Abdullah Ibrahim – Hymns of Freedom

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Abdullah Ibrahim, September 8, 2012 – River Run Centre –  Guelph, Ontario

Abdullah Ibrahim had not performed in Canada or North America for at least ten years so on this rare occasion, a premier event for the Guelph Jazz Festival it presented festival goers with a very special opportunity to witness a master performing a solo concert. We had hoped to offer some photographs of the performance but this was not possible and adhering to the wishes of the artist we instead offer up some photos of the opening act, Guelphs KidsAbility parade band. KidsAbility is a local organization that helps children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The collaborations by festival artists and the musicians of KidsAbility resulted in a spirited and moving performance. Guelph Improvisers-in-Residence, Susanna Hood and Scott Thomson devised a program, along with some of their musician friends, and KidsAbility to parade, brass-band style, into the River Run Centre. They took to the stage and warmed the room up in grand festive style for the guest of honour, Abdullah Ibrahim.

The pianist was greeted to a warm welcome of applause as he strode out on stage prior to taking his place before the concert grand piano and launching into his solo piano concert. Abdullah Ibrahim, born in 1934 and raised in Cape Town, South Africa as Adolphes Johannos Brand had early influences that included church hymns and spirituals, as well as Meade Lux Lewis and Fats Waller. In the forties he first heard the jazz of Erskine Hawkins, Tiny Bradshaw, Louis Jordan and other American musicians whose 78rpm discs were available from the sailors and seamen at the international port. His musical awareness, enriched by the melting pot of the seaport. In Cape Town traditional African tribal music, Cape Malay songs, hymns, carnival and street music, British low-popular, music of the local communities of Chinese, Indian, and Muslims, ‘Shabeen’ (speak easy,) dance music (called marabi and kwela,) American pop, rhythm and blues, and Jazz were all integral to the local musical culture.

The church music, with its serene qualities, a peaceful and glorious music, was in full bloom during Ibrahim’s performance at the River Run Theatre. In 1959 Ibrahim joined forces with the alto saxophonist Kippie Moketsi, and along with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, formed The Jazz Epistles, melding dance music with jazz. Of course there was jazz in Ibrahim’s Guelph performance, he didn’t announce the songs he was playing, he didn’t speak much at all, not with words, but his playing said it all. Beautiful melodies filled the theatre, sounds that spoke of freedom, hardship, joy and pain. For me it was an emotional concert as the notes and sounds awoken many different feelings, thoughts and visions.

In early 1962, Abdullah Ibrahim and his wife, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, left South Africa where the political situation was rapidly deteriorating. Over the next three years Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima lived for short periods at various spots in Europe, they settled in Switzerland and performed at a coffee house in Zurich. During this period Duke Ellington checked out a performance of Ibrahim’s at a local club. This moment would mark a turning point in Abdullah Ibrahim’s career as four days later the pianist and Ellington were in the Barclay Studios in Paris where Ibrahim recorded one record for Reprise, Ellington’s label at the time. Dollar Brand as he was still known at that time converted to Islam in 1968, receiving the honored name, Abdullah Ibrahim. During this period the pianist recorded prolifically in Europe and Canada for record companies Japo, ECM, Enja and Sackville. Songs such as “Cape Town Flower”, “Water From An Ancient World” and “Ishmael” were all recognizable melodies that were given voice during the concert.

Late in 1976, Abdullah Ibrahim and his family moved to New York where he would establish a production company, Ekapa/RPM, and a stable home base since the trip to Switzerland in 1963. Adding to a vast body of recorded work in creative music during the late 70’s and early 80’s, a move that would reward listeners with a brilliant series of duet recordings with Archie Shepp and Max Roach. Between the end of 1973 and 1983, over two dozen records were recorded by Ibrahim, including thirteen for Enja.

During the Guelph concert the songs all flowed seamlessly throughout, with slight pauses between melodies, a shift in dynamic and emotion or a change in tempo. Songs from Ibrahim’s latest release Senzo (2009) for Sunnyside Records were touched upon during Saturday’s concert, Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” and the title track “Senzo” as well as “For Coltrane”. The finale – a final glorious chord is struck and caused to sustain, to gently fade to a breathless pause, a collective sigh of pleasure emanated from the enraptured audience and as one the crowd stood and offered their delighted applause as Ibrahim bowed in praise and with a wave departed.

The maestro would return to the stage a few minutes later to play an encore song, a song that reminded me of a hymn, a hymn to freedom, perhaps his composition “The Mountain”. The song and the artist presented a spirited and passionate performance that reached into my heart and fulfilled my quest for any further musical discovery, for this evening at least, I was fully and completely – musically satisfied.

Report by Paul J. Youngman: September 2012 with excerpts from The Abdullah Ibrahim Biography, Circling Round The Mountain by Mantra Modes :: Photographs by Robert Saxe.