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His fingers do the talking

Abdullah Ibrahim — better known to us as Dollar Brand, the world famous pianist and composer — is back home after 14 years in exile. Learn and Teach interviewed him…

Abdullah Ibrahim walked onto the stage, alone. He was dressed in a long white robe and looked more like a priest than a musician. The audience in the Wits University Great Hall rose to its feet in a thunder of clapping.

The man said nothing. He held his hands together, as if in prayer. Then he bowed gently to the crowd. He sat down at the grand piano and waited for the audience to become quiet.

When there was silence in the huge hall, he lifted his hands to the piano and began to play. And he played, and played, and played, for 85 minutes, without a break. He played all the songs that have made him famous, not only in South Africa but throughout the world. At the end of it all, he stood up, bowed again to the madly clapping crowd, and left the stage.

Many people were disappointed that Abdullah didn’t speak to the audience. After all, this was his first concert in South Africa since he left for exile in 1976. Maybe they wanted him to say how happy he was to be back home. But he didn’t say one word. He let his fingers do the talking. His music is his message.

Luckily, Learn and Teach had the opportunity to speak to Abdullah earlier that day. We met at a hotel in Johannesburg. When we greeted him, he said: “Oh, so you are from Learn and Teach. We used to get your magazine in New York!” We were pleased to know that he was a fan of our magazine. It made us a little less nervous to speak to this giant of the music world! But we didn’t have to be nervous. He was warm and friendly.

We began by asking him when he was coming home for good. “I am home!” he answered, with a big smile.


What made him leave the country for exile? “In the 50s and 60s”, he explained, “life for a musician was extremely difficult. There was no money and no facilities for black musicians, and if you wanted to survive, you had to do exactly what the recording companies and the promoters wanted you to do. On top of it all, apartheid laws did not give us the freedom to play where and how we wanted to. Things were especially difficult for the few musicians who wanted to play South African music — not just American jazz.

“Very few musicians have been able to hang in. Basil Coetsee, for example, hung in, but many others didn’t have that staying power — they could still play music, but not the music they wanted to.

“Either we stayed here and did what we were told… or we could leave. The other way was to stop playing completely — many musicians took this option… they stopped. Some of us thought it best to leave.”


Abdullah Ibrahim was born Adolphus Brand. He grew up in Cape Town in a religious family — his grandmother was a pianist in the AME church. Music was in his blood and at an early age he earned for himself the nickname of ‘Dollar’ because he always had dollars in his pockets to buy jazz records from American sailors visiting Cape Town’s docks.

In those early years Dollar — who changed his name to Abdullah when he became a Muslim — struggled to get by as a musician. He didn’t get much support from other jazz musicians because at that time most of them were only interested in American jazz. Abdullah wanted to play South African music.

Abdullah remembers times of real misery. “We slept on the streets in Cape Town,” he told us. “When my wife, Sathima, found me, I was sleeping on the streets. The only people who gave us protection were the gangsters.”

Things got better for Abdullah when he moved to Johannesburg and formed the Jazz Epistles. Abdullah says that this was the first jazz group to play the traditional music of this country. The band included musicians who — like Abdullah — went on to become great names in South African music: Johnny Gets on bass, Makhaya Ntsoko on drums, Hugh Masekela on trumpet, Jonas Gwangwa on trombone and the late Kippie Moeketsi on the saxes.

Just as things seemed to be going well, the band broke up when almost all the members decided to go to London with the play King Kong in 1956. Abdullah stayed behind and spent his time perfecting his piano playing in the back-yard garage of a friend.


Later that year Abdullah married Sathima, who was also a musician. The two of them decided to leave South Africa. They moved to Swaziland and ran a music school there for 600 students. But they faced some of the same old problems: not enough skills, especially in running a business — and not enough money. In the end, the school had to close. The couple moved back to South Africa but they found the apartheid laws impossible to live under. So in 1976 they went into exile in the United States. Even there, things were not easy.

“In the beginning we had a hard time. When we told people we were from South Africa, they would say: ‘From WHERE?’. They had never heard of South Africa! Or when we told them we were jazz musicians they would say: “Jazz? Can you guys play the Blues?”

“They were confused because we could play everything. Over there some people only play Blues or only classical or only dance. They just can’t place us. We play jazz, but what kind? They would not accept that there is such a thing as African jazz. They think that only Americans, French and Swedes play jazz. We confused them!”


Abdullah and other South African musicians had a hard time trying to convince people overseas that their music was something special, something different.

“People used to say to us: ‘You play the same things over and over again’. I would say to them: “listen to your heart beat!”

Eventually, musicians like Abdullah and Hugh Masekela and Caiphus Semenya won the battle. They made South African music famous all over the world and earned a great deal of respect as musicians.

At the same time, Abdullah and the other exiles learned some important lessons too. They learnt how to sell their music, something which was always a problem back home.

Now that he has returned to South Africa, Abdullah plans to share those *marketing skills with other South African musicians.

“Most musicians do not know how to sell their music,” he explained to us. “Together with other musicians, I want to start a Performing Artists’ Centre.

It will be a school to educate musicians in marketing skills. It will teach them how to sell their music, from the very first stages right through to the time it reaches the stores. It will also tell them how to set up relationships with international companies.”


Wasn’t it difficult, we asked him, for someone who is so committed to South African music to spend so long in exile? Didn’t he feel cut off from his roots?

Abdullah thought for a while and answered: “Have you ever tried to dig up a tree growing in your garden because it’s in the wrong place? It’s a nuisance — it’s almost impossible to get the roots up! No, I didn’t feel cut off from my roots at all.

“To musicians, it doesn’t matter where we live. In music, communication is on another level. For example, when I met Basil Coetsee in London we had not seen each other for more than eight years. But when we spoke to each other we soon realised that we were thinking the very same things — as if we had been together all along. Communication between musicians is of another kind.”


When Abdullah says that music is ‘another kind of communication’ he means that it is more than just notes on a piece of paper. It is a spiritual matter. Music affects our whole being — body, mind and soul. He reminded us that in traditional society music played a very important role in healing people.

“Khoi* healers are the top healers in the world today. The Xai-Xai — or trance dance healers — use music to remove disease. This is what true music is about,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah believes that his music can also help to heal people. “My great grandfather was a stable boy for Paul Kruger, and he was also a traditional healer,” he told us. “I want to carry on that tradition of healing in my own work. When I get back to Cape Town we are going to do trance dances in the mountains.”

For Abdullah, eating is another important part of health. “99 percent of all diseases come through the stomach,” he told us, and he recommends that people should not eat processed foods* and foods which contain chemicals like *flavourings, preservatives and colourants.

Abdullah also believes that doing karate is part of his well-being. He has a black belt. “Karate has nothing to do with fighting,” he explained. “It’s about catching your energy and using it in your life and work.”


It was time to ask Abdullah some political questions. Abdullah was one of the people who organised the cultural boycott against the South African government. We asked him if he felt there was any problem in him coming home now, when the boycott is still on. His answer was direct:

“I am a South African. I am coming home. As for those artists who are not South Africans, I cannot comment on them. Go and ask the people.” We pushed him further: “What influence do you think your music has had on events in South Africa?”

“I am a cultural worker. I am a musician. Your questions are political questions — the political structures can best answer you. I’m not a politician, I’ve never been a politician.

“But, to answer your question as a musician, I can say that the feedback we get comes straight from the people who hear our music. It is completely different to the information you will find in the media. People always try to find the political meaning in our work — even when there isn’t one.

“For example, when the pata-pata dance came out, the ‘experts’ all said: “there they go with their sex dance.” But the dance has nothing to do with sex. When people ‘pata-pata’ each other, they are copying what robbers usually do when they go for your money!”

“When I wrote ‘Kalahari’, people said ‘It’s political’. But I just sat down and worked out the bass, and then the drums and then the flute. When you play for a South African audience you have to be good, and I needed a strong song to finish with. That’s where ‘Kalahari’ came from. It’s a real African song, like the name suggests. As ek die song speel, ek word dors!”


Our time was nearly up. We asked him one final question. “What does it feel like to be back home?”

“The changes in the country are stunning,” he told us, “they are tremendous. It is like a new experience for me. I don’t know how to put it into words. If you really want to know what it feels like, listen to my music tonight.”

And so we listened. The notes he played were like raindrops on the drought-stricken veld. They brought tears to our eyes and joy to our hearts. Welcome home Dollar!

CHECK THE MEANING to market something — when you market something, you advertise it and make sure it sells. Khoi — Khoi people are also known as Bushmen. The Khoi people lived in South Africa long before anybody else. processed foods — processed foods are foods which have been prepared in a factory and do not come fresh from the farm. flavourings, preservatives and colourants — these things are often added to food which is prepared in a factory. Flavourings are added to change the taste of the food. Preservatives are added to prevent the food from rotting. Colourants are added to change the colour of the food. These three things contain chemicals which can be bad for our health.


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