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Abdullah Ibrahim: African Magic

Andrey Henkin By

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As he has matured and settled most often into performing with just a trio, his music has taken on a solemn quality, reflective of an appreciation for the beauty of life and his homeland. "I've practiced martial arts over the last 40 years, maybe 50. When you get to a certain age, all the warriors, they end up doing calligraphy," Ibrahim explained. "They write haiku poems. I remember playing Yoshi's [in Oakland] and Yoshi came up to me and said that now she understood my music, it is a haiku. The idea is that you don't need any kind of embellishment. It's a direct straight statement. But within that statement you have to encompass everything. It's like playing a string instrument; traditionally there was only one string, some of the traditional instruments in China and Africa only had one string and they added some more because it is easier to play in four strings than on one so possibly I've just gone back to that one form. It's not necessary to embellish but better to put everything into one note."

Most of his album titles contain the word "Africa", no small coincidence. After 40 years in exile, Ibrahim returned home but he never was spiritually far from his roots. Songs like "Jabulani" and "Tintiyana", some of his earliest compositions, are still part of his repertoire because Ibrahim still wishes to celebrate his homeland, even more now that it has become a place of freedom: "We came out of terrifying nightmare of Apartheid, something that is difficult to articulate what our daily experiences were in South Africa. In some ways, if you speak about it, you obviously live it and it was very traumatic, evil. And then, almost from one day to the next, it changed. All the people who laid down their lives and sacrificed for this change to happen. So now that is has occurred, there are so many opportunities. I hardly sleep when I'm there because there is so much to be and so much that is possible."

Ibrahim felt it important to return once he could and participate in the rebuilding of his country. "I started a music school in Capetown," he relates. "When we started it, we thought it would be a music school and then we realized we had to address a lot of other social issues'we called it Project M7: Music [jazz and African heritage improvisation], Movement [traditional and modern dance], Menu [diet and nutrition], Martial Arts [karate, tai chi, hsing-i and chiqong], Medicine [homeopathy, acupuncture and other traditional healing practices], Meditation [art and technique of various traditions] and Masters [drawing from the greatest world leaders in the above disciplines], basically encompassing everything we experience in our daily lives, especially the young people. So it's gratifying to be there. The difficulties we encounter, and President Thabo Mbeki makes frequent reminders about this, is that we have a priority, almost like a war, on skills development. Because that was denied during Apartheid. I wanted to, when I came out of high school, to go into medicine but was refused entry into medical school. I wanted to go into musical conservatory and was denied. All of that has changed and what we are doing now is putting in place structures that never existed there, because they never existed under Apartheid or only existed for those privileged few'we have a big task but we dismantled Apartheid, God willing we will overcome these difficulties."

Abdullah Ibrahim has had a successful career that he is extremely proud of, considering how unlikely it was. When asked though if he feels that he has had enough recognition for his achievements, his answer reflects the methodical way that his music unfolds: "I'm more concerned that I know about what God commands me to do. We strive for it. Recognition doesn't really bother me, or non-recognition'one day I'll be able to play 10 seconds of pure beauty...God willing one day. That is what we strive for - no matter the conditions - perfect your art."

Recommended Listening:

' Dollar Brand - Anatomy of a South African Village (Fontana-Black Lion, 1965)

' Dollar Brand - African Piano (Spectator-JAPO, 1969)

' Dollar Brand - African Space Program (Enja, 1973)

' Dollar Brand/Johnny Dyani - Good News from Africa (Enja, 1973)

' Dollar Brand - At Montreux (Enja, 1980)

' Abdullah Ibrahim - African Magic (Enja-Justin Time, 2003)

Visit Abdullah Ibrahim at Justin Time Records .

Related Link:
All About Jazz: South Africa

Photo Credit
Bruno Konradi (color)

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