The name Abdullah Ibrahim (also known as Dollar Brand) may or may not be familiar to you. The South African pianist comes to jazz from creative pressures that are different from most American jazz artists. Ibrahim grew up in the '40s and '50s under the African country's brutal segregationist system of apartheid, which was in place from 1948 to 1993. His music celebrates American jazz but echoes his own cultural background and hardships in Africa. As is evident on his latest album, Sotho Blue, Abdullah works from a rich and gentle spiritual tablet.
In my e-interview with Abdullah, the 76-year-old composer and pianist talks about life growing up in South Africa and how he managed to leave the country:
JazzWax: You started playing professionally in South Africa in 1949 and began recording with the Tuxedo Slickers Orchestra in 1954, yes?
Abdullah Ibrahim: Yes. The Tuxedo Slickers was a big-band based in Cape Town's District Six—one of the communities that the government later in the 1970s declared for whites only. Sixty-thousand life-long black residents were forcibly removed to townships. Back then, we played concerts and dance shows, with opening acts, vocal groups that were inspired by the Delta Rhythm Boys, and traditional choral music.
JW: What type of music did you play with the Tuxedo Slickers?
AI: We used Tuxedo Junction as our signature tune. We also played Tommy Dorsey’s Song of India, Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade and songs by Joe Liggins, Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins, who co-wrote Tuxedo Junction. Years later, I visited Hawkins’ home in Birmingham, Alabama, to pay my respects. We also played Xhosa and Zulu traditional music, and a keyboard style called Marabi that combined jazz, blues and ragtime with our music. I still play this form today. When the New York members of my band, Ekaya, visit, they call it South African r&b chord changes. Back in the early '50s, the Tuxedo Slickers’ arranger Caleb Ndimande wrote original African charts. He also wrote arrangements of jazz songs. I recall a very complex chart of pianist George Wallington's Lemon Drop. We had heard Dizzy Gillespie's recording.
JW: Given South Africa's horrible apartheid policy back in the '50s, how did you perform there and record? Did the government try to prevent this?
AI: The apartheid regime was ruthless in controlling our daily movement. You'd need permits to travel anywhere and you always faced imminent arrest. We sneaked out of safe houses to jam with other musicians. We also organized our own community concerts. Then the white-owned recording companies would rip off naive and uninformed musicians and record their music without acknowledgment or compensation.
JW: How did you become familiar with American jazz in South Africa in the 1950s?
AI: We listened to Voice of America jazz programs hosted by Willis Conover. We also listened to local weekly jazz programs on the radio as well as LPs.
JW: Where was one of the most unusual places you heard American jazz in South Africa?
AI: The local ice-cream van blared Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five.
JW: How did you develop your style?
AI: Our local jazz hero, alto saxophonist Kippie Moketsi, was classically trained and played elaborate pieces such as Mozart's clarinet concerto. On LP, I heard pianists Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. They inspired me to woodshed boogie-woogie, developing left-hand independence and synchronizing it with traditional rhythms, leaving my right hand free to fly anywhere.
JW: What is the origin of the name "Dollar Brand?"
AI: My original last name was Brand. I was given my nick name while hanging out in Cape Town Harbor as a teen. I’d befriend African-American sailors, who were manning merchant vessels. They gave me a few dollars and the name stuck. I changed my name in the mid-70s when I converted to Islam.
JW: When you moved to Europe in 1962, did you find audiences there more receptive to your style of jazz? How did you escape South Africa?
AI: In the aftermath of the Sharpville Massacre of March 1960, the regime became even more oppressive. We joined the wave of people, young and old, leaving the country in 1962. European audiences and musicians were very receptive to what I was playing. Some were hostile, especially when I became identified as an avant-garde musician. But it was the feeling of total creative liberation. It was a wonderful feeling to finally present music written in South Africa, without worrying about restrictions, the market, and political and social pressures.
JW: Whose music did you relate to most?
AI: Duke Ellington’s. Duke, for us, was always the wise old man of the village. Our link with the African-American community started with our local African Methodist Episcopal church in South Africa, of which my grandmother was a founding member. Missionaries and bishops from Mother Bethel in Philadelphia had been sent there as missionaries. Duke's music embodied for us our common struggle and experience.
JW: Ellington must have been viewed as more than a great musician, as a cultural hero.
AI: He was. Similarly, we also had celebrated Joe Louis' victories. I recall listening over and over to King Joe, also known as the Joe Louis Blues, recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra in 1941, with Langston Hughes’ lyrics and Paul Robeson on vocals.
JW: Your new album, Sotho Blue, has a beautiful, soulful feel. Where did you compose many of the songs?
AI: We try to be as sincere as possible in our daily lives and I our music. Compositions have no fixed location or time limits.
JW: Do you view the music you create as jazz or as a different form born in South Africa with South African traditions?
AI: In the words of our illustrious poet Rumi, “There is only one sound, everything else is echo.”
JazzWax tracks: Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya's new Sotho Blue was recorded in Bonn, Germany, and is absolutely gorgeous, from start to finish. It's gentler than Abdullah's earlier works, but it bristles with energy and patience. Sample the title track and Star Dance, which features tenor saxophonist Keith Loftis. You'll find this one here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Abdullah Ibrahim's For Coltrane, from his Duke's Memories in 1981 with Carlos Ward on soprano sax...