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Pointing at the Moon: Abdullah Ibrahim on 3, Ellington and healing through music

A portrait of Abdullah Ibrahim
Dr. Maria Umari
Nick Loss-Eaton Media

The renowned South African pianist's newest album, 3, is available now.

Renowned pianist Abdullah Ibrahim says that his outlook on music is to approach each note with total honesty. It’s a philosophy that’s brought him from the musical melting pot of Cape Town to New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel, from early performances as a teenager to being mentored by Duke Ellington and performing with John Coltrane.
Now, at 89, he’s continuing to offer that honesty in the form of 3, an expansive new album where he performed two sets alongside longtime collaborators Cleave Guyton and Noah Jackson — first for an empty room, then for a live audience.

Ibrahim has been called “our Mozart” by Nelson Mandela and seen his music become anthems of the anti-Apartheid movement. The songs of 3 connect to another philosophy of his: the unique power of music to transform and heal, from individual injuries to international conflicts.

I caught up with him to learn more about the new album, how those ideas have impacted his work, and his life doing what he calls “pointing at the moon.”

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Annie Parnell: You have a very exciting new live album out called 3, which has an interesting structure — it features one set recorded in an empty concert hall, and one recorded with an audience.

What led you to structuring the album that way?

Abdullah Ibrahim: Normally, when we do a live recording, especially in concert, you have at least two nights so that you have a safety copy in case something goes wrong. We decided, “OK, why don’t we do the one recording without an audience, and then the second concert on the same day with an audience, so we have a safety copy.”

It turned out so well! We didn’t expect that. And of course, Gearbox were very well-equipped, technically. So we have this intimate recording without, and then the recording with an audience, which was quite unique also, because it was such an incredible response from the audience.

Accompanying you on the album are Cleave Guyton and Noah Jackson, who you've worked with for some time. What did the process of preparing for this session look like?

Cleave Guyton has been with me for over 50 years, or close to 50 years, in all different settings but specifically my working band, which is called Ekaya. He's been musical director for almost 50 years, and Noah is the newest generation. He came on board about five years ago from academia, so it was his first actual gig out of school, to come play with a band that is very professional.

It is a new generation of musicians. We always have this continuing passing on of the legacy, and it’s well-steeped in the legacy and tradition, but also an understanding of my compositions and how I would like to present them.

With this this recording I asked Cleve, “So what do you want to play?” He said, “Ellington's ‘In a Sentimental Mood.’” I said, “OK, you got it.”

Then I said, “Noah, what do you want to play?” He said, “I want to play ‘Giant Steps.’” I said, “OK, you got it! I'll just listen to you all play!'"
With “Giant Steps,” it’s just Noah by himself reaffirming those wonderful new directive changes that Coltrane introduced. And of course, “In a Sentimental Mood” was Cleve and Noah, and it’s an Ellington classic.

You've been spending time with Ellington's music for a long time — he was a mentor of yours. What's your relationship with his music like?

If you're a contemporary musician anywhere, somehow, you've been touched by Ellington. If you look at some of the compositions and arrangements of Ellington, they’re quite unique. Jazz musicians refer to the “Ellington Way” of arranging for a band.

The reason why had this unique sound was because he broke all the rules. He got this unique sound, and the musicians that he brought us: a broad range of musicians, from Russell Procope to Harry Kenny. Each one has their own individual sound, and he blended it together to get this unique sound.

And of course, the compositions, they were stunning. They get you out of your comfort zone. You go back to, what, 1947, and “The Mystery Song,” the approach to structure is so unique. It was another approach mechanically and rhythmically. All the extended works: A Drum is a Woman, his sacred concerts.

I was in New York at that time and he asked me to help with his publishing company, Tempo Music. So I spent a lot of time accessing his compositions — remarkable, remarkable compositions that were never performed. He must have written about 4,000 or 5,000, even more.

You also revisit a few of your own previous compositions on 3, including “The Wedding,” which you've described as having a healing quality. Can you tell me more about that?

My great grandfather told us all about the herbs and the plants in the Kalahari — what we call the Green Kalahari — which is in northern province of South Africa. We grew up in this environment of healing because most of the time we couldn't afford to go to the doctor. You had to depend on those herbs and know what they’re useful for. The interconnectedness between the music and healing, it’s always had that quality, because it was a tradition that was passed on from generation to generation.

Of course, how do the compositions come? It's not “I’m gonna sit down with a with a pen and a piece of paper, and say ‘okay, now I'm gonna write the first note.’” For us, how it happens is that an idea will come in what we call dreamtime, which is this traditional connection that we have, where knowledge is imparted on what we call trancemission — t-r-a-n-c-e.

“The Wedding,” when it first arrived, came in about two days. It was a time of conflict, especially, in those dark days in South Africa. I didn't realize what the inherent essence of the song was. But through the years, people have come and told us of the experiences they’ve had with the song, and how “The Wedding” has affected them.

Many years ago, we played a festival, and when we arrived at the venue, the promoters told us that this gentleman had traveled for about four or five hours to meet with us, because he wanted to talk to us about “The Wedding.”

It turns out that he was a medical doctor with children who were comatose. And he said that there was one young girl who was comatose for some time, and he tried everything. One day he put earphones on her, played “The Wedding,” and she slowly responded. From then on, she came out of the coma.

For me, it's quite stunning, and I don't profess to understand what it is or how it is done. What we were taught by our elders and our mentors, what the process of playing music is, is that I have to be utterly sincere playing every note. Because once I’ve played it, there's nothing I can do about it. So, the whole process is to be as honest and truthful as possible playing each note.

It reminds me of some of your other work — this idea of music as a means of healing and transforming not only the personal, but the political.

For us, it's still the healing process, whatever it is that we do. In South Africa, in all that conflict, what we did with the music and what we still do, is to say, “perhaps there’s another way to resolve the conflict.” What our mentors have taught us, and what we understand, is that the conflict is really within ourselves.

I've been in conflict now for five generations. Wars; my great-grandfather was in a war, my grandfather was in the war, my father was in the war, I was in the war; my children, our children are in war. We say, “What is this all about?”

Music is a wonderful, wonderful vehicle, because there's no language attached to it — only the language of the ear, and the heart and the breath. Most of my songs have lyrics, but I hardly record them, because lyrics have a way of taking you away from reality. Our mentors explain to us that language and culture is a finger that points at the moon, but it's not the moon.

They just told us they’re doing some PR on the new album, and they wanted us to create a blurb. We said, “OK, let's put on our thinking caps.” We came up with “3 in the village: masters, mentors and mystics.” We are three musicians, and we all live in a global village. Wherever we are, if it's on 52nd Street or in Brooklyn or Tokyo, it's a village.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s new album, 3, is available now.

Corrected: March 8, 2024 at 5:11 PM EST
March 8, 2024: In a previous version of this article, Harry Carney's last name was misspelled due to a transcription error.
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