In modern society, cultural diffusion is at the crux of personal development. As the world grows smaller, its people and their concepts become that much more intertwined. The growth of artist Abdullah Ibrahim speaks volumes to this anthropological phenomenon. What I believe to be considerably different about Ibrahim, however, is that he, unlike many, has managed to maintain a certain sense of self, whilst being introduced to an onslaught of external forces. His sound, influenced by many of the American greats, has always preserved a semblance of his roots – Cape Town, South Africa.

In the beginning, he was Adolph “Dollar” Band, the young jazz enthusiast who earned his nickname by procuring records from visiting American sailors. Even in his formative years, he had a connection to the distance land of North America. Helming the piano on the influential South African ensemble, the Jazz Epistles, the bebop motif explored by the group evoked an undeniable Western influenced sound. Drawing from the stylistic tendencies of a Thelonious Monk, Brand crafted a melodic delivery tied together with technical brilliance. Upon leaving South Africa, with his wife, famed vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, Brand was introduced to the great Duke Ellington. Admiring his abilities, Ellington offered Brand the opportunity to record with him resulting in a 1963 release on the American music label, Reprise Records. While his sound during this era reflected the American jazz artistry of the time, Brand never shied away from his origins. With titles such as Anatomy of a South African Village and African Piano, it was very much understood that Brand was indeed proud of his heritage.

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A change was on the horizon, however, that would drastically redirect the trajectory of his entire life. In the mid-1970s, Brand like many other artists of the time converted to Islam. From thereon, Brand was officially known as Abdullah Ibrahim, actualizing a momentous juncture in his evolution. Following this path, his sound and its subsequent politics began to develop, as well. Where I’ve found Ibrahim to be most effective, are in those moments during which he sits alone, a concept defining much of this era in his career. Both pensive and demonstrative, his work seems to find its greatest clarity, when it is just him and his piano. As Abdullah Ibrahim, he has an extensive repertoire of sounds that seem to be American in style, and yet through the subject matter laid out, presents a subtle homage to his native land. With a languorous drawl, he manages to carefully reflect on the temperamental nature of South African politics. Often void of lyrical content, Ibrahim was able to encapsulate the contrasting aesthetic grandeur of Cape Town to the sordid reality of apartheid.

If nothing else, Ibrahim’s music was revolutionary in spirit. Performing alongside acclaimed South African artists Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, the collective recorded one of the most powerful statements against the tyrannical political system of apartheid with their moving composition, “Manenberg.” Many would agree that this has been the long-standing musical testament to the anti-apartheid movement, speaking to not only the composition’s resilience but the influence of the artists themselves. It has also been said that the sounds of Ibrahim were some of the first original musical compositions heard by a then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. However true this may be, the recognition of Ibrahim’s radical political gesturing did not go unseen by the famed leader, who requested him to perform at his inauguration as the newly elected president of South Africa. Despite his time abroad, it is without a doubt that his contribution to the movement resonated throughout his homeland.

The evolution of one of South Africa’s most significant artists is complex in theory and, at times, even seems to be contradictory. From Dollar Brand to Abdullah Ibrahim, his music maintained a humble dignity and yet irrevocably shaped the movement against an oppressive political system. His contributions to society go beyond an inclusion in the canon of music’s elite. Abdullah Ibrahim is where timeless art meets progressive politics. He is the definition of change, both in art and life, and yet, always paid respect to his glorious lineage of timeless African culture.  His evolution carried him away from his home only to serve as one of its finest ambassadors. As the veil of apartheid has slowly moved aside, Ibrahim continues to tour, bringing his unassumingly stirring sound to stages across the world. While his  journey, spanning over 60 years of excellence, has taken him to distance lands, he has always remained a native son of South Africa.

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Words by Paul Pennington

 

Comments

1 Replies to "Abdullah Ibrahim: South Africa’s Native Son"
Lateef Afodun says:
February 25, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Bayyana, Children of Africa by Abdullah
, is indeed a masterpiece

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