The Interview – Abdullah Ibrahim: Down from the mountain

2013-07-14 14:01

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Peter Feldman chats to Abdullah Ibrahim ahead of his appearance at this year’s Joy of Jazz

He is one of South Africa’s most famous musical exports and, despite living most of his life in Europe, he is firmly committed to giving back to his people.

Abdullah Ibrahim has concepts and plans in place to help benefit young South African musicians, to guide them through their various development phases and help them reach their true potential.

This master musician and composer has been announced as one of the star attractions at this year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Newtown, Joburg, next month.

Ibrahim (78) joins a stellar cast that includes enduring jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard, celebrated pianist Ahmad Jahmal and Grammy Award-winning tenor saxophonist Eddie Daniels.

There are 50 artists on the bill, once again reinforcing the festival’s status as South Africa’s premier jazz event and one of the best in Africa.

Ibrahim has not lived in South Africa for six decades, but visits when he can to work on projects and perform.

In an interview, he recalled in vivid detail the stellar recording of Mannenberg, the signature composition that was to help give shape to his life and one that still touches a nerve with many people.

Ibrahim says he composes music from what he knows best and from the environment that surrounds him. At the time, he was composing music “in the vein of our tradition”, which, in some quarters, was considered unacceptable and decadent.

“Whenever we tried to play our own music, the record companies refused. They didn’t want it because it was not sophisticated enough, it was too primitive,” he said. “We were sitting around in the studio with Cape Town musicians Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, and I had written about five or six other songs.

“We were in the little studio recording this and I found this little piano sitting in the corner that had a metallic sound.

“The first notes that I touched were those first notes of Mannenberg. We found a bridge and we were quite relaxed about it all, and I said to the engineer to just let it roll.

“We recorded it, it was about 17 minutes and we forgot about it. We went back to recording the other stuff and then we realised that something had happened.

“When we listened to a replay, we realised there was a synergy that brought everything together.

“The song and the recording was done in one take and captured the whole essence of South Africa. It was just right and it was at the time just before the Soweto uprising. It was an affirmation of our culture.”

He said the record companies at the time didn’t want it. His business partner Rashid Valli had a little record shop on Cape Town’s Kok Street, and he played it over the loudspeakers and people streamed in to buy it. They sold 20?000 copies of their own pressings over the counter in a week. It was a proud moment for the young musician.

A joy in Ibrahim’s life is performing with Ekaya, the group he established 28 years ago, which is still going strong.

“It was started in New York as a traditional small combo, a sextet, and for the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz concert we have some new material. And, of course, we also have to present the ones that are most popular,” he said.

Ekaya comprises Ibrahim on piano, Cleave Guyton (alto sax, flute), Lance Bryant (tenor sax), Andrae Murchison (trombone), Tony Kofi (baritone sax), Noah Jackson (bass) and Will Terrill on drums.

After all these years, Ibrahim still gets a kick from touring. Asked why, his quick retort was: “It pays the bills.”

He added: “I live in Europe in the mountains with the birds and trees and spring flowers. Miles Davis once said that he didn’t like going on the road because it interfered with his practising. I also have an 800 hectare farm in the Kalahari, which has become a training incentive for musicians.”

He keeps active with a number of projects. He has created what he terms “an alternative concept to a trio”, which features a piano, woodwinds and cello. A recording has been made and will be released soon. The idea behind this is to expand and integrate Ekaya’s compositional skills.

African Songbook, another of Ibrahim’s works, is a collection of original compositions for piano and has just been released by Schott Music of Germany, one of the oldest music publishing companies in Europe. It serviced classical composers such as Bach and Beethoven, and Ibrahim considers that they are in good company.

“The idea,” he said, “was to create those original songs, most of which were improvised, and have them transcribed into a songbook for pianists. This particular book is for advanced studies. But we are looking at the idea of doing simplified versions for beginners.”

Ibrahim spoke about his orchestral works, of which he has done several in the past with the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg.

One work is titled African Suite for strings and a rhythm section. It was recorded a few years ago by the European Union Youth Orchestra. The new piece is titled African Symphony: The Journey, in which he collaborated with the late pianist and composer Steve Gray, who arranged it for full a philharmonic orchestra.

“He (Gray) actually came to Cape Town on his own to see where I lived so he could better resonate with the music,” he said. “We did this in concert last year in Babelsberg,?Germany, with the Babelsberg Philharmonic Film Orchestra, in the city which is Germany’s answer to Hollywood. Now we’re thinking of bringing this project to South Africa.”

Another project is the one initiated by Dr Pallo Jordan when he became South Africa’s minister of arts and culture.

The project was meant to integrate and help young South African musicians not just in performance, but also in arranging and composing, and to take it to far-flung corners of the nation to help develop talent.

They did a similar programme some years ago in the Cape, which attracted 40?000 young people.

“We couldn’t follow up because we didn’t have any infrastructure, had limited funding and most importantly no pool of teachers. So what we are going to do is bring Ekaya from New York, augment this with South African musicians, and do a project next year.”

The idea is to have musicians from New York integrate with South Africans so that there is a performance-skills project.

Asked what advice he would give young musicians, he said: “When I was in high school, my teacher gave me something which has been a guiding light in my life. When you write about anything, write about the thing that you know best.

“The things that I know best are the South African people, the events and places. This is what we want to instil in young musicians. First, you have to find your own voice and then tell your story.”

Ibrahim thinks South African audiences constitute the best jazz audience in the world and are appreciative of the music.

Now fans will get a chance to again hear Ibrahim, a superb musician and humanitarian whose album releases have almost reached the half-century mark. A true son of the soil.

»?Feldman is a freelance writer and a publicist

»?Ibrahim performs on the Dinaledi Stage on August 22 with his Ekaya group

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