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Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim, born Adolph Johannes Brand on 9 October 1934 in Kensington, Cape Town, was taught how to play the piano from the age of seven by his grandmother, Margaret, who founded a local branch of the African Methodist Episcopalian church. A heterogeneous ethnic mix of religions and music formed his earliest cultural memories, on the fringe of District Six.

At age 15 he began performing as a vocalist, then played the piano with big bands such as the Tuxedo Slickers and the Willie Max Orchestra. During this phase, Ibrahim forged his own style as a composer and performer. When he was refused entry to the University of Cape Town's College of Music because of his race, he decided to study alone, reading everything in the local public library, and haunting Cape Town's dockside, getting the latest jazz records from visiting American GIs during World War II. This led his friends to nickname him Dollar Brand.

In the late 1950s Ibrahim formed Jazz Epistles with Johnny Gertze (bass), Makaya Ntshoko (drums), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone), and Hugh Masekela (trumpet). They toured South Africa, packing halls everywhere they went, making their first recording, Jazz Epistle Verse 1, in 1960. This album was popular with both black and white jazz fans. Its music foreshadowed a juxtaposition of African, Malay and Western styles for which Ibrahim later became famous, and featured the piano tremolo that became his early hallmark.

After Gwangwa and Masekela left for the USA in 1961, Ibrahim recorded Dollar Brand Plays Sphere Jazz with Gertze and Ntshoko. His technique and style of playing were more demanding for audiences than South African jazz of the time, with the influence of Monk, Parker and Ellington embedded in his avant-garde harmonies. As conditions became increasingly difficult for emerging black musicians, Ibrahim left South Africa in 1962. He first worked as a club pianist in Zurich. He was recorded by Duke Ellington in Paris (Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio, 1964), effectively launching his international career. He married his partner, South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin in 1965.

The albums This is Dollar Brand, Anatomy of a South African Village and The Dream date from the prolific year 1965, when he moved to New York. At this time, Ibrahim took up music studies, focusing on the cello, at the Julliard School of Music under Hall Overton. Ibrahim's love of string sounds has pursued him all his life and he has had several productive associations with string quartets and orchestras.

Ibrahim's concerts on university campuses especially at Wits were legendary, for all who attended them, as nostalgic points of reference for academics and students alike, particularly since his music was deeply imbued with the spirit of the anti-apartheid struggle. His growth as an artist coincided with the rise of Africanism, partly inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement in the United States, whose political, cultural and religious side deeply affected a whole generation of black musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

The albums Confluence (1968) and African Piano (1969) represent Ibrahim straddling two worlds: American and South African jazz. By this time he was claiming the piano as an African instrument. Although he played the saxophone, flute and cello and was a brilliant band-leader and arranger, Ibrahim s main instrument - for performing and composing - is the piano.

He became famous in the 1970s and 1980s for performing long solo concerts, with compositions pouring out in an amazing sequence. He was often referred to as the Liszt of South African jazz piano and attracted the attention of critics such as the late British musicologist Wilfred Mellers, who described Ibrahim's inimitable non-stop 90-minute solo recitals as a transformed and transforming collage and hailed the music as synonymous with the aspirations of black people on whose behalf he is deeply involved in the struggle for freedom .

In 1968 Dollar Brand converted to Islam taking the name Abdullah Ibrahim. This intensified the already spiritual quality of his compositional voice, evoking not just Africa, but Islamic Africa. Sheik Jusuf of Macassar, exiled from Indonesia to the Cape, is remembered in Ibrahim s version of the tune Kramat , written in the style of a Malay moppie or ghommaliedjie. Ibrahim refers to Islamic practices in many compositions of the 1970s: Adhan and Allah-a-Akbar, The Pilgrim, Tariq, Hajj, Zikr and Barak't. Perhaps the most Islamic album is The Children of Africa (1976).

Ibrahim s outpouring of African-orientated recordings during this period gave South Africans a positive view of the continent, countering propaganda about the front-line states and providing substitute imagery in the absence of real information. This included five albums in 1973 alone: Good News from Africa, Sangoma, African Portraits, African Space Program and African Sketchbook.

During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the main messages of Ibrahim's music were liberation and homecoming . The album Anthem for the New Nations (1978) epitomises the future-orientated musical language he used at this time. Ibrahim's appearances abroad were rallying points for South African exiles. The album Black Lightning (1976) displayed Ibrahim on its cover in martial arts posture and dress, conveying the double message of self-discipline and aggression. The martial arts have supported me with the knowledge of how to harness internal energy, Ibrahim says.

In exile, a notional home became central to Ibrahim s outlook and music and an album that strongly reflected this was Mannenberg - Is Where It s Happening (1974). The title articulated defiance against the violence of displacement by asserting a triumph of the imagination. The title and the jaunty mbaqanga tune of Mannenberg were acts of defiance against relocation, foregrounding a community dumped into the background of the Cape flats and providing it with an identity.

One of the major set-pieces of his early homecoming concerts was Water from an Ancient Well (1986). The mood of these concerts is nostalgically captured in the album Desert Flowers (1992).

Difficult, unpredictable, often artistically uncompromising, Ibrahim remains a singular force in South African life. His cultural and political contributions over half a century have made him a legend in his own time. He is also a symbol of times preferably forgotten but that can be remembered with more compassion and forgiveness because of his music. He is an archetypal South African composer and guardian of many powerful memories. Some pieces, such as Mannenberg, Soweto, The Wedding, The Mountain and African Marketplace, have become classics more than any other South African music has. His output of recordings now probably exceeds 300 album titles.

He has won several awards for them including a Critics Award from The Wire as one of the top 40 albums of the 1980s, for Water From an Ancient Well. He has also written film music for several films including the award-winning Chocolat. His music has been disseminated worldwide through millions of sales. Ibrahim's latest project is to establish and promote the new national South African Jazz Orchestra, which was launched at a concert in Cape Town in September 2006.

In light of Abdullah Ibrahim's enormous musical contribution, it is apposite that the University of the Witwatersrand bestows upon him an Honorary Doctorate of Music.