/ 20 August 2004

Beyond the blues

South African jazz maestro Abdullah Ibrahim has just returned from a whirlwind tour of Germany and is off to prepare for his gig at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Jo’burg International Festival in Newtown next week.

A few hours after arriving at Johannesburg International airport, Ibrahim readily helps himself to a tasty samp-and-beans meal known as “umngusho” in Xhosa. It is an unforgettable treat courtesy of his South African business associate, diamond cutter and head of the Masingita record label, Macdonald Temane. Temane is excited that Ibrahim turns 70 on October 9 and asks, sardonically: “What does one do with a genius of Abdul’s stature?”

Against the background of retreating African sun, the legend muses about growing up in the poverty-stricken, racially torn Cape Town of the 1940s and the 1950s. He reflects on the world of jazz in the 1960s and 1970s, films, Nelson Mandela and the greatness of a land he loves dearly.

It is with a tinge of sadness that Ibrahim tells the story of his Sotho-speaking father, who was killed when Ibrahim was four years old — he was stabbed by skollies because he was going out with Ibrahim’s coloured mother. Efforts to trace Ibrahim’s father’s grave have yielded no results to date.

Ibrahim’s music is deeply evocative, melancholic and speaks of stubborn hope and bold celebration. If Mandela epitomises the spirit of hope that Robben Island could not vanquish in the dark days of apartheid, Ibrahim is possibly his musical equivalent. “There was always a sense that freedom was coming,” says Ibrahim. He recalls that when he wrote the classic, Mannenberg, “the country was in flames. We were summoning our spirits, we didn’t ask people to fight.”

Ibrahim believes in the sanctity of celebration over anger and grief.

“We should stop crying the blues,” he says, quoting another musician. “Instead we all must embrace life in its fullest and help create a strong nation.”

Last month, while enjoying dinner with friends in Hamburg, Germany, Ibrahim’s hosts proposed a toast in Madiba’s honour (on the former president’s 86th birthday). “Everywhere I travel, I am made to feel proud of being South African. Everywhere people want to come to South Africa.”

The period of exile also evokes fond memories for the veteran musician. When Ibrahim and other South African musicians had just arrived in the United States in the 1960s, the late bassist Johnny Dyani confronted jazz great Charles Mingus and demanded to play with him. “And you know what? The two of them played and we stood there in awe.”

Despite exposure to musical influences that range from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane, the jazz maestro has kept his African signature. He says, for instance, that his marching chant, Cape Town to Congo Square, a tune dedicated to former US slaves in New Orleans, opens with a segment called African Street Parade. “When I left the country, I took umngusho with me,” he chuckles.

His music, which spans 50 years, “belongs to us all, it is our music and it represents us”. Ibrahim is a griot committed to celebrating the collective memory of his people.

Temane describes Ibrahim as “the great apostle of song”.

Ibrahim’s New York-based daughter, hip-hop sensation Jean Grae, said in an interview: “My father is a rapper” — much to her dad’s delight. “The tradition of the spoken word is African and rap comes from the community,” she said.

Known for songs with titles that include iconoclastic South African places such as Soweto, Manenberg and Knynsa, Ibrahim seeks to engender national pride. “Our places are valid,” he says matter-of-factly. Early this year he asked a German film crew working on a documentary about him to choose scenic Knysna for the shoot.

The place’s charm is captured in his tune Knysna Blue. “If you feel blue, wash your tears in Knysna’s morning dew,” say the lyrics.

In October Germany’s NDR (North Germany Radio) Big Band will accompany Ibrahim in a concert funded by the Goethe Institute to mark Germany’s cultural week. The 59-year-old NDR ensemble is the world’s oldest surviving radio big band and has worked with Ibrahim since 1968. In 1997 the band recorded an album entitled Ekapa Lodumo. “We have had great collaborative experience,” says Ibrahim.

On his forthcoming birthday, he remains philosophical and says his musical confidence has matured over the years. “But I feel I know very little about life — there is definitely a great deal I have to learn, still.”

Ibrahim says that for South Africa’s music industry to be sustainable, the film industry provides untapped potential. “[It] is fantastic because it needs music from across the genres.”

And if his dreams are realised, our prolific jazz legend could be mentoring a new breed of musicians who are ready to score music for the big screen.