Defend Truth

Opinionista

The revolutionary power of jazz — a night of magic with Abdullah Ibrahim

mm

Bonolo Makgale is a democracy practitioner and the Manager of the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit of the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s evocative melodies remind us that the political and the personal are inextricably intertwined. His music is revolutionary, echoing the words of Miles Davis: ‘Jazz is the big brother of revolution, it follows it around.’

South Africa’s renowned jazz pianist and composer, Abdullah Ibrahim, recently returned home to embark on his world tour, “The Water from an Ancient Well”.

Throughout his career, Ibrahim’s music has served as a powerful combination of politics, jazz, social activism and cultural expression for the majority of South Africans and their Struggle for liberation during the apartheid era.

On Sunday, 14 April 2024, the octogenarian took the stage at the SunBet Arena in Pretoria to deliver a grand performance as part of a tour that encapsulated not only his dedication to his craft, but also to his country’s journey towards democracy.

This was more than a performance, it was a homecoming for a man whose life and art had been exiled, but whose spirit remained deeply rooted in the soil of his homeland. In Setswana we say “gaabo motho go thebe phatswa”, loosely translated as “home is where the heart is”. It was a spiritual experience for him and his audience, a moment of profound reflection.

During his electrifying performance, the audience anticipated every note from his piano. Notes which carried the weight of history. From the opening chords of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s A Sentimental Mood to his famous song Manenberg, we were transported back in time to an era defined by struggle and resilience.

It was as if his fingers were creating a symphony of hope, bridging the past and the present, the personal and the political.

First recorded in 1974, Manenberg was named for the eponymous coloured township in Cape Town – a township with a painful history of being created because of forced removals and land dispossession by the apartheid government, but a home to people of enduring spirit.

His evocative melodies remind us that the political and the personal are inextricably intertwined. His music is revolutionary, echoing the words of Miles Davis: “Jazz is the big brother of revolution, it follows it around.”

Nearly 90 years old and barely able to walk or stand, Abdullah was a master of the piano, and every note of his performance seemed to carry the echoes of South Africa’s Struggle for liberation and a testament to the enduring power of art.

Democracy without the pulsating lifeblood of art is a hollow shell. Without the indomitable spirit of human rights and democratisation embodied by artists like Abdullah Ibrahim, on what anchor is democracy moored?

I was particularly struck by the complexity and beauty of his compositions as he deftly moved between different keys and melodies. It was as if his fingers were creating a symphony of hope, bridging the past and the present, the personal and the political.

I sat there with my eyes closed, using the power of my imagination. Living in a polarised and fragmented society, his melody dared me to dream and evoked feelings of hope and limitless possibilities – the possibility of a South Africa that contradicts our current reality.

As Ibrahim performed, his music reminded me of the work of Winnie Mandela, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Robert Sobukwe, Lilian Ngoyi and Steve Biko, to name but a few, and their tireless efforts and unwavering commitment to justice.

In his music, I heard echoes of their voices, felt the weight of their struggles, and glimpsed the vision of the South Africa they fought so hard to create. The music transported me to a place of profound reflection, a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who came before us and a call to continue their work in pursuit of a more just and equitable democratic society.

While his music is deeply rooted in the struggles against apartheid, it continues to resonate with our 30 years of democracy. This is evident in his deft transitions between keys, the rhythms of his piano and the melodies that emerge which serve as metaphors for the fluid, dynamic and ever-changing nature of democracy itself.

This intricate dance between democracy and art is nothing less than a symbiotic relationship.

His musical command reminds us of the power of art as a transformative tool that transcends class and race. Before living in today’s democratic society, artists like Ibrahim could only dream in their youth of performing to a non-segregated audience.

Seeing people of all races, ages and social identities at his concert is a reminder that dreams of a better and equitable society can come true in our lifetime, as they have for Abdullah, who now returns home to a South Africa that looks very much like the vision of freedom that anti-apartheid activists of the time fought for.

As the last notes of the concert faded into the night, he sang with his frail voice. The sound of his voice evoked deep emotions. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to witness such a momentous occasion.

Abdullah Ibrahim is not just a pianist or a composer, he is the grandfather of jazz, as I fondly call him, a freedom fighter, an epitome of resilience and a testament to the enduring power of art.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA musicians: the lost treasures

As we celebrate 30 years of democracy in South Africa, let us also celebrate the life and legacy of Abdullah Ibrahim, a true pioneer. In our relentless efforts to find innovative ways to build our democracy, may we remember that this moment is not static, it’s a work in progress, and that jazz offers us the gift of harnessing the power of imagination.

This intricate dance between democracy and art is nothing less than a symbiotic relationship, each deeply dependent on the other, each nourishing the other.

A working democracy is more than a political system. It is an harmonious symphony of diversity, a champion of equality and a steadfast keeper of individual freedoms. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    How would you know.? SA never been democratic in the way you describe.

  • Angela Lambson says:

    Beautiful piece, thank you. You’ve expressed so much of what we felt too .. definitely felt we were witnessing a moment in musical history. A poignant night in so many ways. So very glad to be there.

  • ST ST says:

    Aah the great Abdullah Ibrahim!

    Thank you Bonolo for this reminder of tranquility in this midst of chaos.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    Try woza mntwana Dennis it will liberate you, it’s by Abdullah Ibrahim.

  • Jane Wallace says:

    Banolos moving tribute to Abdullah Ibrahim refers (except for the jarring inclusion of Winnie Mandela’s name in the “unwavering commitment to justice”). I used to listen to this musician, then known as Dollar Brand, in the 1950s. He played at a tea room in St George’s Street Cape Town on a Saturday morning. His touch was magical even then.

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    Art is art and reality is reality. Enjoying art relaxes the soul and gives us moments in which we can escape the brutality of reality. If we use such moments for relaxed self-observation, we draw strength from seeing our “enemies” with different eyes – then when the reality of everyday life catches up with us again.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.