The legendary jazz icon Abdullah Ibrahim, who lives in Berlin, will be back in his home city to perform for only two nights at the Artscape on Friday and Saturday October 13 and October 14. He offers some thought-provoking answers to questions posed by Orielle Berry.
Who is the man behind Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim in your words?
I was born in 1934 in Maitland and grew up in Kensington and District Six.
My grandmother inspired me to take piano lessons with the local school teacher and encouraged me to continue composing my own music, from the age of seven.
My grandmother was a founding member of the AME Church in Kensington, pastored by bishops from the Mother Bethel Church in USA, one of the most prominent African American churches. In my later years, my good late friend Gamzah Levy in District Six introduced me to master mentors in Cape Town.
We were both in search of the knowledge of how to find serenity in the turbulent daily activities in our environment. It has taken me 60 years to digest, understand and apply these teachings.
During those years the quest and search led me to many places through the music, especially in Japan where I have been studying for 50 years - traditional Japanese martial arts, koryu-budo with Master Tonegawa.
With your remarkable repertoire and star-studded career is it possible to single out some of what you consider are your greatest achievements in music?
Duke Ellington was once what his greatest recording was. He said 'the next one' .
This is the universal principle of continued self discovery and refinement - a most important one in budo as well. A few years ago Master Tonegawa gave me the licence to teach menkyo kaiden.
I felt deeply honoured to receive this as his first non-Japanese student. I said “Sensei, why do you give me this accolade because I don't know anything". His response was, "that's why I give it to you because I don't know anything either". In jazz and budo the guiding principle is "stop thinking and don't stop".
Your music is indelibly linked to South Africa's history — pre- and post apartheid. Can you elaborate?
As a young person in South Africa with limited access to learning, I researched, listened to and read everything on my own: classical music, jazz, traditional, Afrikaans, Indian, Chinese, Cape Malay, Xhosa, Sotho, Bapedi, Langarm, pop songs.
The great thing was that in music I could actually play with musicians in all these genres. I spent days in the culture section of the public library in the Gardens after school (Trafalgar High) and read everything in that section three times.
I lived in townships all over South Africa, from the Western Township, Sophiatown, Duncan Village, New Brighton, Langa and Swellendam. Now I continue my studies and composition wherever I can and on the road to support my family and finding a place to anchor as the piano needs a home.
"Manenberg" — the unofficial anthem of South Africa — please tell us more about how you gave birth to a song that is imprinted on the minds of millions of music lovers?
We had been trying for decades to record and market our own music and experiences.
The music industry had other ideas though. Invariably they viewed our music as 'decadent' as the 'decadent' society we came from.
My years of studying our traditional music revealed the complexity and brilliant architecture of it. Basil Coetzee, at first sceptical, became the first one to accept the challenge. We had to find a new approach to the tradition — musically we had to create an entirely new language to improvise on the tradition - new letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, books — our narrative spoken on the spur of the moment.
We were in a Cape Town studio recording five of my newer compositions. We had a 10 minute break and I saw this upright piano in the corner of the room. I touched the keys with the first chords and melody, and the band followed up. We were transfixed — finally we had arrived at our goal — we played for 17 minutes.
Vic Versfeld the engineer was as much the hero of the day - he kept the tape running. The rest of course is history.
The record companies did not want it so we released it under our own label and the timing was the perfect back drop to Soweto and the national uprising.
Music icon both locally and internationally - the greats have performed with you and vice versa - who or what has been your overriding influences and magical liaisons, current and past, in music?
Two of my most memorable music experiences was watching the klopse troupes parading to and from the Green Point stadium at new year.
Twice I had joined a troop as well. That particular New Year's evening I was together with the usual mass crowd of spectators waiting on Wale Street for the troupes to return from the stadium.
One of them came sweeping down the hill with only Chokka who, with the cello (the klein bassie), plucked amazingly rhythmical ghoemma with 30 tambourines playing at a neck breaking tempo and energy .
Years later, I wrote a song dedicated to Chokka and Jimmy Blanton Ellington's bassist.
The second event was as a pianist with the big band Tuxedo Slickers in Clyde Street District Six. The late Thabo Machel took his usual trumpet solo during one of the songs. I have never heard anything like that before or after.
The audience was stunned into silence and so were we the band members during the break that followed. That day a fire gutted his tiny room in District Six and he was left only with his trumpet. That solo changed my life and my understanding of music
Exile and your return, and now you live abroad - what do you miss most about this country and the city of your birth?
Years spent in exile - traumatic and a heavy impact on my family and self. But a chance to continue composing and study. But now back in South Africa to impart and share skills acquired to assist.
So much on the go from concerts and projects - what do you still dream of doing?
Earlier this year I received the German Jazz Trophy Award. I needed a matching grant to continue working on an extended work I plan to present in 2018.
I am deeply honoured and humbled that I have received two matching grants one from Adam Ebrahim of Oasis Trust in Cape Town and Mo Ibrahim (Trust) in London.