The Music and Artists of South Africa
  • Part 1: A brief history
  • Part 2 - Miriam Makeba

    Part 3: Abdullah Ibrahim - The Dollar/Brand exchange.

    During September 1990 Abdullah Ibrahim returned to South Africa after accepting an invitation to perform at the Weekly Mail film festival at Wits University in Johannesburg. After many years in exile this would be his first concert in South Africa and was eagerly awaited by his many South African devotees who had previously only been able to catch his performances in New York or Europe. The winds of change had begun to blow in South Africa and the news of Ibrahim's return and performance was proof of this. One of South Africa's most famous exiles was coming home. The pretext for his appearance at this festival was due to the soundtrack he had scored for an obscure African film that was to be screened at the festival. But the local jazz fans and media knew it was far more important than that.

    Abdullah Ibrahim was born Adolph Johannes Brand in Cape Town in 1934. He began playing piano as a child under the influence of his grandmother who played piano in the local A.M.E. church. He first achieved a level of prominence during the 60s when he formed and played with a local jazz ensemble the Jazz Epistles, which included such luminaries as Hugh Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi. As with many of the eminent jazz musicians of that time he, together with his wife the singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, left the stifling atmosphere in South Africa to further his career abroad. They first settled in Switzerland where he came under the wing of the jazz great Duke Ellington. Dollar Brand, as he was then known, made his American debut in 1965 at the Newport Jazz Festival where he played with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Soon after that he gave a solo performance at Carnegie Hall. Twelve years later he returned to Cape Town where he was to become a seminal influence in the jazz styles of the day. A devout Moslem, Dollar Brand later changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim.

    Dollar Brand's music was a far cry from the prevailing styles of the US jazz scene which had entered its electric jazz/rock fusion era. His music was rooted in the 50's cool jazz spirit. It combined a mixture of Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk with mission hall hymns and Zikr *. A percussive, repetitive pianist, he used a rumbling left hand figure and a lot of pedal to sustain the dense, droning climate of his music. The calming spiritual element of his music later had a major influence on the new school of American players, including Keith Jarrett. He has recorded over 30 albums and written over 700 pieces of music ranging from folk songs to extended works for an orchestra. He also released a video called, appropriately, A Brother With Perfect Timing.

    In 1974 Dollar Brand, in collaboration with tenor saxophonist Basil Coetzee, recorded possibly the most famous piece of music in South African jazz history. Named after the Cape township, Mannenberg epitomised the Dollar Brand sound and is still not equaled in its evocation of the Cape jazz style and township life. His later albums all mirrored the duality of his South African and exile backgrounds, African Marketplace, Blues for a Hip King, Water from an Ancient Well, Tintinyana and Ekaya which is a South African word for 'Home'.

    That night at the Weekly Mail festival was as electric and emotional a concert as had ever been witnessed by any member of the audience. Ibrahim walked onstage to a standing ovation, bowed deeply to the audience and proceeded to play uninterrupted for almost two hours. Bent over the piano he poured out a wide selection of his music as if to purge from his soul the pain of the past years of his exile from the country he loved. As anyone who has had to sit on those uncomfortable seats in the Wits Great Hall will attest, it was quite a marathon. My wife, who was heavily pregnant at the time, spent the entire concert squirming around in her seat. Two hours after the concert she went into labour and our baby daughter was born a few hours later. Ibrahim was back and the birth of the new South Africa was not the only birth he had helped to encourage.

    Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman

    *Zikr - The repetition of the holy attributes of Allah.
    Stephen Segerman (sugar@cd.co.za)

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