For Cape Town’s jazz maestros, history is sacred

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:

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

Related stories

The List: Live and direct selections by Thandi Ntuli

The recently released Live at Jazzwerkstatt album finds pianist and composer Thandi Ntuli rearranging her material for a live, large ensemble performance. Here, she meditates on her favourite live albums over the years

Spirituality at the core of sax great’s sound

Oyama Mabandla explores the idea that artistic success has spiritual bliss at its centre.

Dodging the sjambok: How musicians got around apartheid’s laws

The country was a very strange world, but artists, audiences and record companies found ways to get their sound out there

Covid-19 cancellations hurt artists

Artist have criticised the minister’s lack of vision; meanwhile, small businesses are also being hit hard

Covid-19 concerns close doors on Cape’s money-spinning events

The Two Oceans ultramarathon is latest in a slew of high-profile gatherings to be cancelled due to the pandemic

Lady Zamar: Is a woman’s word ever good enough on its own?

After news that house songstress Lady Zamar opened a rape case against hip-hop crooner Sjava, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival has removed him from its 2020 lineup

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday