Much is made of jazz as the music of African-American experience, one that is sadly pockmarked with racism, prejudice and struggle. These labors give jazz legitimacy and relevance as well as an opportunity for many to say that only jazz' black practitioners are bona fide.
The 10th Anniversary of free elections in South Africa is a perfect time to consider the plight of musicians outside of the American experience. The tradition of South African jazz is not a new phenomenon; it stretches back to the '50s when tribal and township music was first fused with hard bop and big band flowing in from America.
South African pianist, n'e Adolph Johannes Brand, then Dollar Brand, now Abdullah Ibrahim, was one of the earliest practitioners but has issue with the idea that he was trying to do something American. "Jazz is not [only] part of the American society. People don't understand this connection," he said in quiet measured tones that match his gentle playing. "There was never a division between us in South Africa and the music we played and experienced and the African-American experience. I think the reason it is not obvious is that nothing has been written about it."
For Ibrahim, and the other musicians that were his contemporaries, music was neither a conscious decision nor a political statement. "Music was never, and is never an escape. In a traditional society there is always music....it was part of your life. If you are a musician, you don't regard yourself as a person apart from the rest of the community or the rest of the people, you are part of them." These are significant words from a musician whose community was forcibly kept apart from rich Afrikaaner whites and was unable to play music without numerous restrictions. "We always strive for excellence no matter what the conditions are because having to fight these people physically was not an end, it was a means to an end," says Ibrahim. "It was never a message of hate or violence; it was maybe opening a window for people outside of South Africa to see we are gentle people."
Apartheid came to South Africa in 1948 when racial discrimination laws were made official. The Dutch and British colonized the region leading to the Boer War of 1900. Independence followed but the Afrikaaner National Party became the leading political force and created Apartheid as a means of controlling the vast black majority. Ibrahim was born in Capetown in 1934 and grew up under the oftentimes brutal conditions that the 80% black majority had to face for the 46 years the policy was in place. During that time, he would be exposed to early jazz pianists like Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and James P. Johnson, then going on to discover modern giants like Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Monk and Ibrahim's future patron, Duke Ellington.
Ibrahim, like fellow South African musicians Hugh Masekela, the Blue Notes and others, left South Africa in the early '60s, desperate to play music and live unencumbered. "They [the government] were making it virtually impossible," Ibrahim recalled. "A lot of my friends, people that I grew up, with were in prison. They came for me at 4 am. They opened the door; they handcuffed me so it was time to leave. Half our people left the country. The most horrendous experience in South Africa is...living in South Africa was actually living in exile because you were not allowed to go anywhere."
Ibrahim, still then under the moniker of Dollar Brand, left for Switzerland where, playing in trio with bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko (another famed South African exile), he was discovered by Duke Ellington: "We were playing in Switzerland; we had just gotten out of the country. Ellington came into town. [My wife] Sathima [Bea Benjamin] went to talk to him and we were playing the last song of the set when she walked in with Ellington and the whole entourage and he listened to us and took us to Paris the next day. Recorded [us] the same time as the famous Olympia Hall recording." This album, Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio (Reprise, 1965) began his international career in earnest and albums for Fontana, Enja, Chiaroscuro, Freedom and other labels would follow.
Despite the difficult musical conditions in South Africa (black groups couldn't play for white audiences or vice versa; groups could not be mixed racially), South African jazz is joyous, rambunctious and meant for celebration. Unlike the anger-filled music produced in America's turbulent '60s, music by Ibrahim or the Brotherhood of Breath or Johnny Dyani used the triumphant and rhythmic forms of traditional African music as their base. Ibrahim, since his earliest recordings, has been the rare pianist that is more concerned with melody than florid improvisation. His solo performances and small group recordings have strong themes and simple progressions repeated to great effect.