The sensei with a groove

2012-02-03 08:58

About 30 years ago, the legendary South African jazz pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim recorded African Dawn. The album remains his most stunning solo piano album.

Ibrahim was 47 then, with 22 years of martial arts experience. So naturally, his music should have been affected. In fact, on the record, his playing betrays a checked forcefulness on the keys. It’s as if his wrists keep a memory of the kind of vigour he regularly used to drive punches in combat. Something he would have acquired through what has now become a lifelong commitment to karate, a combative martial art with a deep spiritual stream.

As he thumbs through chord progressions on African Dawn, the piano’s percussive mechanisms are made apparent as the notes blend into one another.

Now 78 years old, with 53 years of martial arts experience, the itinerant musician is scheduled to come home to play two dates this month – one at the University of Witwatersrand’s Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg and the other at Cape Town International Convention Centre.

Beyond karate, music education and spirituality, we also speak about the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Culture and Resistance Conference and Festival?– a gathering of progressive South African cultural workers in Gaborone, Botswana, to take stock of the role of the arts in the freedom struggle. Among those in attendance were the likes of Mongane Wally Serote, a respected poet and writer, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Jonas Gwangwa, Steve Dyer, Lefifi Tladi, and Thami Mnyele.

Speaking over the telephone from Switzerland, Ibrahim sighs with the weight of memories when I alert him of this anniversary. “You know, that was a dynamic gathering for all of us to consolidate our political agenda and our vision of where we were going culturally.”

The next obvious question to ask was: How far we’ve come since then? Are cultural workers in the new South Africa anywhere close to achieving the ideals of that landmark conference?

In answering, the old sage says: “We’ve tried to reconnect with that line (of committed struggle) but it was severed – and our young people don’t have a connection to it and it’s crucial for them to understand where we come from.”

This amputation, this “severing” from a vision or disconnect from ideals that Ibrahim talks about becomes even more magnified, at least by suggestion, when one listens to the music he recorded that same year and the title of African Dawn. It is pregnant with hope for bold and new awakenings.

Perhaps as an act of salvaging those noble historic commitments, Ibrahim has since developed a passion for teaching.

So much so that the 18-piece jazz big band he is taking to stage, for his yearly pilgrimage concert in the land of his birth, is made up mostly of students at his music academy in Cape Town.

The line-up will also include local giants like pianist Andile Yenana, trumpeter Feya Faku and saxophonist Barney Rachabane. The band will also feature two international artists – American trombonist and composer Andrae Murchison and Tony Kofi of Britain on baritone sax.

Ibrahim says the dream has also been “to create a viable working orchestra.

The band provides for the best context for learning through practice and observation”. It’s true. One only has to look at jazz history to confirm this idea.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Billy Eckstine’s big band, The Jay McShann Orchestra and Duke Ellington Orchestra were all learning centres of great importance. Ibrahim would understand this best. He was, after all, launched into international stardom by Ellington. The great American pianist and band leader helped Ibrahim record Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio in 1963.

However, the forthcoming gigs will not be in honour of Ellington, at least not directly. This time Ibrahim goes on stage with another seminal musical collaborator in mind.

“We call this project Morolong, it’s a dedication to the late saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi,” Ibrahim announces with a measured joyous falsetto.

The two formed part of the Jazz Epistles, along with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Gwangwa on trombone, Johnny Gertze on bass and Early Mabuza sharing duty with Makaya Ntshoko on drums. Together they recorded Jazz Epistle Verse 1 in 1960; the first album by a black band in South Africa.

Moeketsi died poor under the iron heel of apartheid in 1983, just months after the Culture and Resistance Conference. Looking back at the life of his departed friend, Ibrahim has prepared a special arrangement.

The prologue is a solo piano based on Green Kalahari. The second movement is a space for improvisation arrangement for the big band. It leads into a reworked version of Tintinyana in the third movement. Tintinyana is a composition that appeared on his 1988 album of the same name.

About his memories of Moeketsi, he says: “It’s like a planted beacon we can look back to. He personifies what we call precision and passion. He strove passionately for technical precision on his instrument.” To support this view of the man, Ibrahim points to the fact that, “though we didn’t have music colleges, we transcended”.

Kippie’s proficiency as a horns-man was impeccable. However, he succumbed to other vices. The grim life under apartheid pushed him and many others to alcohol abuse. The man (Ibrahim) once known as Dollar Brand remembers that when they were still up-and-coming, it was common to smoke a joint (dagga) or have a stiff drink before a gig, something Ibrahim says he dissuades young musicians against.

“Like we used to say, you have to straighten up and fly right. Remember that your body is your tool as a musician, especially if you play a wind instrument,” he says. “You must have some kind of physical and spiritual activity.”

For him, this has meant a disciplined devotion to karate. Ibrahim first got involved with martial arts as a form of sport training in 1960. He has been a Budo and Bujutsu martial art student with a Japanese master Soke Sensei Tonegawa since 1967. Having been recently awarded the 8th degree Menkui De (one of the highest possible ranks in Budo and Bujutsu), he has a cause to celebrate. He says: “Now I have a certificate to teach.”
As he slips into a chuckle, I sneak in a question about his famous hip-hop star daughter Jean Grae, whose real name is Tsidi Ibrahim. The New York-based star is set to headline the Cape Town International Jazz Festival this year.

What does the sensei pianist with a reputation for being a stern musical purist think about hip-hop – the one genre with no shortage of vice and fetid things? By way of an answer, the eternal spiritual student quotes Rumi, the Sufi mystique poet: “Well, there’s only one true sound, everything else is just an echo, so all genres are valid. What matters is the sincerity of the musician.”

As our chat draws to a close, one has to wonder: the man has been consistently productive for more than two-thirds of a century, on multiple levels across four continents?– how does he do it? The answer is in the music. It flows like water from an ancient well.

» Ibrahim and his orchestra will perform at the Linder Auditorium on February 17 and at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on February 11. Tickets are available at Computicket.


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