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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 18:11 GMT
Ibrahim: Ambassador for harmony
Abdullah Ibrahim, Cape Town Revisited
Ibrahim: Apartheid "broke the cultural continuity"
Abdullah Ibrahim, one of South Africa's most celebrated musicians, has worked with top jazz artists including Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

His controversial political beliefs led to a 30-year exile from his homeland, but his enthusiasm for making music during apartheid was not dampened. He has told BBC World Service's Jazzmatazz programme about his life as a musician.

South African jazz pianist, Abdullah Ibrahim, first came to international fame in 1963 after a chance meeting with the great American bandleader Duke Ellington.

Working under his pre-Muslim name, Dollar Brand, Ibrahim recorded with the maestro in Switzerland and in 1966 Ibrahim led the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

"I did five dates substituting for him", he explains. "It was exciting but very scary, I could hardly play."

Encouraged by Ellington, Ibrahim moved from Cape Town to New York. Like many artists, growing government pressure challenging his political beliefs meant that he spent most of the next three decades outside of South Africa.


In the mid 1960s he played with the likes of drummer Elvin Jones and for a short time modern jazz influences were apparent in Ibrahim's work.

We were the first generation of jazz improvisers

Abdullah Ibrahim
But by 1968 Ibrahim had rejected free-form jazz and his own compositions began to reflect his past in South Africa.

"We realised that we really didn't need all of that technical know-how to express things," he explains.

"Ninety five per cent of the time the audience just come to listen to the music, they are not musicians. The idea is still to write with that vast technical skill, but to make it compatible and accessible."

Soweto song

Later in his career, when he returned to South Africa, Ibrahim recorded Mannenberg with South African saxophonist Basil Coetzee.

It became an enormous hit in the townships and impressed musicians as the recording was made in just one take.

"Even Basil himself said that in later years he would use that solo as a study exercise," Ibrahim explains. "We also use it now in our teaching as a required solo that young musicians have to play."

Having been influenced in his early years by traditional jazz artists, Ibrahim's style gradually evolved into a new sound. "We were the first generation of improvisers," he explains.

"We didn't have a point of reference; we had to develop our own vocabulary. We played bee-bop and then we realised that it was fine to do that but it really didn't grant me any satisfaction because it was too easy."


A tireless force in the promotion of South African music, during the period of apartheid Ibrahim's music went on to be characterised by its ability to reflect the spirit of South Africa.

Apartheid, in Ibrahim's view, led to a loss of culture which, since his return to South Africa in 1992, he hopes he has helped to revive.

"What apartheid did was to break the cultural continuity. Many musicians died in exile. In our experience it was as though a generation had been totally wiped out.

"There was a time when the culture was just annihilated. It is our task now and I have started a music academy in Cape Town as a pilot programme. It is actually up to us to make people aware of this legacy."

Abdullah Ibrahim speaks to Jazzmatazz
"That South African feeling is very characteristic of his music"
See also:

09 Nov 01 | Music
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24 May 01 | Music
New insights on jazz genius
14 Nov 01 | Music
Jazz genius's art on display
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