A few years ago I was privileged to do quite a bit of work with Abdullah Ibrahim, one of South Africa’s greatest musical exports. He had asked me to help manage the media around one of his trips to South Africa. While it was something I would not normally do, I appreciated the opportunity to work with someone I had admired over the years.
I thought that, because of his musical pedigree and international stature, it would be easy to interest South Africans, and especially Capetonians, to come to his concerts. After all, he had been honoured all over the world and his discography is among the most impressive I have ever seen.
However, I realised then that while he might be able to fill major halls in North America and Europe, it was a completely different experience in Cape Town. We struggled to sell out any of his concerts. And this is an experience that we have seen many times over the past few years.
At one concert I remember sitting next to someone from London who told me how surprised he was that he could easily get tickets to this concert, and for so cheap. The last time Ibrahim had performed in London, he said, it was in a 3,000-seater hall and he could only afford to buy one of the cheapest seats, right at the back, for a few hundred pounds. The concert had been packed out.
In Cape Town, the Londoner was able to pay just over R200 for a seat that was almost within touching distance of the maestro behind the piano on stage. Most of the people in the audience, I realised, were not locals, but tourists who recognised Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, from his international profile.
This is probably one of the reasons why Ibrahim, who carried the torch for South African music for many years throughout the world and who is easily one of the most knowledgeable musicians ever produced by our country, feels the need to base himself in Europe and the United States for most of the year, only coming to South Africa for short bursts from time to time.
A few weeks ago, I was watching the Mahotella Queens on SABC2’s Morning Live and they explained how they spend most of their time overseas. They hardly ever perform in South Africa because they are not able to sustain themselves with local performances, even though it was clear that that is what they would have liked to do.
If you speak to someone like trumpeter Hugh Masekela, you will probably hear the same story.
What is it about our country, I thought, that we don’t appreciate our musicians, especially the older ones who have given so much to the country and to the struggle over the years?
The late saxophonist Basil Coetzee, who was immortalised in the song Mannenberg (Is Where It’s Happening) by Abdullah Ibrahim, was my neighbour in Mitchells Plain and he used to tell me about how in the 1980s they performed all over the world to raise money for the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
After many of these concerts, the band would receive no money and it would go straight into MK’s coffers, Coetzee told me as we sat on the stoep of his small Rocklands home. I was honoured to be treated to impromptu performances by Coetzee as he tested some of his new songs on me.
Ibrahim will be turning 80 in October next year and he appears to be still going strong.
Maybe there will be an opportunity for whoever will be the mayor of Cape Town at that point to make amends and show some appreciation for his contribution and his vast musical expertise and experience by honouring him in some way.
Very few people have been given the freedom of the city – with the latest controversial one being American president Barack Obama – but Ibrahim probably deserves it as much as anyone else I can think of. His honour will probably also be less controversial than that of the Obamas.
Beyond that, we need to appreciate musicians such as Ibrahim while they are still around. It is not good enough to say good things about them after they are gone when we never really appreciated them while they were alive.
Now, I think I am going to listen to Blues for a Hip King, maybe followed by The Wedding, in appreciation of a great son of Africa. DM