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Abdullah Ibrahim: Perpetual Change

By Published: March 21, 2011
AI: Yeah, definitely. I feel we have achieved a... [long pause] collective liberation. Now is the time for individual liberation. About two years ago my martial arts teacher in Japan gave me a degree, a very high degree—I've been studying with him for about 50 years—and I asked him: "But teacher, why do you give me this award? I don't know anything." And he said: "That's why I give it to you because I also don't know anything." So I've arrived at this stage at 75 years of age where I'm only beginning to understand what is going on.

AAJ: It's remarkable that you've studied martial arts with the same teacher for almost five decades; do you see any parallels between the discipline required for required for composing and performing music?

AI: Definitely, and especially in this genre which we do —improvised music. The principal is to establish a state of fearlessness, because when you play a solo you're going into uncharted waters; waters where you've never been before, and it's terrifying [laughs]. But you prepare yourself from every angle, starting with song, harmony rhythm, for months, maybe years. If you have this foundation you have no fear; this is the same with martial arts. There are no secrets, just basics, and you do the basics over and over and over and over again, in martial arts and in music and I guess in any kind of creative activity one does. It's through constant repetition of the basics that the secrets are revealed, and also the fearlessness.

AAJ: That makes perfect sense. I'd like to ask you about the Capetown Jazz orchestra which you initiated in '06; could you tell us about the story behind this orchestra and the intention.

AI: One of the first groups I played in when I was just out of high school was a big band. In those years there were several big bands and also smaller dance bands. In South Africa the oral tradition is translated in to the instrument so at times it was quite difficult to tell if it was a Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
riff or a South African chant. There has always been this idea and that is actually our legacy where you hone your skills, like the jazz combo.

During the years of struggle we were always thinking how we could do it, but now with the new dispensation we were given the task to democratize the old institutions like the Philharmonic orchestra and then the government department for Arts and Culture gave us funds to create an orchestra, in our genre. That is what we've done. We've been working with young musicians. What we're doing now, next month, is that we're going to South Africa with Ekaya to present Sotho Blue in five cities and we'll present some of the young, upcoming musicians who will open the show; there are some incredible young musicians. We're also working with traditional groups and this is where we're heading. The musical experience is very broad; you have the choral tradition, the rural tradition, jazz, and we're trying to address all of this. Of course it's quite difficult because for most of the players in the provinces and the cities there's no infrastructure. I remember last year we did a project in the provinces and we reached 40,000 youngsters, but it's virtually impossible to keep it up because there are few teachers and instruments and so on, and these are the issues we are addressing.

AAJ:: You said before that there are a lot of incredible young musicians but do they get much support in terms of grants and are there venues for them to play?

AI: The Department of Arts and Culture is giving quite a lot of support but the problem is that there is not actually a circuit. In most of the cities there is not even one jazz club, so what we're doing now in Johannesburg is that we are busy creating a jazz club. It's a unique approach because we've managed to bring on board one of our top restaurants. So we have an excellent restaurant with excellent music. We're in the process of setting up and we think it will be another few months when we open. Then there is a possibility for musicians to play, both local and international musicians.

AAJ: That sounds like a wonderful project. Another project which sounds interesting is the M7 academy for musicians; what can you tell us about that?

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