Abdullah Ibrahim talks jazz: themes, history and spirit (via Duke Chronicle)

How does one pass down knowledge that resists the deteriorating effects of time? With a soft spoken, low and wisened voice, Abdullah Ibrahim, a South African pianist and composer, responded to creative writing professor Nathaniel Mackey. 

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In the “Talking Music: A Life in Jazz” talk on Oct. 15, Mackey and Ibrahim discussed the sources of Ibrahim’s influences and the overarching themes of his work. Abdullah Ibrahim grew up in the impoverished, predominantly black section of Cape Town, South Africa during the Apartheid. As Cape Town grew to be a whites-only region, many residents were forcibly removed. The increasingly strict apartheid laws resulted in a crackdown on music, particularly jazz, which symbolized resistance. Musicians were harassed and clubs were closed, forcing many musicians, including Abdullah Ibrahim, into exile. In 1962, Ibrahim fled South Africa. Only six years later, he converted to Islam.

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This transition in Ibrahim’s life marked the beginning of a search for harmony, self understanding and identity, themes that resound strongly throughout Ibrahim’s music, from traditional African songs to contemporary Western jazz styles. Ibrahim gradually developed audiences in the United States, Europe and Japan, making him a sort of celebrity in Cape Town. He became known for creating peaceful, meditative and spiritual music. Despite growing up in a racially tense environment and his performances at historical events such as the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, Abdullah Ibrahim cited Thelonious Monk as one of his most significant influences.

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