An Interview with Abdullah Ibrahim (1995)
Back in 1995 I had the chance to interview south african pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand), on the day before his concert at the Musik der Welt Festival in Basel. Originally my friend Buffo, who worked as a photographer at that time, and me were to talk to Ibrahim in his hotel room, but because the hotel had noted him down as “Ibrahim Abdullah” they did not realize whom we were trying too reach for about thirty minutes. So we arrived at his room door rather late. Ibrahim was nervous, because his wife Bea Benjamin was due to arrive any minute, so he asked us to come to the rehearsal in Radio Studio Basel later in the day.
A few hours later, after a short verbal hustle with the studio’s doorman we finally met Ibrahim, who stopped the rehearsal to talk to us for about an hour, while sitting at the piano.
Right now I am not able to find the exact date in 1995 on which the interview took place – it must have been in August. I have a broadcast of an Abdullah Ibrahim concert from the same tour which was broadcast live a few days after the Basel gig, it’s from Abdullah Ibrahim’s appearance at the Willisau Jazz Festival, which ran from August 31 to September 3. I am offering you some excerpts from the Willisau concert here, so you have some fitting music when you read the interview. The personnel here (as in Basel):
Abdullah Ibrahim (p, fl, ss, voc); Basil ‘Mannenberg’ Coetzee (ts); Fezile ‘Feya’ Faku (tp); Marcus McLaurine (b) George Johnson (dr)
ABDULLAH IBRAHIM: WHOZA MTWANA
Apologies to those who already know this interview, I had posted it on usenet back in 1995 – since then It was also published on different websites. But I just reread it (editing it a little) and thought it would be worthy enough to put it on my blog.
«TO BE DEPENDANT ON AN
INSTRUMENT IS STUPID»
An Interview with Abdullah Ibrahim (1995)
Abdullah Ibrahim, where are you living these days?
Mostly in Cape Town. But I am always traveling between there and New York because my family is still there. I had to go back to Cape Town to get residence reorganised after the years of exile and set up the dynamics for the family to return. I just came here from South Africa yesterday. So it’s between Cape Town and New York, but mostly Cape Town.
The last time I saw you in concert – about five years ago –, after the concert was over, you invited the audience to a free South Africa – “after the revolution has come.” Now, that everything has changed in South Africa, what do you think about the situation down there?
Abdullah Ibrahim: We are in an excellent position. We have to commend our leadership, especially the leadership of President Nelson Mandela. I think South Africa showed the world something quite unique. For us it was all a very traumatic and moving experience. It was something that happened overnight with the least amount of violence. There is a lot of hard work to be done in the country but it is exciting. Perhaps South Africa is the only place in the world left where we can work from the ground up in change.
When you follow the European and American mass media, you get the impression, that the joy over the freeing of South Africa has quickly given way to criticizing the Mandela Government …
As I said, we are in a situation, where, as our President says, we must move forward. There is no sense in hassling with the past. We must not forget the past, but the most important thing now is to move the country forward. You have to understand, that all these ills that Apartheid has caused are very deep and traumatic if we come down to individual people. This is our concern. We have very moving stories from almost everybody. That is why you will find people reluctant to speak about these questions. These are deep, deep personal experiences.That is why it is so hard to answer questions about political dynamics. Like : How do we feel? For us it is personal. These are still moving personal questions. So if you ask me a question like this, I cannot respond and speak for the country. I speak for my little field in culture – which is music and how it affects the people and how through music we can contribute to the moving forward of the country. We just had a concert in Cape Town City Hall which was an incredible experience, with young musicians as well as with established musicians like Basil Coetzee. Musicians from all different ethnic groups, white, black, everything. It was an incredible experience. That is where we are heading.
You are living in Cape Town again. Let`s talk about the old District Six (the part of Cape Town where the Black Community lived before they were transported into the so called “Home Lands”). Are there still traces of its history to be found? Or has the history of the black community of District Six completely been wiped out during the years of Apartheid?
That can never be wiped out! Its a people’s dream, and dreams can never be wiped out. In fact our opening song during this tour is dedicated to the old District Six. We musicians are the historians. We record our experiences and our history within our music. Some of the pieces we play are very old, in fact ancient traditional songs from the whole area, what the aboriginals call “our dream time” Music of the Khoi and the San people. Music from that time through the ages through the coming of the European settlers through the Apartheid aera into our times.
In your music one can find traces of classical music from the Islamic diaspora, for example in pieces like Tuang Guru or of course Ishmael. There is also of course traditional African music– for example of Xhosa origins. And then your harmonies often seem derived from christian religious music – european religious music as well as gospel. I always thought you were one of the greatest “World Musicians” way before that term was coined. What makes Cape Town a place that grows such complete musicians?
I think its geographic situation is responsible. Cape Town is at a very strategic point. When you look at Cape Town it is almost like everything branches out from there. I mean geographically speaking everything filters into Cape Town. It is a very strategic point. Also you have this meeting of minds and the meeting of cultures. Traditional people, the Khoi and the San, the Xhosa. You have the descendants of Malaysian freedom fighters, you have people from all over Africa, especially from the west coast. Remember that the Samba came to Brazil from Angola through slaves that were shipped to Brasil. They also fetched slaves from Angola to Cape Town. Then in the later period we have the introduction of the church thing. The European church but even more important the African-American episcopal church which was founded in Philadelphia by an African-American. This church has an incredible following amongst the black people. It is the same in the United States. A very, very strong church. In fact my Grandmother was one of the founding members of the South-African episcopal church in Cape Town. So you see people talk about the Afro-Americans and the South-Africans and their differences, but there is so much intermarriage. Our bass player Lionel Bukus (sp?) lives in Cape Town, but his family is from New Orleans. Horace Alexander, a young altoplayer from Houston, went with us to Cape Town two years ago, this was the first time he saw his family. So for us there is no difference. It`s all family!
ABDULLAH IBRAHIM: NAMIBIA
You once said, that Orchestras in Cape Town often played christian songs like Little Town of Bethlehem and connect them with a “Cape Town Beat”. How would you define this beat?
Well, a definition of this beat would be both musical and spiritual. It’s a very special kind of rhythm. If you look, you will find this beat all around the African coast. Not so much inland. But if you travel from Morocco down, around the cape and again up to Arabia, it is the same kind of beat everywhere. Of course it has its variations. It is the same kind of rhythm that is played in New Orleans. There is a very close link between New Orleans and Cape Town. The carnival minstrels in Cape Town are the same as in New Orleans.
There was a young man from the university of Leeds a few years ago. He wrote his masters thesis in music and I was the subject. What is more important, he traced the roots of Jazz. His statement is, that Jazz started in Cape Town. I know sometimes it sounds like we are beating our own drum, but this is something that we inherently understood. Duke and Monk understood this dynamic. It is not to say, that Jazz started there, but it is the whole dynamic of the African diaspora. If you look at New Orleans and Cape Town, in what we perceive to be the African`s position in time in the industrial revolution and where this industrial revolution projected us, than Cape Town and New Orleans are almost synonimous. In New Orleans you have the same dynamics of mixing : You have creole people – like Jelly Roll Morton – whereas in Cape Town we have the so called coloured people. If you look at Louis Armstrong, and King Oliver which were basically African musicians – same in Cape Town. As I say, there has been intermarriage. It is looked upon as different, but for us it is the same experience. And jazz as we know it today is the highest form of musical expression ever on this planet. That is quite obvious because everything evolves. Because this dynamic is nurtured in the black ethos of the world it should be accepted as it is. It is the music of the last decades going into the next century.
Talking about decades, a lot of people think your career started in the early sixties when Duke saw that you record. But of course you were already a musician in the late forties. How can one imagine the music you played with bands like the Tuxedo Slickers or the Streamland Brothers?
Those were jazz big bands with basically the same setup as in the United States : Five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones. We played traditional African music. but we also played jazz arrangements. The Tuxedo Slickers played a lot of Erskine Hawkins arrangements like maybe Tuxedo Junction. Three years ago we played in Birmingham which was Erskine Hawkins’ birth place – and Sun Ra’s! So there is a close connection. We never thought this as apart from another. It was all part of an extended family. Look at Duke Ellington, Duke was never like “an American musician” to us. He was more the “wise old man in the village”. We played things by Erskine Hawkins, Joe Liggins, Tiny Bradshaw. Then we had our arrangers who arranged traditional music for those big bands.
Was the traditional music mixed with the big band jazz or was it one after the other?
When you listen to it, you can’t tell the difference. Like with Count Basie : If you hear a Basie riff, sometimes you couldn’t tell whether it originated in Africa or in Kansas City. I think the problem is, that the music historians – especially the jazz historians – have never really understood this whole dynamic between South Africa and the United States. Our communication transcends telephone and TV. There is another sense of communication.
HEAR ABDULLAH IBRAHIM TELL THE STORY OF THE AFRICAN BIRD
Let me tell you the story of the African bird : There was a man in Europe who kept birds. And he kept them in cages. People knew him all over Europe and came to look at his birds. One day he captured an African bird and also displayed it. One day this man went to Africa. He said to the bird : “Listen, I am going to Africa, see your family. Do you want me to tell them something?” The bird said : “You know, the best thing you can do, is to let me out of this cage.” The man said, he couldn’t do that. He went to Africa and met the bird’s family. They said : “Listen, how is our relative?” The man said : “He’s ok, but I got him locked up in a cage.” And at that precise moment, one of the birds fell out of the tree : dead! The man was taken aback and when he came back to Europe, the African bird said : “Did you see my family?”. He said : “Yes, but a strange thing happened. You know, when I told them, that I had you locked in a cage one of them fell to the ground dead.” And right at that moment the bird in the cage also fell dead. But when the man opened up the cage, the bird flew out. The bird said : “Thank you for the message!!”.
This story sounded sad at first …
Ah! Death! Life! Our communication is on a completely different level. See, if we talk about music (Ibrahim plays a few notes on the piano), we are dealing with the unseen. We are fortunate that in Africa we have old people who understand the dynamic of the unseen. We study with them. Music is dealing in the realm of the unseen. It is much deeper as people think when they “see us play some notes”. It is a deeply spiritual practice. But look at jazz musicians now, everything in modern society is misplaced. I mean you are interviewing me with a tape recorder. Now, that is misplaced – not that I want to put you down – but you are supposed to use other means of communication. In some ways this is stupid. It is the same with musicians, we are supposed to be entertainers, but in traditional societies we were priests. In any traditional societiy, anybody that shows musical implanation was immediately drafted into medicine. My great grandfather was a healer. He tought us everything about herbs, plants and flowers and what you are supposed to do wit them. We as musicians living in this modern urban society … All my family were religious practioners. They came from traditional practice and when the white people came they went into the church. I was the first one that became a musician and became muslim. It has all to do with healing and spiritual practices. Now the jazz musicians in the United States do exactly the same thing. The only thing is, that they did not understand what it was about. They had no elders to guide them.
People say that slaves were taken from Africa. This is not true : It is people that were taken from Africa, among them healers and priests, and they were made into slaves. Look at the young people now, they are completely cut from the whole spiritual experience. It is almost gone. That is why people are taking drugs. If you take drugs, you always got some kind of self denial and the reason for this self denial is, that you don’t know. It is our generation that began to understand. Duke told me, that the closest that we got back to it was be bop. It is physically impossible to play at the tempo Bird played in. So he must have been in a trance (laughs). Our generation began to rediscover this. This is what we try to establish in South Africa in our music academy. It will be more about spiritual rediscovery and the redefining of our role in society than about learning notes. And really South Africa makes it possible for us to do that.
ABDULLAH IBRAHIM: MANNENBERG
While preparing myself for this interview, I listened again and again to tenor saxophonist Basil Coetzee’s Solo on Mannenberg …
Oh, this solo is something else. We just arranged it for string orchestra…
… and I wondered why a man such as Coetzee is not known all over the world. There are even a lot of jazz fans who never heard hiss name. Or think of Sun Ra, another master musician who died poor, ill and bitter. Is there no need for master musicians anymore?
In the United States the jazz musician is an entertainer. So, unless you as a musician begin to think about it yourself you will stay an entertainer.
Take jazz clubs : I stayed out of them for the last ten years and I still avoid them as much as possible. One reason for this is secondary smoking. A trumpet player from London – his name escapes me now – died of lung cancer. He never smoked. A lot of my friends died over the years and we never made a connection. And in a jazz club no-one ever listens anyway. So we have to redefine our roles in society. In South Africa that is possible, because we can start from the ground up. It is the only place left in the world where we are able to do it. Everywhere else it is cut and dried and there are rules to follow. We can start anew in South Africa.
In the movie A brother with perfect timing, you tell the story of two youngsters saving a young girl from getting run over by a car through means of perfect timing. Then you call them “master musicians”. So one does not necessarily need an instrument?
No. This is where we differ from the western world. I find that most musicians are people who own instruments. A sound engineer is not really a sound engineer, he is a man with sound equipment, you understand? If you feel it, you will find it too. That also goes for people with pens and books and tape recorders (laughs). The basic communication is between the people. An instrument is only what it says: It is instrumental. I remember a few years ago in Toronto one of my friends wanted to organize a solo piano concert. We found this beautiful room, but we had a problem finding an instrument. I said: “Never mind, we are still having the concert”. It freaked him out. I said: “To be dependant on an instrument is stupid, there are 500 people waiting!”
So was there a concert?
Without an instrument?
Without an instrument! You know the Zen masters saying about the iron flute? It is actually the highest developed instrument. It is solid iron, with no holes. If you are able to play that, you are a master. Our music is related to Zen, that’s why it is so popular in Japan. I study martial arts, I have the fifth degree black belt. The concept of martial arts is identical to the concept behind jazz. Nelson Mandela is a martial artist, a boxer. He understands the art of war. Not the art of war that is about fighting and killing people, but the art of war with the self. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said that after the small jihad comes the big jihad, which is the battle with the self. This is what our music is also about. A taxi driver told me when we talked about South-Africa: “We fought another kind of fight. It was fighting without fighting which is the contemporary way of being.” See : The new nation has already been born, only people do not understand what it is about.
Look at architecture, everywhere in the world people build homes, right? And they project their hopes, you know? A garden, a lawn in front, everything is projected outside, so people can see it. Now traditional architecture is inside. There is a wall, and when you go inside, there is a court. Everything happens inside. Look at sports for example, I mean the contemporary idea of it : When you are 35 or 40 years of age, you are finished, because it deals with external energy. Look at martial arts, everything is external, like for example breaking bricks. But true art is internal.
But martial arts deal a lot with the inside?
That is what I wanted to say, you have to get to the point where you understand that it really is internal. Because then if you are 40 or 50, it begins for you instead of ending. Our president Nelson Mandela is a martial artist, you see? The idea is, that the soft will overcome the hard. This is what we call the internal system of thinking. If I hold my hand like this (stretches out his arms), it will be impossible for you to push it down, even with five people. But it took me 30 years of training, to get to this level. Internal strength takes such a long time to develop. Now if you look at jazz music, its concept and formula is the only way we can go in terms of a social dynamic. Because if you look at classical music, its formula comes out of the industrial revolution. You know, we have a conductor conducting and everything has to be correct. It is like a conveyor belt in a factory. There is no independent thinking. They are absolutely terrified of taking a solo. I worked with 18 classical musician, I asked : “Anybody take a solo?” No-one take a solo! The fear has been installed in them, that you might make a mistake. The same kind of mindset applies in the society. People are told that they must have a job. I tell my students : “God says you must work, he never said you must have a job.” In all the scriptures god never said a word about any job. (laughs)
Having a job to have security is the concept of classical music, getting paid, social security, health benefits … I never had a job after I was 14 years old when I said to myself, I will never do this again. So I operate on a 100 percent faith. When you play, that is what you have to have, else you will not be able to improvise. This is the way to go forward and provide entrepeneurship to the minds of the people. Your traditional thinking cannot create new terms, that is if you are looking for job security. We need entrepeneurs. The guy that will give you a job is a guy that took his last hundred franks and took a chance to open up a business (laughs). This is the same in the field of music.
You became a muslim nearly thirty years ago. Today in the western world Islam is often seen as a threat, is this a misconception?
It is like with movies : Say there is a movie showing in town. Everybody is excited about the film. All my friends are going to see it, but I have never seen the film. I did not have a chance to go. But I hear from my friends when they discuss the film. Very soon I start telling other people about the movie. After a while I tell people the whole movie, then I start to think I have actually seen it.
And when you finally see it, you get the impression it is the wrong movie …
Exactly! This is the basic problem with the perception of Islam. Say you buy a car. If you buy a car, there are two manuals coming with it : One from the manufacturer, one from the dealer. They will tell you, how you must maintain the car. We have been given manuals too, because we also were manufactured. We got manuals from the manufacturer and the dealer – Allah, God and the Prophet. The Koran is the manufacturer’s manual, and the Khadif is the one from the dealer. The code of combat has been established for you. It does not matter which religion you come from, there is a manual. What ever you believe in, you have to follow that manual. If you do not follow the manual, you have to create your own manual. Now comes the argument, “whose manual is the best?” (laughs).
I wanted to get back to the real manual, that is why I became a muslim. The misconception about Islam is as with everything else: We do not do the individual effort to find out for ourselves. It is a personal thing that has nothing to do with what someone else says. What do you feel about it? What is your personal relationship with yourself? And the universe? And the creator? Either you believe, or you don’t believe. You have to face everything by yourself. When death comes along, you have to do it by yourself. What ever manual you choose, has to see you through that.
For me the essence of Islam is what we call “Tauhid”. Tauhid means unity. It is incredible how things are together and yet they seem apart. That is only because we do not perceive. A friend of ours from China, he is practicing traditional medicine and one day we were talking. I said : “In Islam we say Tauhid, which means unity.” He said “that’s the same with us, only we say ‘Tao’!” I said “Ah, of course!” I knew Tao, – ‘the way’ –, but I never made the connection. So listen: Tao – Tauhid, they are the same. The essence of Islam is unity. So you see everything here is in unity: the piano, the chair, the tape recorder. I mean, you can not throw anything out of the universe. No matter how far you throw it, it is still there (laughs).
This was the end of the interview as he Abdullah Ibrahim already had talked to us about an hour and was eager to go on rehearsing his quintet for the show on the next day.