Performance Friday, October 17, 2014 | 8:30 PM

Abdullah Ibrahim

Zankel Hall
A revered pianist and composer, Abdullah Ibrahim has been hailed as the greatest exponent of Cape jazz. During his long and glorious career, he has toured the world extensively, performing as soloist with symphony orchestras and with legendary jazz artists such as Max Roach and Randy Weston. He returns to Zankel Hall for a solo concert that coincides with his 80th birthday.


  • Abdullah Ibrahim, Piano

Event Duration

The program will last approximately two hours, including one 20-minute intermission. Please note that there will be no late seating before intermission.


  • Abdullah Ibrahim

    The name Abdullah Ibrahim is as inextricably linked with jazz history as those of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Don Cherry. The pianist has collaborated closely with all of these musicians, but his life history is a unique story that is directly connected to 20th-century global developments. Born in Cape Town in 1934 as Adolf Johannes Brand, from 1949 on he worked as a professional musician under the name Dollar Brand. Until the early 1960s, he stayed in his native country, where he accompanied Miriam Makeba and founded the first important African jazz band, the Jazz Epistles. The international recognition, however, also earned him distrust at home. He left for Europe in 1962, appeared primarily in Switzerland and Denmark, and was discovered by Duke Ellington in 1965.

    Ellington brought Brand to New York. A triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival became his ticket to the jazz major leagues. From 1968 on, musicians like Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, and the legendary South African bassist Johnny Dyani numbered among his closest associates. He converted to Islam in 1968 and took the name Abdullah Ibrahim, which over the following decades gradually superseded the trademark Dollar Brand. During the 1970s and '80s, he was the leading figure in the integration of African jazz. One only needs to recall albums like Echoes from Africa (1979, with Dyani), African Marketplace (1980), or Zimbabwe (1983), which illustrate an organic connection between American jazz and African roots music that was inconceivable until then.

    Ibrahim is not only a musician, but a music educator as well. He founded the M7 Center in Cape Town, which, like the training in the seven liberal arts during the Middle Ages, advocates a holistic approach and familiarizes young artists with the secrets of tradition and nature. Ibrahim himself has always understood music as a healing power. His spirituality is particularly concerned with maintaining a direct continuum from our prehistoric ancestors to the civilization of the information age. Too much knowledge is lost when we do not listen to the voice of tradition-that is his artistic and personal credo. Individual and collective memory are closely connected for him as the sources of all human culture.

    On his new album Senzo, Ibrahim is heard solo at the piano, but he is far from alone with himself. The word senzo means "ancestor" in Japanese. As if that were not reason enough for the title, Senzo was also his father's name. The spiritually experienced pianist does not believe in coincidences. Abdullah Ibrahim has long been more than just Africa's authentic ambassador to the jazz civilization-that becomes clearer than ever before on his latest CD; he devotes himself to all of humanity. It is definitely not inappropriate to hear a direct link from African roots to American jazz and European art music in these piano works. For Ibrahim, who has been purifying himself with the Japanese martial arts for 40 years, such categories have long been unimportant. His playing is based on the primal tone from which all other sounds are derived as echoes to the end of time. His spirituality completely dispenses with esotericism and esthetics. It is grounded in the realm of everyday experience, but is also traced back to its origins. One only has to enter into it, and it is like a clarifying discussion that has been put off for a long time and is now all the more liberating.

    Abdullah Ibrahim's sound has nearly staggering clarity. What the jazz connoisseur perceives as a maximum of musical reduction to the essence of expression is for the listener unfamiliar with jazz simply disarmingly beautiful music. Ibrahim improvises, without overtaxing his own intellect or that of the listener in the process. His simple formula is "no mind." The pieces are unusually brief for a jazz concert, but in their entirety produce a stream of consciousness that begins long before the first note and does not end with the last. Ibrahim's uninhibited, intimate relationship with sound combines the sage wisdom of an ancient shaman with the insatiable curiosity of a little boy. The listener often forgets completely that he is hearing a piano and thinks it is simply a child singing in a clear voice. Ibrahim refers to his music not as pieces, but as songs; what he would like most of all is to make them sing.

    More Info


"The Perfumed Garden"
Abdullah Ibrahim, Piano

Jeff Tamarkin on Abdullah Ibrahim

In the 1930s, Apartheid was still years away from becoming the government-sanctioned state of affairs in South Africa, but racial segregation was very much a way of life. It was into this ceaseless struggle for equality that Abdullah Ibrahim was born in Cape Town on October 9, 1934. Today, as he celebrates his 80th birthday with a solo piano performance in Zankel Hall and with Apartheid thankfully long gone, Ibrahim can reflect on the evolution both his homeland and his music have undergone. “How do you affect change?” he asks rhetorically. “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to do change in 10 minutes or 20 minutes or in one or two days.’ You have to accept that change takes time.”

For Ibrahim—originally Adolf Johannes Brand—the most life-altering set of changes began in the early 1960s with a move to Europe, where he’d fled to escape the brutal oppression blacks were experiencing daily in South Africa. Performing as Dollar Brand, his professional name until his conversion to Islam in the 1970s, Ibrahim attracted the attention of Duke Ellington and, subsequently—through recordings and live performances—audiences worldwide. With wider recognition came a greater realization of the role heritage plays in art.

“I’d been playing the traditional music of South Africa since I first started playing,” says Ibrahim. “When I realized the wonderful complexity of the traditional music, that opened up an investigation of self and community and of the nation. What is inherent, in terms of our culture? I discovered the wonderful, deep complexity of the music. If we are musicians, we should really reflect our culture. I look at the universality of the music and communities and individuals.”

Although he has created music within numerous configurations, the solo piano recital holds a special place for Ibrahim—it is, perhaps, the purest expression of his inner being. But to him, solo piano is also something of a blueprint for larger formats and, beyond that, a glimpse of possibilities. “As a young man,” he explains, “I composed at the piano, so the piano was the main instrument. But when I compose music, I always invariably think about an orchestra. The only possibility that I had in the Apartheid era was playing in dance bands—solo piano was not very well accepted in those years—but I always heard the music in another concept, for example a big band or a philharmonic orchestra or a string quartet or a chamber orchestra. This was never possible in South Africa. But now we have the possibility to do this. There has been collective liberation, but now the individual liberation should take place, because it’s the individual that can make a change.”

Jazz, Ibrahim says, can serve as the starting point for that greater journey. “I look beyond jazz. For me, music is music,” he says. “People are always asking me, ‘What is the greatest music that you’ve heard?’ And I always say, ‘It’s something that you wouldn’t understand, or you might think that it’s something very stupid.’ It’s music that makes my hair stand on end and say, ‘Wow!’ I’m just using my experience as an example of this explosion of possibilities in all fields.”

—Jeff Tamarkin is the associate editor of

Program Notes


"Green Kalahari"

UBUNTU: Music and Arts of South Africa

Lead funding for UBUNTU: Music and Arts of South Africa is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, The Howard Gilman Foundation, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Additional support is provided by the Mai Family Foundation, South African Tourism, and South African Airways.

UBUNTU is held in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture of the Republic of South Africa and the South African Consulate General in New York in celebration of 20 years of freedom and democracy.
This performance is part of Signatures.

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