There is an unsung Cape Town song in the countless devout, talented, piano-playing ladies who reared and inspired the city’s jazz pianists.
Abdullah Ibrahim’s grandmother played piano for one of the first South African outposts of the African Episcopal Methodist Church. And for veteran Ibrahim Khalil Shihab: “My mother composed and played piano in church. She was doing that even when she was pregnant with me. So I suppose,” he shrugs and spreads his long hands, “I was born with the music.”
Some years after that, the teenager then called Chris Schilder (he converted to Islam in 1975) was “stealing with my eyes”, watching a schoolmate who played boogie-woogie, then rushing home to try out those memorised chords on the parlour piano. By 14, he was playing at the Normandy nightclub in Rondebosch, dashing off the difficult changes of All the Things You Are in response to a patron’s challenge purely from memory. “He gave me a huge tip,” Shihab chuckles.
By the mid-1970s, he was composing the songs that helped Pacific Express to win its reputation as the country’s most adventurous fusion band, including the award-winning Give a Little Love.
That song was originally written for a female vocalist working with the band. “I always start with the melody, then find words to fit. On that one, I was trying to sing in a woman’s high register as I composed. But then Zayn [Adams] said: ‘Let me try it.’ And voom! It worked.”
He has heady memories of those intense times. “We didn’t mix much with nonmusicians. We’d go to somebody’s parlour and jam … [guitarist] Issy Ariefdien, [vocalist] Zayn Adams, [drummer] Jack Momple and [bassist] Paul Abrahams were the nucleus of the band and they were all so talented, we could just feed off one another’s ideas.” That collaboration intensified when reedman Robbie Jansen joined.
But this was apartheid South Africa. Despite audience support, steady work was scarce as racial zoning made venues increasingly hard to sustain. Shihab was composing in a single room, crammed with piano, cot, baby and, spouse Raqiba wryly adds, “a wife trying to sweep in between”.
Eventually, Shihab found work elsewhere, with long stints as a hotel pianist in Mmabatho in North West and, later, similar commercial gigs in the Middle and Far East.
Freedom and spirituality
Between these engagements, he always returned to Cape Town. In 1999, he got a call from fellow pianist Jack van Poll about recording a solo album. He was initially apprehensive: this was a new challenge. But “I prayed and as soon as I hit the first note, I found I could let the spirit free”.
Freedom and spirituality still find kinship on the city’s jazz scene. Bassist Jonathan Rubain is almost three decades younger than Shihab. He is enthralled by stories of church members facilitating jazz back then. “It’s happening again,” he asserts.
Rubain grew up in Hanover Park. “I was that kid in the audience at the Jazzathon, dreaming of playing on stage.” But his school “wasn’t even telling us that music could be a career. Music lessons in the townships were a teacher sitting behind a piano making us sing.” It was through church bands that Rubain learned his music and now it is work at religious conventions and celebrations that provides the spine of his income.
“And these church people appreciate improvisation. They know when you’re playing nonsense and they might not know my solo is based on what Charlie Parker did, but they’ll recognise a damn good solo and applaud.”
Rubain appreciates the platform the jazz festival offers for the music, but laments that it is a single event. “We’re the jazz capital, but we have only one event. The Jazzathon is gone; the Green Dolphin is closed. No more Club Mannenberg or Obs Jazz Festival. There is no premier venue except the Mahogany Room. Truthfully, I’m not sure there is a city jazz scene any more and the festival has more of a national impact in showcasing jazz. Which is great, but not enough.”
Rubain would like to see the festival and the prestigious University of Cape Town jazz programme spread out more. “Little festivals through the year; university students taking the music to Lavender Hill, Manenberg and Retreat.” He is exploring starting his own music school in his home parish of Hanover Park. “Why do all the kids want to be Lionel Messi?” he challenges. “Because they see him every week on TV. But even our local radio stations, apart from Fine Music Radio, are scared to say the word ‘jazz’.”
Shihab also feels sadness every time he returns from an international tour to find “there is still not sufficient work for musicians, especially in recent years”.
So much has changed, but musicians’ work and wages do not seem to have transformed equally. Yet, at the festival, both musicians plan to showcase a future vision.
For Rubain, his set with saxophonist Don Donveno will be “a freedom show. I hope visitors from outside the city and the country come, because we’ll be among few acts this year expressing the real spirit and sound of Cape Town.
“Capetonians are survivors, especially people from the Cape Flats. Times are tough, but they have so much hope and energy. They aren’t giving up on their kids. That’s what our show will express.”
For Shihab, the music will celebrate spiritual and creative freedom. Originals will dominate, with one standard, what he calls “the most beautiful ballad”: Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.
“I’ve been bottling all this music up since the solo album. This is my chance to explode.” Then his perfectionism reasserts itself: “In a highly controlled manner, of course.”
Some of the originals will be shorter, more melodic pieces “with plenty of opportunity for the musicians to converse”. But Shihab’s opener “speaks boldly of who I am”. It is called A Glimpse of Tomorrow. Catch it.
Ibrahim Khalil Shihab performs at the Rosies Stage on Friday, April 5 from 19:45. Jonathan Rubain and Don Donveno play at the Moses Molelekwa Stage from 22:15 on the same night. For programme schedules visit: capetownjazzfest.com.