"We are committed to seeing South Africa being a free and liberated country," says Abdullah Ibrahim of his native land, "so that the children of the next generation will not have to go through a traumatic experience like we have."
The New York-based Ibrahim relocated from South Africa to Zurich in 1962, and converted to Islam in 1968. (He is still known to many as Dollar Brand, in part a nickname he acquired playing jazz piano in Cape Town years before.) He last visited South Africa in 1976. Outspoken on the issue of apartheid, he is no longer welcome there, and his South African passport has not been renewed.
"They try to make the outside world believe that there are changes for the better," laments the 51-year-old pianist and composer, "but in effect it's getting worse. I remember in the late '50s it was possible to play to integrated audiences. Now it's almost nonexistent, unless it works to their advantage." The latter circumstance, he points out, is occasioned by visiting artists. "Then the government says, 'See, they can play to integrated audiences.' But it's just international public relations on the part of the South African regime. As a South African, I cannot do it in my own country."
Ibrahim's voice rises as he recalls the humiliating experience of organizing a festival in South Africa in the '70s. "I had to apply to the magistrate for a permit," he says, "because you need one for an open-air event." The permit was granted, but it "stated specifically which members of the community ethnically could attend, and even went as far as telling me which members ethnically could be in my group.
"It's quite clear that the best remedy is a total dismantling of the system of apartheid," Ibrahim insists, "so that the whole community can have an input into its own destiny. Right now the ball is in the court of the South African government. But the problem is that time is running out, time is running out. Unless there is a change of heart of the government, which more and more hardly seems possible, in the words of Bishop Tutu, it will have to resort to violence."
Notwithstanding such dire forebodings regarding the fate of the homeland he holds so dear, Ibrahim is not of a violent nature. He is, in fact, of a singularly gentle nature, and as sensitive an artist as finds performing today. His eclectic style and deeply moving improvisation will be heard at Baird Auditorium Friday. The concert is the third in District Curators' Thelonious Monk Solo Piano series. The Detroit-nurtured Kirk Lightsey, who spent some years recently with saxophonist Dexter Gordon's group, is also on the program.
Many are the strains that make up Ibrahim's pianistic voice. He cites as sources, for example, the traditional folk musics of the continent of Africa, the Moslem incantations brought to Cape Town three centuries ago by slaves from the East Indies, the samba beat that originated in Angola and the spirituals sung in the African Methodist Episcopal church, of which his grandmother was a founding member. As a teen-ager in the '40s he began to listen to American jazz -- Count Basie, Louis Jordan and the boogie-woogie pianists.
Ellington, who befriended Ibrahim in Zurich in 1962, and Monk, whom he met there two years later, were early and major influences. "To us the Duke was the grand old man of the South African jazz community," says the exile. "In fact, all the American musicians -- Charlie Parker, Monk, Dizzy Gillespie -- were just our extended family."
As for Friday's concert, Ibrahim says, "What is going to happen, I really have no idea. We were playing in Geneva in 1982 and this piece started coming for two or three days. About 3 o'clock one afternoon the whole piece came. Someone said, 'That sounds like Monk.' That evening we received a call that Monk had just passed into a coma." That piece, "For Monk," may well materialize in some form Friday evening beneath Ibrahim's hands.