Lately, jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and his band have been giving some thought to finding a suitable name for his music. "We've all been thinking about how to crystallize it," he says, "and a couple of days ago [we] came up with 'A Message From Home.' "
Home for Ibrahim is Cape Town, South Africa, though he hasn't set foot in his own country for a decade now. In 1976, after the Soweto uprising, he vowed to leave South Africa until apartheid was abolished, and, if anything, the intervening years have only strengthened his resolve.
"Some people [ask] are we homesick?" he explains. "And we say, yes, we are homesick but we are not homesick for what is there now. We are homesick for a democratic society . . . the South Africa of all the people, regardless of race or creed."
Formerly known as Dollar Brand, Ibrahim was discovered by Duke Ellington in Zurich in 1962 and has since become South Africa's premier jazz pianist and composer. His music, a distinctly personal synthesis of African and American influences, can be both calming and colorful, conveying at times an unmistakable poignancy but just as often the improvisational spirit of jazz. He performs with his band, Ekaya, at the Capital City Jazz Festival Saturday afternoon at the Convention Center.
More than ever, it seems, Ibrahim is now coming into his own as a band leader and composer. After three years of working with Ekaya (Swahili for "home"), he feels that, like his mentor Duke Ellington, he's reached the stage where he's able to tailor each piece to the talents of individual band members. (The septet includes Carlos Ward on flute, Ricky Ford on tenor sax, Dick Griffin on trombone, Charles Davis on baritone sax, David Williams on bass and Ben Riley on drums.)
"It's taken a long time to get these musicians who can handle everything so well," Ibrahim says, mentioning that he benefited enormously by watching Ellington rehearse his band. "I have the themes, and at rehearsals the pieces are very rarely orchestrated in the beginning. What we do is bring in the basic composition on piano and play it for the band. Whoever feels comfortable with a particular line picks it up."
It's no coincidence that some of these moods evoke all kinds of American music. Ibrahim virtually grew up in the AME Church -- his grandmother was one of the founding members of the Cape Town congregation -- and to this day his music frequently reverberates with the sound of the spirituals he learned as a youngster.
Because the church was founded in America, Ibrahim says he always thought of black Americans as part of his extended family, and America itself became a source of endless fascination to him.
What held him in thrall more than anything else, not surprisingly, was American music. He found it exciting and peculiarly familiar.
"Especially in South Africa," Ibrahim explains, "the structure of a lot of traditional music is so close to the African-American experience. Of course, we are the same. We've just been forcibly parted so [the music] developed in different ways and environments. But basically we feel, understand and experience the same internal energy."
Despite the "gentle persuasion" of some family members who saw little merit in secular music, Ibrahim soon became hooked on jazz and was leading a school band by the time he was 14. He quickly acquired a reputation as a double-fisted boogie-woogie pianist -- "We identified with the rolling basses instantly because it was so close to traditional music" -- as well as a taste for the eclectic.
"Cape Town being so cosmopolitan," he says, "there was just this huge variety of music" -- waltzes, two-steps, traditional Cape Muslim music, American and British popular music, Indian music.
Still, it was American jazz that would have the greatest influence on Ibrahim. Even now, when asked about his association with Ellington, and his initial meetings with other American jazz musicians here and abroad, Ibrahim has difficulty containing his excitement.
"Oh, my goodness," he says. "It was an experience really beyond words. I mean they really lived up to all of my expectations. All of the musicians -- [John] Coltrane, [Thelonious] Monk, [Art] Blakey, Dizzy [Gillespie], Duke . . . It was like meeting long-lost family."
Returning the favor, Ibrahim has recently composed suites in honor of Ellington, Monk and Coltrane, and promises to play selections from each at the festival Saturday afternoon, where he will share the bill with another South African jazz great, trumpeter Hugh Masakela and his all-African band Kalahari.