/ 3 March 2024

Jazz giant is coming home

Dori 61 2 (1)
Maestro: Abdullah Ibrahim’s performance included familiar classics of the jazz giants and songs from his recent album, 3. Photo: Dori Sumter

The nearly 90-year-old pianist Abdullah Ibrahim was a laaitie of just 16 when he first performed professionally at the majestic Cape Town City Hall. It was in the early, grim days of official apartheid back in 1950, so it was to a segregated audience.

“Cape Town City Hall resonates with my individual and collective creative footprints,” Ibrahim recalls in an interview with the Mail & Guardian. “The annual New Year’s Eve Dance with Willie Max Band —langarm [long-arm dancing] … We played waltzes, quicksteps, square dances.”

He moves further down memory lane: “I played at variety shows, visiting from Johannesburg, at City Hall. Up the road was the makeshift hall in Clyde Street where I played with the big band Tuxedo Slickers, led by Robinson Mazibuko and Caleb Ndimande, with Thabo Machelle, a trumpeter who became musical director for Gibson Kente. 

“We played African-American composers and band leaders’ arrangements and traditional South African music.”

It was also at the city hall where Ibrahim met vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin in 1959 when a local promoter asked him to be her accompanist on a show. Six years later they would marry. They remained life partners until Benjamin’s death in August 2013 at the age of 76.

Ibrahim is returning home to South Africa from New York after a five-year absence to give two landmark concerts next month — the first at the Cape Town City Hall on 12 April. The second is two days later at the SunBet Arena in Pretoria. 

Celebrating his nine decades — he turns 90 on 9 October — with a world tour to cities and cultures that were pivotal in his life, Ibrahim’s lifelong interest in Zen philosophy is reflected his answer to a question about whether this fulfils a dream: “I have a composition called Dreamtime which echoes the tradition that there is no past, no future only this moment.”

He adds: “As I embrace my 90th year, I am delighted to be undertaking these concerts … Perhaps when, as a free South African I bought land, or perhaps so many years before that when I was forced to exile? 

“But certainly, I was thrown into sharp relief during the Covid pandemic, when I wondered if, or when, I would see ‘home’ again.”

He is the last surviving member of a generation of truly global jazz giants, an elite that included his mentor Duke Ellington and the legends with whom he lived and played. 

Ibrahim has performed with some of the greatest names from South Africa’s jazz scene too, including Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa. But he cautions against forgetting the other greats.

“Seems we hardly acknowledge our great unsung masters, mentors and teachers in South Africa. I have the honour and privilege that they accepted me as their student.” 

Take Kippie “Morolong” Moeketsi, “our great saxophonist and clarinettist. I walked from Cape Town to Johannesburg to live and study with him in his home in Soweto. 

“He had mastered Mozart’s clarinet concerto and all the genres of the African-American masters up to Charlie Parker and beyond. He introduced me to the complexities of the Bapedi musical culture.

“Also Caleb Ndimande, a multi-instrumentalist and arranger. I would join him at night under a Cape Town streetlight watching him creating arrangements for a big band which they could not play the next day at rehearsal — it was complex and futuristic. 

“I introduced our traditional music to a younger generation of musicians who accepted the challenge and projected it into new brilliant creativity.”

Ibrahim’s latest album 3, which was released late in January, is taken from his sold-out headline date at London’s Barbican Centre last year. 

It is spread across two performances: the first was recorded without an audience, before the concert, straight to analogue on a one-inch Scully tape machine, which was used by Elvis at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis, in the US.

The second recording is taken from the performance, with Ibrahim performing in a trio with Cleave Guyton (flute, piccolo, saxophone) and Noah Jackson (bass and cello).

Ibrahim describes the album as “a collective journey of dedications”.

What kind of setlist can people expect from the local concerts?

“We never announce our concert set list,” he replies. “We engage in that moment of the concert.”

Concertgoers can expect one thing though — flawless performances. “We practise 24/7,” Ibrahim says. “Practice is 95%. Performance is 5%.”

There are not too many nonagenarian musos on the road but for Ibrahim it is simple: “Some do it because they have to do it. 

“We do it because we want to, so we do not require much sleep, so we have to do it.”