/ 20 April 2024

An exquisite musical twilight with Abdullah Ibrahim

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

When I ambled out of the Sunbet Arena last Sunday, I could just make out a setting sun behind the clouds that dotted the early evening sky. The warm day was gently giving way to a colder night, but the twilight was comforting somehow. It was as if the sky and the light echoed the event that I’d just had the privilege of attending, the second of two concerts that Abdullah Ibrahim gave in South Africa as part of his Water from an Ancient Well world tour. 

Come October, Ibrahim will turn 90. His career as a performing musician stretches back more than 70 years, from when he was a teenager in Cape Town playing with popular local acts such as the Willie Max Big Band and the Tuxedo Slickers. Since then, Ibrahim’s name has become inscribed in the annals of South African jazz, and his music has resonated around the world.

Last week he returned to City Hall in Cape Town — the site of his first stage appearance in the 1950s playing before a segregated audience — and then to the far less august Sunbet Arena in Pretoria. 

His wish to return to what is home for him was writ large across the experience he offered us.

The stage is lit in a calm purple. There’s scattered clapping from the audience and then full applause as the maestro and his three-piece band appear. Then it begins, so very perfectly, with a silky-smooth rendition of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood

It’s a fitting place to start, because Ellington was instrumental in shaping Ibrahim’s path as a musician after first hearing him play as Dollar Brand at the Africana Club in Zurich in 1963, where Ibrahim lived and worked after leaving South Africa the year before. Ibrahim acknowledges Ellington as a mentor and keystone of musical inspiration. “If you’re a contemporary musician anywhere, somehow you’ve been touched by Ellington,” he said in a recent interview.

The way Ibrahim and his band approaches the song this afternoon sets the tone for the rest of the concert. Grounded in his most recent album, 3, they meander between familiar classics — both those of other jazz giants and Ibrahim’s own much-loved compositions — and spacious pockets of dazzling improvisation. This is not your standard farewell-tour formula, where the audience is served the greatest hits on a platter. 

Instead, Ibrahim challenges us. He grooves on a familiar riff that tickles our sense of recognition — the opening chords of District Six, brooding and busy, are the first ones that strike me — but just as we think we know what we’re in for, he goes off the beaten path. It’s as if he’s asking us to come along as he makes a musical path. At times, he seems almost wayward, but the notes he conjures up, like the sonic magician that he is, always find their way back to where they started — to their home.

The band is tight. They swing and they swirl in perfect lockstep. They stand back and give each other room to solo like the virtuosos they are — on sax and flute, on double bass and cello, and on the drums. Ibrahim sits back and lets the band take centre stage, at times not playing at all, at times dotting their soundscape with occasional chords and flourishes. 

And then the band returns the favour. At regular intervals, they quietly leave the stage, and we are alone with Ibrahim. Slightly hunched over his grand piano, he plays his heart out for us. 

It doesn’t matter that he’s turned slightly away from us, or that he doesn’t address us at all during the show. In these sections, he’s so very present, sharing generously what he has created during his career and what he is capable of inventing on the spot. 

At times, his playing is sparse and delicate, at other times it is almost frenzied. At one point, as he’s striking minor chords with his left hand while his right hand runs playfully up and down whirling scales. You can feel the unmistakable swaggering groove that is a hallmark of his songs lurking underneath, the drummers’ absence notwithstanding. And across it all, the eclectic thickness of the musical fabric that Ibrahim weave embraces us. This is how a master plies his trade. 

Coming home has weighed on Ibrahim’s mind lately. 

“I was thrown into sharp relief during the Covid pandemic,” he told the Mail & Guardian in March, “when I wondered if, or when, I would see home again.” 

No doubt that question becomes more pressing when standing on the threshold of one’s ninth decade on Earth. 

Ibrahim adds depth to his longing for home at the end of the show. Standing shoulder to shoulder with his band next to his piano, Ibrahim rested his head slightly in his right hand as he chanted the words of Trance-Mission from the album, 3

“There’s no one to welcome me home 

“I see the harbour lights

“Africa far, far away. 

“I hope I’ll see my home again someday.” 

The lyric fuses many languages and evokes the layered history embodied in the man himself and the land he’s returned to.

What we witnessed in Pretoria on Sunday was a homecoming. But it was also a musical twilight and a farewell of sorts. 

Not unlike the twilight that I walked into as I left the venue, it was comforting rather than sad. And in contrast to the mournful words he ended with, I’m glad we were there to welcome him and to see him off.