Orielle Berry chats to the global music icon and South African legend Abdullah Ibrahim aka Dollar Brand.

Eric Abraham and The Fugard Theatre will be presenting a series of intimate Solo Piano Concerts by the global music icon and South African legend Abdullah Ibrahim. 

The concerts take place from January 15 to January 20  in The Fugard Studio Theatre.

Ibrahim is regarded as our most distinguished pianist and a world-respected musician.  His career spans nearly 70 years, which all began in Kensington and District Six at the age of seven.

Ibrahim was announced last year as one of the 2019 Jazz Masters being honoured by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the USA. 

Orielle Berry poses some leading questions:

Q: Such a colourful and multi-faceted life - from your early beginnings in Cape Town, the influences you underwent;  your journey that makes up your musical coming of age. There are obviously so many highlights - can you single out a few?

A: My grandmother who sent me at age seven to the local school teacher in Kensington, Cape Town for piano lessons.She also tried to shield me from the horrors of apartheid by arranging for me an alternate ID to hide from the regime that my father was African -seSotho.

Q: If you were to describe yourself in three words what would they be?

A: Study Study Study

Q: As a shining light in the music industry you have influenced and have been influenced by so many. Some stand out names?

A: Caleb Ndimande: arranger; Thabo Machelle: trumpet; Willie Max: dance band leader and drummer;

Kippie Moeketsi: saxophone, clarinet; Duke Ellington; Thelonious Monk; Herbie Nichols and John Coltrane.

Q: What is the one thing that you would wish to highlight in your considerable legacy?

A: The honour of studying with most remarkable masters in all disciplines – an ongoing and immensely rewarding journey in South Africa, Japan and the US.

Q: From the early days of Cape jazz to international jazz to your unique sophisticated style rooted in your ever-evolving music, how would you describe your passage into what you are today.

A: From an early age I have been intrigued by the diversity of all music from all cultures at home and abroad. It offers a unique perspective of how composers and musicians portray their experiences. For me it started in the AME Church in Kensington – hymns, spirituals – and later – langarm dance bands, jazz big bands, klopse, nagtroepe, Christmas bands, South African traditional music, Bach, Hindemith, Stravinsky, popsongs...

Q: Dollar Brand ... Abdullah Ibrahim...1968 was the turning point when you converted to Islam and changed your name and you went on haj (a pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1970. Describe how your conversion and also how music and martial arts, reinforced then and today the spiritual discipline you found? 

A: Cape Town is a unique melting pot of all cultures and belief systems. Although I grew up in church most of my friends were Muslim.  In my search to find that elusive sound that touches one deeply without any imposed borders - I found it in Islam. When my friends invited me to a Gaajat - I did not understand a word of Arabic but the sound resonated me into shivers and inner serenity to all turmoil.  I had always been fascinated with the functions and structure of the human body – my best and favourite subject in school – anatomy. I started research in all disciplines yoga, athletics - but found the answer in karate in the few dojos in our communities. Later I met my current teacher Sensei Tonegawa.

I have been studying with him for 50 years...

Q: Manenberg remains one of South Africa's iconic songs - the song that soon become the unofficial anthem for black South Africans in  the 1970s -  when it came out in 1974. Describe its relevance then and still today for the new generation who weren't around but know Abdullah Ibrahim.

A: We recorded Manenberg in a Cape Town studio at the height of the 1974 student revolt against apartheid. I had composed five songs for the recording date. During the session we had the usual break.  In the corner of the studio there was an old upright piano.

I played the keys and the first sound became the melody, harmony and rhythm for Manenberg. It was not planned to be on the record – but Vic Versfeld the engineer kept the tape running and captured all 17 minutes of it – one take.

Listening to the playback we realised we had achieved a lifetime’s dream – to spontaneously play and record the traumatic and brutal events we were experiencing in the streets of South Africa.

Q: What can the audiences expect from your piano concerts at The Fugard?

A: My Solo Concerts are mostly improvisations on my older and newer compositions and immediate improvisations that haven't ever been played before and cannot be repeated.   

Q: Finally, some words of wisdom for anyone starting out on a journey of musical innovation and potential brilliance?!

A:  There are no secrets. Only basics. 95% practice 5% performance. 

Young saxophone student to John Coltrane: Which books must I use?

Coltrane: 
All the books

* Tickets for the concerts can be booked through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or through The Fugard Theatre’s website at www.thefugard.com