The Fugard Theatre, a state-of-the-art palace of dreams in our city, is part of this complex. I am still to attend the David Kramer musical, Langarm, which is currently on show there, but this week I prioritised the performance of Abdullah Ibrahim.
Jazz musicians are celebrants of improvisation, exploring the chord structure of a tune: extending the well-rehearsed familiar. Abdullah was once asked, “How do you improvise?” The reply was couched in the street lore of the Flats: “Oh, it’s easy,” slight smile on his face, “just come with me to Manenberg. You will see the gang there on the corner eyeing you. And when you see them coming towards you, you will soon decide how to improvise.”
The Chelsea Hotel in New York City is where I first met Abdullah Ibrahim three weeks after my arrival there in 1982. Neil Aggett had died in detention in February of that year and his funeral was held in St Mary’s Cathedral in Joburg. When I read that a recording of Mannenberg had been played during the service, I wrote a poem, Jericho Walls, in memory of Neil: Die hang-gat sax, roer / die lahnies in hulle moer / innie Joburg Cathedral.
I referenced a verse from Joshua, Chapter 6: “And when the people heard the sound of the seven trumpets they gave a mighty shout and Jericho’s wall came tumbling down.” Music can inspire people, and in this instance serve as soundtrack and prelude to their rebellion.
I arrived an hour too early for my 10am appointment and stood outside 222 on West 23rd Street, people watching. Eventually, with five more minutes to go I made my way to Abdullah’s apartment of and oft his spouse, the late Sathima Benjamin.
My call the previous day had been answered by a curt, “Yes”. It was Abdullah. I could come over. Sathima, warm and welcoming, opened the door and busied me into the lounge area.
Abdullah read my brief poem when he eventually sat down, easing his lanky frame into the sofa opposite me. “It is beautiful,” he said. We spoke for a long time and a few days later I was invited to be his guest at a performance of Sathima at Sweet Basil, a jazz club in Greenwich Village.
Abdullah sat straight-back behind the piano on the stage of The Fugard. We, the audience, were ensconced in a meditative and moving offering of his music, perhaps even more poignantly so that it took place at the edge of the district, the locus of so much of his oeuvre. For a short while The Fugard became Rumi’s house of lovers where “the music never stops, the walls are made of songs and the floor dances”.
Abdullah walked past flamingos, a gossamer pink mist
in the shallows of the Black River. The north-westerly wind
bannered dark clouds above the old mountain.
Artesian streams birthed above Platteklip Gorge flowed past
the wash house to the Castle, along and under Government Avenue
surging into the bay where Krotoa and Lydia walked on the water
towards the Isle of Makana, their laughter an assuring anthem
that all was well. He walked through fields of wild roses,
the fynbos soft under his pilgrim feet until the scent of buchu
awoke in him the songs the angels sang when God named us free of terror
and the fear of the blessings of the dawn beyond the night.
* The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.