life and hope amongst the death and despair of the government’s brutal and appalling backlash. Then, in 1976, Abdullah Ibrahim made the irrevocable decision to exile himself and his family as a protest against the government’s brutal repression and the horrible conditions in South Africa. Upon his return to the United States, he decided to become among the most prominent artists-in-exile from South Africa, its dictatorship, and the political and social enslavement of apartheid. He refused to return until South Africa held democratic elections.

This image that looks like me was painted by the Friend.
You think I’m speaking these words?
When a key turns in a lock, the lock makes a little opening sound.
(Rumi, r.a., translation Coleman Barks)

Late in 1976, Abdullah Ibrahim and his family moved to New York where he would establish a production company, Ekapa/RPM, and a stable homebase for the first time since the fateful trip to Switzerland in 1963. Adding to what has become one of the most vital bodies of recorded work in creative music during the late 70?s and early 80?s, he moved on to reward listeners with a brilliant series of duet recordings with Archie Shepp, Max Roach, and, most crucially, with the South African multi-instrumentalist, Johnny Dyani. The Panamanian saxophonist and flautist Carlos Ward joined with the pianist to record the brilliant “Zimbabwe” (on Enja) to begin another key musical relationship. The groundwork for the septet Ekaya was being laid in New York and on the road as Abdullah Ibrahim led quartet and quintet sized groups on frequent tours, bringing the ‘Ekapa’ sound to Europe, Japan, and (back to) America. Ibrahim, between the end of 1973 and 1983, etched over two dozen records, including thirteen for Enja and his last records made in South Africa with Kippie Moketsi. It is as shocking and beautiful an outburst of artistry as is to be found anywhere in creative music!

note 1: Principally Lars Rasmussen, authorized discographer for Abdullah Ibrahim, and others, have clarified the point that the composition “Mannenberg” was retitled as “Cape Town Fringe” (once issued in the USA on a Chiaroscuro LP of the same name,) and “Mannenberg Revisited”, and is not to be confused with the different composition “Soweto Is Where It’s At”. My thanks to all who have provided me with correct information.

note 2 (2014): Sathima Bea Benjamin passed away April 2013.

note 3 (2014): the author Stephen Calhoun was associated with Satima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekapa/RPM (NYC) 1987-1990; he maintained several iterations of the fan site, Abdullah Ibrahim Mantra Modes 1996-2011; and remains an advocate for the growth of freedom, peace and the loving family of mankind–conceptions advantaged by the soundtrack exemplified by the artistry of Dr. Ibrahim.

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