Abdullah Ibrahim: Zen Jazz

Many will know him from the soundtrack of Chocolat, Claire Denis’s 1988 movie, but there is much more to the South African pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim

Many will know him from the soundtrack of Chocolat, Claire Denis’s movie from 1988, but there is much more behind the South African pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim that makes him one of the world’s jazz greats. ‘Dollar brand’, as he used to be known before he converted to Islam in the late 60s, is far from your usual jazzer. On the one hand stands an illustrious, five-decade career that began when he was plucked out by Duke Ellington and collaborated with Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen and Max Roach. But on the other, it might be surprising to know that Ibrahim is also an avid student of Zen and ancient Samurai philosophy. Plus, he holds a black belt in karate. To see the jazz master’s intense but calm concentration at the keyboard as he taps out his slow-wheeling, plangent melodies, is to gain some insight into this. When asked what goes through his mind during his performances, Ibrahim pauses and then answers, “Nothing actually. The ultimate aim is reflected by the Japanese term Mushin, which literally means ‘no mind’. So, when I studied with my martial arts teacher in Japan, it was on how to evolve what’s in oneself. When I practised, my teacher said I [was] thinking too much. It’s the same in music, about having no mind. One has to live in the very moment, which has no past, no future. “That moment,” he continues, “is about listening to our heart beats, how we breathe, and in music focusing on a single note. I work from the principle that I want to feel every person in the audience, and what connects us is focusing on that precise moment. It is easily lost. Once I strike a note there is nothing I can do about it. After all these years I can say that I’m beginning to understand how to play a single note. And one does it without expecting anything in return. It is a principle of living, of giving unconditionally.” Ibrahim believes that audiences immediately pick up on an artist’s intention and do so intuitively, without needing any special musical knowledge. “That’s why I think of my audience as the best musicians in the world. I say this to myself every time because I can’t fake it and because people pick up the fake. It all comes down to intention. We can all feel if the intention is not good or not right.” The answers again come from what he learned in Japan. “In Budo martial arts,” he says, “the power is in the belly. That is the seat of emotion, not the heart. That’s why we talk about ‘gut’ feeling. My martial arts teacher once told me, ‘I don’t like jazz or classical music, but I like how you play because it sounds clean’. By that, he meant ‘not intending to show off technique’. “The tendency in jazz improvisation is to go for what impresses, but as John Coltrane said, the principle in performing should be that each night feels like the very last night you are on stage.” Ibrahim is a fighter and a survivor. He was exiled from South Africa in 1962 following race riots and the imposition of harsh apartheid laws in that country. Becoming a Muslim and performing in Zurich and New York with the Dollar Brand Trio, he then briefly returned to his homeland in the mid 1970s but found conditions still too oppressive. While in Cape Town, he penned the joyously uplifting Mannenberg, which went on to become South Africa’s unofficial national anthem. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he personally invited Ibrahim to come home. That led to the only time in his career he’s ever been upstaged. Ibrahim explains: “I didn’t mind. It was in a concert in Johannesburg. I played a phrase and had no idea why the audience suddenly applauded. Knowing that in jazz you can’t play the same thing twice, I tried out some similar ideas but nothing happened, and out of nowhere applause started again. Then a young man came up and put a note on my piano, which said Mandela is walking into the concert. I met Mandela afterwards and he said, ‘You cannot upstage me anytime!’” Abdullah Ibrahim plays the Adelaide Festival at Adelaide Town Hall on Tuesday, March 10 adelaidefestival.com.au Ibrahim will also perform at WOMADelaide on Saturday, March 7 (5pm) womadelaide.com.au

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