I knew nothing of Dollar Brand or Abdullah Ibrahim when the album arrived in the mail, a gift sent by a friend in San Francisco. But the moment Soweto started on my turntable I was hooked. No, not hooked—more like brought home. That night I listened to the title song—all 17 minutes of it, an ascending piano vamp backed by horns circling through a melody that sounds like pure joy—over and over and over. (Stream “Soweto” here; listen while you read.)
Obsessed, I turned to the Internet to fill in some blanks. Turns out Abdullah Ibrahim was born Dollar Brand in South Africa in 1934 and began playing piano professionally as a teenager. One of his first musical partners was Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter whose “Grazing the Grass” was one of the first African recordings to sell a million copies in America. After Brand relocated to Zurich in the early ’60s, the American jazz cognoscenti caught on to his talents and he was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival and lead Duke Ellington’s band in 1966. In the late ’60s Brand converted to Islam and changed his name and around that time recorded Soweto. The music on the album—it’s a gift to the world that too few have heard.
Last month I learned that Ibrahim is not only alive and performing but, at 81 years old, coming to Seattle for a four-night run at Jazz Alley this week. And he’s father to majorly skilled New York MC Jean Grae. Stunning! I caught up on his recent work—as well as his decades-long devotion to the Japanese marshal art called budo—via a new short film about him. I called him last week in San Francisco, before his gig at SFJazz, and we spoke about a lot of heavy stuff, including, of course, Soweto.
I’ve been in love with Soweto since I first heard it a year ago. What’s the story behind the album?
It was in the heart of the so-called Soweto Uprising, when young students revolted against being given their lessons in Afrikaans. That revolt and uprising was national, it was all over the country. We were in Cape Town in a recording studio and I had written six or seven songs. And we started recording it and had a break and I saw this old upright piano in the corner. I went over to it and the first melody that came was that melody. And the horns picked it up and we recorded it and forgot about it and went back to recording other stuff.
What we realized was that something had happened during that take and when we listened to it we understood we’d captured that moment—a moment of affirmation of our socio-economic, political dynamic. So it resonated with the people and it became the unofficial national anthem of South Africa. We realized that the effect was on an international level because people responded to it wherever we played.
Its sound is so beautiful, so joyful. Was it meant to be a counterpoint to the violence and horror of the Uprising?
We had no idea. It was not preconceived, it just happened in that moment. We didn’t rehearse it before. It came at that moment. But what it was, actually, was from music we’d been playing in the community but was never accepted. We could never record it like that at 17, 18 minutes. And the sound engineer just let it run.
Normally you wouldn’t play that long?
That’s the way we played in concert but it was never recorded because we were confined to recording four minutes for radio play. But when we played in the community we extended the songs. It’s all mostly dance music.
Why is there the sound of a baby crying at the beginning and end of the recording?
This was the producer. It was his idea. He thought it would reflect the birth of a new nation. It worked!
In the short film on your website, you talk about the budo principle of mu-shin, or no-mind. Is that what you’re trying to achieve by playing a song that long?
Well, the way we play is like the old masters. We were fortunate that we knew them and studied with them and they were very influential. The principle of that is like Charlie Parker: He said you practice for 20 years or more, every day, hours and hours, and then when you play you just forget about it. Everything is at that specific moment. Improvisation. It’s the same concept as mu-shin or no-mind. There’s no past, no future. It’s just this specific moment that we deal with. It requires a lot of work to get there.
I’m curious about that principle of no-mind because I’ve studied the Buddhist principle of mindfulness and, at least semantically, they seem in opposition to each other.
Our upbringing and education sets us in a place where we think of everything as opposites. But there are really no opposites. No-mind and mindfulness is the same thing, flip sides of the coin. One cannot exist without the other.
It’s not just specific to music, it’s everything one does. In order to attain mastery, it’s constant repetition. There are no secrets, only basics. Repetition of the basics makes the secrets available.
We have also this principle of how we express our existence in terms of change. Everything is distant. In Japanese culture there’s a wonderful axiom or formula that says that you must find beauty in decay. When we say “decay” we think of something decaying, but in actual fact it’s just the process.
Is this an understanding you’ve gained with age? Or though dedication to an instrument or…?
Precisely. We think of aging and we think of youth. We think of youth and age and capability, but it’s just something that evolves. Like a flower that grows. About 70 percent of a growth of a flower is unseen. Right? The growth happens in the dark, cold, under the earth. And then when it’s ready it emerges. And when it emerges you have a different lifespan for a flower or a tree. We have trees that are thousands of years old and flowers that come up and pass away, like the sakura, cherry blossoms. We are consumed with defining time. But there is no past, no future, only now.
These are difficult concepts for the human mind to grasp.
The human mind can grasp anything, but we use limited mind to understand an unlimited concept.
You really gotta stretch out to get this stuff.
Practice, practice, practice. Miles Davis said he hated going on the road for concerts because it interfered with his practice. Which is also true for us. That’s why we practice incessantly, whether music or budo. Whatever we are destined to do.
It’s a matter of approaching things like a novice no matter how much you practice.
What does that mean?
We don’t have teachers or masters. We have mentors. It’s a concept that is sorely lacking nowadays. Two years ago my teacher in Japan gave me a certificate because I had passed a course. Which means after 50 years of training with him he’s giving me the license to teach and also to develop my owns ideas and system further. And I said to him, “But master you’re giving me this certificate at this level, I don’t know anything!” And he said, “That’s why I give it to you, because me too—I don’t know anything.” When one understands this concept, we understand that we are mentors.
I appreciate his sense of humor.
Laughter has its healing properties.
You played with Hugh Masekela when you were first starting out and you two have followed similar courses in your careers, leaving and returning to South Africa, launching record labels, establishing yourselves in America and Europe. He had a giant hit with “Grazing the Grass” while you’ve remained decidedly off the mainstream radar. Has that been intentional? Are these ideas too big to work in a pop framework?
Well we don’t accept this kind of concept. Everything is destined. We just pursue a path of perfecting what we do.
So you’ve never thought about writing a hit song and selling a million records?
What does that mean? [Laughs]
Your daughter Jean Grae works in that pop sphere. I’ve been a fan of her music for a long time. Do you pay attention to her work?
[She’s a] wonderful artist. And my son Tsakwe, too. We don’t make any difference between any so-called genre. For us, it’s what a person is destined to do. Whatever they do, that is their heart’s deepest wish. My teacher in budo says if people are happy doing what they do then that’s their destiny.
Also in that pop sphere is Prince. Any thoughts on his passing?
Our condolences to the bereaved, his family and friends. That was a goal and a path that he pursued.
I think of all of these artists, Jean Grae and Tsakwe and Prince and the young musicians playing with me as a band. Our bass player is 24 years of age. This is his first job coming out of college. Also our trumpet and trombone player.
Where’d you find these young players?
We have our secret networks, our own grapevines. [Laughs] So the younger generations of musicians—and not just music but everything—we work with many young people and try to give them some direction, no matter what field they’re in. We give them support so they can achieve their heart’s deepest wish.
You’re playing in SF and Seattle four nights each. It’s nice that you get some time to spend in each city.
We normally do not play extended concerts like this anymore. But we thought that there was a request for us. We haven’t been to Jazz Alley in many years. This US tour is the probably the first one in 20 years.
How have the audiences been?
We should ask the audiences! [Laughs] It’ll be nice to come back to Dimitriou’s. It’s great that he keeps that venue alive.
I’m very excited for the show.
So tell me about your experience with mindfulness.
I had a hard time with meditation. Couldn’t sit still very long. Our teacher told us it took him 20 years before he started to get it. I wonder if it’s not the right time in my life for that sort of practice.
In our activity, we say meditation is motion. You see? Not meditation that you have to sit with; you have to be active with it. That’s why budo is so fantastic, because it deals with movement, you see. And also playing an instrument, getting involved with this music. This is precisely what we alluded to—there is no past, no future. Deal with the present, that’s it.
Easier said than done!
The only thing you have to do is practice. [Laughs]
Abdullah Ibrahim plays several shows at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley this Thursday through Sunday. Buy tickets now.