Once Upon a Time: Abdullah Ibrahim’s new album, Mukashi

Once Upon a Time: Abdullah Ibrahim’s new album, <em>Mukashi</em>

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim

A few years ago, in sleeve notes for Cape Town Songs: The Very Best of Abdullah Ibrahim, Nigel Williamson wrote of the spiritual, political and musical journey that Ibrahim has pursued for some 60 years as a jazz musician. In his music, wrote Williamson, as well as ‘great pain and sadness, you will also find great hope and joy’.

His music is in many ways a celebration. A celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. A celebration of the dedication and unswerving dignity of men like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and the other ANC leaders. A celebration of South Africa and the rainbow nation it has now become: But above all it is a celebration of the genius and humanity of Abdullah Ibrahim, one of the greatest artists of our tumultuous times.

I have loved Abdullah Ibrahim’s music since discovering the early UK vinyl releases (the ones on Kaz Records, with cover art by Tony Hudson) of mid-70s South African albums like Soweto and Blues For A Hip King (both made in 1975), African Sun and  Voice of Africa that featured the original, iconic recording of ‘Mannenberg’ from 1974.  Another prized early find was Autobiography, a live 1978 recording of Ibrahim in a solo piano concert in Switzerland, on the final track of which he played a flute solo. Soon I’d found what is perhaps the quintessential Abdullah Ibrahim album, African Marketplace (1979), recorded by a twelve-piece band, and comprising eight nostalgic vignettes of the homeland from which he was an exile.  As Professor Wilfred Mellers observed in the sleeve notes, three distinct strands were manifest in Ibrahim’s music:

An innocently euphoric social music that derives from his boyhood days in South Africa; an intense blues-based pianism, harmonically related to Ellington, texturally to Monk, which springs from his years in the Big City; and a revival of indigenous African traditions, rural as well as urban.  Throughout his career the emphasis has shifted from the first to the second to the third category; yet all three strands always were and still are co-existent.

Now approaching his 80th birthday, Abdullah Ibrahim recently released a new record, Mukashi, in which the same three strands identified by Mellers are still evident.  I’ve been listening to it a lot lately: I think it might be one of his very best. He has spent the last few albums revisiting and reworking old songs, and he does so again on this album. Yet it feels exceptional: from the short opening track with its Japanese-tinged flute and incantatory vocalising by Ibrahim (‘mukashi’ is Japanese for ‘Once Upon A Time’) and throughout this quiet, reflective album there is not an extraneous note as Ibrahim seems to be musing, lost in thought at the piano, letting memory flow through his fingers.

The album’s title may be Japanese but the music remains rooted in Africa rhythms, Monk, and the old hymns that have always been Ibrahim’s signature. At the same time, the sparseness is distinctive enough to suggest the musical equivalent of haiku or calligraphy.  This beautifully-recorded album flows and meanders through solo piano pieces, duets with Cleave Guyton on flute, clarinet or saxophone, and trio numbers that feature either Ukrainian-born Eugen Bazijan or  the Texan Scott Roller on cello. It’s music that feels dense with meaning and memory, yet achieved with a striking economy of resources.

The album is imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia and melancholy, and though some reviews have  attributed this mood to the fact that Ibrahim will be 80 this year and the death of his wife last summer the album was recorded in autumn 2012 and in the spring of 2013.  The titles certainly reflect a meditative mood – ‘Serenity’, ‘Peace’,  ‘Devotion’ – though many also contain echoes of tunes from the Ibrahim canon we know well, such as ‘Matzikama’ ‘Essence’ and ‘Root’, which revisits ‘Mannenberg’. Cleave Guyton’s clarinet is particularly lovely on ‘Mississippi’, a tune, like ‘Peace’ with echoes of the hymns and gospel spirituals he heard as a young boy whose mother and grandmother were church pianists in a local branch of the African Methodist Episcopalian church, brought to South Africa by African-American missionaries.

In this YouTube clip from 2011, Abdullah Ibrahim and his group Ekaya perform a medley of ‘The Mountain’, ‘Nisa’ and ‘Mississippi’ (at 10:30) that features Cleave Guyton on flute:

‘Krotoa’ is a three-part suite inspired by the story of Krotoa, called Eva by the Dutch, the first Khoikhoi woman to appear in the European records of the early settlement at the Cape as an individual personality:

31 October 1657:
The Commander [Jan van Riebeeck] spent the day entertaining the Saldanhars [a Khoikhoi tribe from the interior] and questioning them about various things through the medium of a certain girl, aged 15 or 16, and by us called Eva, who has been in the service of the Commander’s wife from the beginning and is now living here permanently and is beginning to speak Dutch well. (From the Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, Volume II, III, 1656-1662)

It’s a piece in which Ibrahim is especially intense and tender, with strong echoes of Ellington. ‘Peace’ is dedicated to ‘the ebb and flow of nature’ and has a stillness and spiritual depth that reminds me of ‘Water From An Ancient Well’, the tune they played repeatedly on Jazz FM in the late 80s. ‘In the Evening’ (which also appeared on his previous solo album, Senzo) has a new arrangement to incorporate cello and clarinet, while ‘Root’ is a stately solo piano variation on the melody of ‘Mannenberg’, one of Ibrahim’s most significant compositions.

If asked to characterise Ibrahim’s music in two words, I’d suggest ‘joyous’ and ‘spiritual’: over the years his albums have sometimes been predominantly one or the other; often they have exhibited both elements.  Ever since his conversion to Islam in 1968, his music has been deeply spiritual, ‘a quest of the inner self’.

The most beautiful, potent aspect of Islam is the unity of things; you can’t throw anything out of the universe. This realisation has been a driving force for me.

In a 1986 Arena film for the BBC, A Brother With Perfect Timing, he said: ‘Composition means you have to be composed so the message can flow through you – it’s like a state of Zen. It serves as a purification, and it’s a high.

This extended  YouTube clip shows Ibrahim at the Lotos Jazz Festival, Poland in February 2014 duetting with Carlos Ward (flute) in the manner of Mukashi:

Listening these last weeks to Mukashi, I have been drawn back to Ibrahim’s earlier albums.  Collectively they document the extraordinary life and times of a jazz musician born into apartheid South Africa in 1934, who left his homeland shortly before Nelson Mandela was jailed for life, but who returned to play at Mandela’s inauguration as President four decades later.

Born Adolphus Joahannes Brand in Cape Town on 9 October 1934, he grew up in the ‘Coloured’ township of District Six at the foot of Table Mountain, a mountain that apartheid laws meant he was not able to climb until he was almost 60: ‘Through many decades of traumatic experience in South Africa we were denied many things.  We didn’t even know our own country’.

Life was hard in District Six, but it also provided a vibrant, dynamic and creative atmosphere in which to grow
up. Brand’s mother ran a local choir and played the piano in church, and Adolphus began formal lessons on the
instrument when he was seven. In addition to the African folk tunes he heard in the township and the gospel sounds in the local Methodist chapel, the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong had also made its way to South Africa via 78s imported by American sailors. The new sounds were eagerly assimilated by township musicians and Brand was so entranced by black American music that he gained the nickname ‘Dollar’.

By the time he was fifteen, Brand was a professional musician playing around Cape Town, and at nineteen he joined the Tuxedo Slickers, a black big band which had ‘Tuxedo Junction’ as their signature tune and a repertoire of American swing coupled with local tunes. In 1954, South Africa’s leading vocal group the Manhattan Brothers needed a pianist. Brand passed the rehearsals and became a member of their backing band that included Kippie Moeketsi on alto and clarinet. One of the tunes they played back then, ‘Ntyilo-Ntyilo’, has cropped up many times in Ibrahim’s live performances and on his albums over the years.

Kippie, who would become one of the greats of South African jazz before his death in 1983, introduced Brand to the piano playing of Thelonious Monk, one of Brand’s enduring influences, and persuaded him to move to Johannesburg. There they formed the Jazz Epistles with the trumpeter Hugh Masekela and recorded South Africa’s first jazz album, fusing the influence of American musicians like Charlie Parker, Monk, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane with traditional African sounds.  The band split up after only a few months when Masekela and others travelled abroad to perform in the musical King Kong. Brand turned down the opportunity to join the tour, feeling that he had a musical mission at home and his place was with his people.

Politically the situation in South Africa was deteriorating. Demonstrations against the hated pass laws were intensifying and were met with systematic and brutal violence by the apartheid state. In March 1960, in Sharpeville, 69 defenceless demonstrators were shot dead and 400 people, including women and children, were injured. Martial law was declared and soon Nelson Mandela would be put on trial.

Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin in Cape Town, 1961

Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin in Cape Town, 1961

A year earlier Brand had met the woman who was to be his wife and life-long musical partner, Sathima Bea Benjamin.  In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre,the couple left South Africa for Europe, settling eventually in Zurich.  It was there that Benjamin persuaded Duke Ellington to attend an after-hours performance by Brand in the Africana Club. Ellington was impressed and, at that time an A&R man for Reprise Records, invited Benjamin and Brand’s trio to Paris where, in one intense weekend, Brand’s album Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio and Sathima’s first solo album A Morning in Paris were recorded.  Ellington arranged for Brand to play in America, where he appeared with the likes of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, at the Newport Jazz Festival, and sat in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In the film Sathima’s Windsong, the life story of Sathima Bea Benjamin unfolds through her own reflections and memories, woven together with the music she created:

On 1 June 2013 Sathima Bea Benjamin’s 1976 spiritual jazz masterpiece African Songbird was reissued for the first time in decades.  She died just weeks later, on 20 August:

Brand returned to Africa in 1969, where it immediately became clear that apartheid had all but killed the jazz scene. Very few recordings were made and non-white musicians faced a myriad restrictions. Nevertheless, this proved to be a crucial period in the musician’s life.  It was at this time that Brand converted to Islam and adopted the name by which he has been known ever since.

And in 1974 came the historic recording session in which Abdullah Ibrahim brought together the Cape Town musicians Basil Coetzee, Morris Goldberg and Robbie Jansen to produce the seminal album Mannenberg – Is Where It’s Happening.  Not only was the title of the album – a tribute to the black township outside Cape Town – highly provocative; the title track also captured the spirit of black and coloured society, and quickly became an anthem of resistance that would be played at every political gathering in South Africa until the fall of apartheid.

John Edwin Mason, in a paper published in African Studies Quarterly, Mannenberg: Notes on the Making of an Icon and Anthem, writes:

Mannenberg’s popularity was due to a variety of factors. It certainly helped that, as the jazz pianist Moses Molelekoa once said, it was ‘a dance song, a party song [like] most of the jazz that was coming out at that period’. It had an irresistible hook – its beautiful melody. It was driven by an infectious, danceable beat. And it was an intriguingly unfamiliar combination of familiar ingredients – the groove was marabi, the beat resembled ticky-draai (or, perhaps, a lazy ghoema, depending on who was listening), the sound of the saxophones was langarm, and the underlying aesthetic was jazz. Most South African listeners – African, coloured, and white – had something familiar to cling to and something exotic to be excited about.

Those ingredients cited by Mason, from marabi to langarm, were aspects of their culture which ‘Coloured’ South Africans had once regarded as retrograde and shameful.  But the Black Consciousness movement had changed the political climate in the coloured community, especially among the youth who were protesting against the apartheid education system that forced them to learn Afrikaans, the hated language of their oppressors.

Black Consciousness redefined ‘black’ to include Coloureds and South Africans of Indian descent, as well as Africans, and meant asserting the value, dignity, and beauty of indigenous and working-class black cultures. Coloured people, Ibrahim said at the time, were ‘aware that it’s their music. They feel it’s part of them’. The song’s success was ‘an affirmation… that our inherent culture is valid…it’s our music, and it’s our culture….’

This is Ibrahim – filmed in 1987 for the BBC Arena film A Brother with Perfect Timing – describing how the iconic track ‘Mannenberg’ came into being, and performing it live:

There were more recording sessions by Abdullah Ibrahim’s band, as well as the making of Sathima Benjamin’s solo album African Songbird and the birth of a daughter.  But with the political climate worsening, culminating in the Soweto uprising, the family decided to leave the country and settle in New York. In exile once again, he continued to explore the musical interface between African music and American jazz, producing some of his most powerful music to date.

When we play such songs we effectively become like actors interpreting the feelings of the voiceless in South Africa.  They have been forced into silence.  If we play a song about loss it’s because someone is feeling that loss; if we play a song of celebration it’s because we know we shall celebrate.  We document the feelings of the voiceless, we report their pain and courage.  We commend our people, we commend their ceaseless courage and their sense of love, their willingness to forgive.  This is what sustains all of us, inside and outside the country.  This is our African heritage, its sunshine is inside us all.

From that second period of exile emerged tunes such as ‘Zimbabwe’ and ‘Mandela’, which found Ibrahim reflecting upon the Africa of his hopes and dreams distant New York. Numbers such as ‘Cape Town’ and ‘African Marketplace’,  also conceived in the years of exile, are moving tributes to the country he loved and which in his heart he never left. It is not without significance that the group he formed in the early 1980s was named Ekaya – ‘home’.  As noted in Maya Jaggi’s Guardian profile, published in 2001:

‘He could have lost all connection with South Africa, but he chose not to,’ says Mandla Langa, a writer who was the African National Congress-in-exile’s cultural attaché in Europe. ‘He aligned himself with the liberation movement, creating a bridge between the country and exile.’ His mainly instrumental compositions, charting the trials and sorrows of exile and apartheid yet with an insistently celebratory lilt, became wordless expressions of freedom and defiance. Unlike many exiles, he survived to perform at the 1994 presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, to whom he had dedicated a jauntily upbeat tune. Backstage, Mandela returned the compliment. ‘Bach? Beethoven? We’ve got better,’ he said.

It was not until 1990, along with many other exiles, that Ibrahim was able to return home for good following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the promise of free and democratic elections. It was only then that he was finally able to climb the mountain that rose above the city where he had first played music – celebrated in his hauntingly beautiful composition ‘The Mountain’: