Abdullah Ibrahim 1986 photo Kevin Humphrey

A legend in his native country, jazz pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, has also carved a name for himself on the international music scene. Born and raised in Cape Town, SA, he started playing piano at an early age encouraged by his grandmother who was the pianist in the local A.M.E. Church. He was also exposed to the diverse cultures of the cosmopolitan sea port. Traditional African music, Cape Malay songs, the carnival, popular tunes and recorded American jazz formed an integral part of his childhood experience. He started playing professionally with local dance bands whilst still in high school.

the Jazz Epistles 1961

In 1961 he formed a group called the Jazz Epistles which had as its members Hugh Masekela and the legendary alto-sax player Kippie Moeketsi, the father of contemporary black music in South Africa. In 1962, Abdullah Ibrahim left South Africa for Switzerland with his wife, vocalist Sathima (Bea Benjamin) where he was subsequently heard and  recorded by the late Duke Ellington. Abdullah and his wife came to the USA in 1965 under the auspices of Ellington and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with the Ellington Orchestra.

In December 1986 in New York, USA, Abdullah Ibrahim spoke to South African poet Hein Willemse about his commitment to his art and about the struggle for liberation in South Africa.

This is the complete interview as it appeared in the magazine ‘Staffrider’ Volume 6, No 4, 1987. Parts of it are in Afrikaans and have been left in the text as they originally appeared. This interview was held during the Apartheid regime in South Africa and Abdullah Ibrahim was then living in exile in the United States.

HW: Abdullah, can we start off from something you once said, namely that you see yourself as a ‘delivery boy’. Explain that to me in terms of your music and your commitment to South African society.

AI: In the traditional society, especially in Africa, the position or job of the so-called musician was never viewed (as it is today) in the western world, where the musician is an entertainer. In the traditional society if, at an early age, you showed any musical inclination you were immediately drafted in the field of medicine –traditional medicine. Because in the traditional society medicine and music were synonymous. A healing force. My great grandfather was a medicine man. I remember: he knew all the herbs. He was a stable-boy for Paul Kruger.

HW: Do you really see your music as affecting society? I can for instance remember: I saw you singing the tribute to Solomon Mahlangu – unaccompanied. And I was greatly moved and touched by it. Do you see your music also fulfilling that role, namely a vehicle through which people can view themselves; an instrument through which they can react?

AI: Oh, definitely. I couldn’t have put it better. What is our role? As I’ve said: the West completely misinterpreted our music. What shall I do? Become a millionaire? Buy a house in Malibu Beach? That has no meaning. As delivery boys we are like the keepers of the books, the keepers of the keys of the society, the keepers of the knowledge of how the society should be structured. Our duty is just to remind. To remind ourselves and others what the true reality is, especially in South Africa with the political situation.

We have been playing this music for many many years. And all these waves come and go. We’re trying to keep the purity and the innocence and rhythm of the community that they have now turned into a subterranean culture with this constant institution of cultural imperialism. What they makes us believe is that what we have is inferior. That’s all part of the strategy too, on a political level, make you feel inferior as human being, make you feel inferior as far as learning is concerned. It’s the same with the music and culture. Once they get you to do that, I think you’ve become completely subjugated.

HW: I agree with you completely. We have to get to the stage where we dominate the cultural scene. Dominate the cultural scene in the sense that our language is the norm, our music is the norm, our poetry…And I see your music, from earlier times onwards, taking elements of the community, taking elements of the downtrodden, the forgotten people, the working class and making that –almost in raw form- accessible. Presenting it as their voice, their authentic voice. And I think that is necessary.

AI: The music is playing out our tradition. Being aware of our tradition is the most potent way of looking within ourselves, truthfully. People used to tell me about ‘this great musician’, this ‘great music’….You know, Kippie Moeketsi always used to say, ‘My friend, do you know Planet Earth?’. He always used to ask, ‘What is great music?’. And I remember, when Kippie asked that question nobody answered. What shall they answer? I asked myself that question –many times. I’ve come to the United States and I went all over the world and listened to ‘great musicians’. And then you hear ‘that by general consensus this is supposed to be great music or great musicians.’ So you just agree to it, you go with the stream. But deep in your heart you know this doesn’t really move you.

Then I go home. I’ve stayed out for nine years in the US. I go home. I go the the Athlone stadium on New Year’s day with the Klops*. And this troep comes by! Man! And the music! Right! It makes my hair stand on end, man! You know; daai tamboeriene en die banjo’s en die bass. That’s rhythm man! I feel tears come to my eyes.  How am I going to deride this, because there is no music that does this to me.  Except that. That for me is the yardstick. I don’t care how intellectual it has been considered.

*Klops: The Kaapse Klopse (or simply Klopse) is a minstrel festival that takes place annually on January 2, in Cape Town, South Africa. Up to 13,000 minstrels, many in blackface, take to the streets garbed in shockingly bright colours, either carrying colourful umbrellas or playing an array of musical instruments. The minstrels are grouped into klopse (“clubs” in Cape Dutch, but more accurately translated as troupes in English). Participants are typically from Afrikaans-speaking working class “coloured” families who have preserved the custom since the mid-19th century.

Abdullah Ibrahim -African Marketplace

HW: coming back to that, Dollar. It is common knowledge that you see your roots essentially in the Klopse. Some of your music refers to or is based on and reflects something of that old Klopse element. A lot of people vilify that music saying it’s ‘only Coon music’. What you did was to take it, put a revolutionary element-almost- to it. Saying, ‘this is the music of the people, listen to it’.

AI: You want to say this is not traditional music?Then what is? If this is not the traditional music, what is? You know, the music functions as the music functions. And the music functions in society. Now you ask people in Cape Town if the Coon music is traditional music? And they will answer; ‘No, this is Diena-kanna-kiena’. (cannot be translated)

On the 26th March 1658 the Dutch ship, Amersfoortdocked at the Cape with about 300 slaves from Angola. These slaves were captured by the Dutch ship from a Portuguese vessel, bound for Brazil. When we are playing this rhythm,  people will say ‘this is samba, and samba comes from Brazil’. Do you know how it comes from Brazil? When you go to Brazil there’s a large Angolan community. This is how the samba got to Cape Town. From Angola. Slaves.

HW: I totally see the role of the artist as being the facilitator of this new history of ours.

AI: Sure, it’s like the sage in West Africa. If you want to know what happened in 1215 he’ll sing it for you. It’s the same thing.

HW: You’re known, not only for your music, but also for your political commitment. You’re not only singing about ‘African Herbs’ or ‘Manenberg’, you’re also singing about the heroes of the struggle. What does that do to you as an artist?

AI: It puts everything in perspective. If you haven’t done that it is very hard to describe. How can I ask anybody ‘how do you feel about committing yourself?’. It’s something you cannot explain in words. It’s a feeling. When you take that step it’s such an incredible feeling because, like Allah says in the Koran ‘the devil threatens you with poverty’. That’s how he gets you to do his work. You see?  If you can say to him: wait a minute, I am not begging you anymore, as from today. One of our songs says: ‘Final arrival, end of the line/nowhere to look but your eyes in mine/No, no not anymore, we are not afraid of freedom’. Because the problem is that we are not afraid. Not for them, not for anyone. We are afraid of freedom. The time must come when we say, ‘We are not afraid of freedom’.

Abdullah Ibrahim -Whoza Mwathana

HW: I think we have reached that stage –in the last three, four months, the last eighteen months especially have proved that we’ve reached a pinnacle in the development of a historical consciousness of South Africans. Now, we know: we can, it’s possible for us to overcome. It’s the marvelous thing of the committed artist. He is able to see himself and insert himself in society and see that his interest are coterminous with those of the oppressed community.

AI: That’s why I’ve said, I’m a delivery boy. My function in the society is no more important than that of the street sweeper or a worker. The musician is no exception.

HW: One way in which cultures function is that very often elements of the subjugated classes are adapted, co-opted into the culture of the ruling class. A strange thing is actually happening to your music. I am yet to learn about ruling class musicians who are taking over your music and co-opting it. It seems to be very hard to adapt and co-opt. Why?

AI: The music is only the ultimate expression of the intention. The music says exactly the same about the intention of the people. The intention is so concrete and so strong that it cannot be co-opted. But the oppressor will try….

HW: Taking the point of a commitment a bit further. How do you see artists –people like yourself – struggling in the ghetto. Struggling to get out. What do you say to people like that about the need to express themselves? But now in order to express themselves they say, ‘okay to be known I rather chose to play commercial disco’, rather than looking at the real roots of the people here. That means looking at my community. You know there are different choices and they opt for the one which is commercially viable.

What do you tell people like that?

AI: To come back to the previous question: it’s the intention. When we started playing the music there was no question of importance, that we wanted to be known. It’s by grace, by God’s grace, that we are here. We accept it as it comes. But there is no intention that I’m going to be a superstar. If you’re busy, if you work with this purpose it’s going to take you at least twenty years to hone your art. Dizzy Gillespie says it takes thirty years to learn what you play and then it takes another thirty years what not to play. We have arrived at the second thirty. There is no way that you can get in here by faking it. The admission fee is….

HW: honesty and truthfulness?

AI: That’s right….and dedication. We can recognize it. That’s how we met Ellington. There was that immediate recognition. We met Coltrane. We met Monk. When I first met Monk I introduced myself and told him that I’m from South Africa and all that. And I said, ‘Thank you very much for the inspiration’. And he looked at me and said ‘You know, you’re the first piano player to tell me that’. And I believed it.

HW: Your own history is quite an interesting one. You went from the Cape to Sophiatown. ‘En die boytie van District Six kom in Sophiatown aan’. At that time, what was the Fifties like, for you? What was it like to be in Sophiatown? To be there where you actually saw a culture being developed, being in struggle. Trying to get out against all the ‘cultural imperialism’ around you?

AI: It was fantastic.But it was not just there. It was all over. All over South Africa.It was in the Cape as well. It was in Durban. It was in Port Elisabeth. It was all over the place. Of course you must remember now that we had counterparts in the United States. People like Charlie Parker, Monk. And like always the revolutionary spirit is contagious. So I remember as one example: I was with Kippie (Moeketsi) in Johannesburg one time. And Kippie was saying, ‘Ja, you see Dollar. You see people in South Africa they don’t respect us, man’. We were walking in the township –Western. ‘Kippie said ‘Ja, jy sien die mense vat ons nie kop toe nie. Hulle treat ons soos moegoes’. He said ‘They think we are like old Duke Ellington, man –look old Duke and old Monk- they think we’re a few old jazz guys they can meet on the corner of the street’. And just at that moment a youngster walked by and he said ‘Hi, bra Kippie’. You see, it was that kind of awakening to say, ‘wait a minute man, you are being recognized. We have something that is different and new.’

HW: Perhaps the last question. How do you see yourself in the future? Your vision as an artist?

AI: Perhaps on three tiers. Firstly there’s the devotional aspect; then there’s the personal aspect of the music, of working with oneself and discovering and working with new directions. And then there is the question of the struggle. And the struggle and the music is synonymous. Where the struggle goes, the music goes.

HW: Doesn’t the music sometimes leads as well?

AI: The music is only coincidental, you know. The music is like a freedom fighter. One time it’s a pen, another time it’s a sword and at other times it’s a stick. We’re in a revolutionary situation. So we have to use revolutionary methods and flow with the wind.

musical selections from “African Marketplace” Dollar Brand Abdullah Ibrahim -Elektra EKC 6090 released 1980

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