An evening with Dollar Brand

Abdullah Ibrahim, the virtuoso jazz composer known as Dollar Brand who born Adolph Johannes Brand, turned 82 last month and performed four solo piano concerts at Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre.

A fitting venue, as the master grew up and was educated close by, in the not quite “removed” and now slowly resurgent and gentrified District 6.

His performance was a melancholic medley of tunes that were thoughtful and poetic yet pained and certainly not particularly joyful, or as defiant as the finest of his “pièce de résistance” songs – Black Lightning, Ismaël or Manenberg – can be.

On entering, he appeared to walk with difficulty, possibly arthritic or hip problems, have beset the composer for “a hip king”.

However, his hands are as agile, elegant and firm as ever. They moved with grace and certainty across, wide over, and up and down the scales of his keyboard.


Occasionally co-ordinating to select familiar refrains, including his own variation on Beethoven’s Für Elise; instead of Muss es sein — Ess muss sein [Must it be — It must be] his paired down, variation was a decipherable and equivocal What can be done — It can be done rose from time to time and was emitted from his signature Yamaha grand.

Other accented themes were tapped out like Morse code but not thunderously so. This included a curtailed Anthem for a New Nation. It subtly surfaced and was hinted at, rather than broadcast out loud or played at length — with only the slightest disturbance in the minimal, blue-lit auditorium, from the frivolous “always on” blinking smart phones.

It was the to and fro of transmitted messages by those foolish enough to compete with their own thoughts on their qwerty keyboards that threatened the sonic perfection in the room.

Abdullah Ibrahim has much poetry to offer and evokes memories of a bygone time. He is a virtuoso, extracted from another vintages’ era — thwarted by a history not of his own making — that has now been overtaken by trends, tastes and unscrupulous advantage-takers and businesses which have left little time for his largely unspoken, purist blues/jazzmans’ traditions.

Now the composer is ruled by a solo melancholia, in a time when we sorely need his thistle, whistle and the defiant sound of the band leader of the Jazz Epistles, that still has the power to bring Cape Town, its soul, and commuter trains to a halt and standstill.

Nearly 90 minutes later, most stood in appreciation, and applauded in honour of this Capetonian’s return to his source and in acknowledgment, Abdullah Ibrahim gravely inclined and clasped his hands Shiva-like.

It was all good, yet we hoped for one more explosive encore. If only he was more inclined. One more inspired time.

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