Soon after World War II, jazz became truly international, with homegrown flavors developing all over the world. In Africa the most potent center of such musical development was the port city of Cape Town, South Africa. One of the more promising musicians in the city was a young pianist known as Dollar Brand, who would one day become internationally known as Abdullah Ibrahim. A good example of his early playing can be heard on a couple of tunes he recorded at age twenty-two in 1956, with the Willie Max Big Band. The music combines South African kwela, a joyous street and dance music often played on pennywhistles, with American big-band dance music. The young Brand is the main soloist, showing his mastery of the jazz idiom, very much in the style of Teddy Wilson and other swing-era pianists.
But harmonically and rhythmically more progressive sounds were in the air, and the modern jazz sounds of bebop made inroads in Cape Town. Brand founded the first African bop combo, the Jazz Epistles, which also featured trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Their only recording, Verse 1, shows how Brand had internalized the flowing bop harmonies of pianists who played with Charlie Parker.
The Epistles were not together for long; in 1960 the Sharpeville Massacre and the subsequent crackdown led to a radical increase in violent apartheid repression and an exodus of many artists and activists. Masekela left that year, and two years later Brand also left the country, settling in Europe, where he founded a trio and found work in jazz clubs. While personally devastating, the exile led to a broadening of Brand’s musical horizons. Championed by Duke Ellington, he found inspiration in the great man’s compositional and arranging style and unique approach to the piano. He studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and absorbed various classical and modern jazz influences.
In 1968 he converted to Islam, changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim, and began to explore the music of North Africa. Ibrahim took in all these different musical strands, but the core of his playing never changed. He has remained an essentially Cape Town artist at heart. Living in exile only strengthened his ethnic pride and anti-apartheid convictions; as a result, many of his compositions, most famously “Mannenberg,” which provided succor to Nelson Mandela in prison, became unofficial anthems of resistance back home.
Ibrahim mostly plays his own compositions, and his unique piano style, which ranges from rhapsodic to sparse, from raucous kwela-like jaunts to pensive, almost classical ballads, lies at the center of all that he does. Listening to him over the years, following his explorations of various styles and selective collaborations with other musicians, one is struck by the consistency of his development: the roots of all that he has done can be traced back to the music he played as a young man and his love of pure melody remains undiminished. UMS brings him to the Michigan Theater, on October 21 with his longstanding septet, Ekaya–Zulu for “home.”