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VALLEY WEEKEND

Cape Town Sound

Abdullah Ibrahim's music became a voice for blacks during apartheid, fusing jazz with its African roots. His trio makes a rare appearance at CSUN on Saturday.

May 16, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For almost 15 years, Abdullah Ibrahim lived in New York, in exile from his home, Cape Town, South Africa. But in his heart--and his music--he never left at all.

From his 1965 album "Anatomy of a South African Village" to 1995's "Yarona," Ibrahim's music has been a voice for blacks who were voiceless under apartheid. In his playing and compositions, he brought jazz back to its African roots, fusing the two into a distinctive style.

Playing piano with his trio--Marcus McLaurine on bass and George Gray on drums--Ibrahim will bring that style to the CSUN Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Saturday.

This is a rare West Coast appearance for Ibrahim, who since 1990 has split his time between New York and Cape Town.

Music surrounded Ibrahim growing up in Cape Town. "Jazz was not foreign to us," Ibrahim said during a phone interview from his Manhattan home.

"My first job was at 15 with a big band. We played swing arrangements, but also traditional township music." Traces of gospel, too, surface in his compositions, probably picked up at the AME Church; his grandmother was a founder of the Cape Town congregation.

He was born Adolph Johannes Brand in 1934, but as a young man he picked up the nickname "Dollar" from the black American sailors who sold him jazz records. (He changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim when he converted to Islam in 1968.)

By the late 1950s, his band, The Jazz Epistles, were topping the charts in South Africa. But by the early 1960s, his political activities were drawing attention from government authorities and the tightening noose of apartheid was making it almost impossible to function as an artist. Like many artists, writers and musicians, Ibrahim left South Africa.

Ibrahim took his band to Europe where he crossed paths with Duke Ellington. In Zurich, Ibrahim's wife, jazz vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, invited Ellington to see her husband play.

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Ellington was so impressed that he took Ibrahim and Benjamin to Paris the next day to record. The 1963 "Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio" was Ibrahim's first release in the United States. (Ibrahim said he and Benjamin are hoping to release the tapes of her recording session for the first time this fall.)

Ellington paved the way for U.S. performances, but also influenced Ibrahim's career in other ways. "Everybody learns something from Ellington," Ibrahim said. "He's not just a jazz musician . . . he's the most major influence in terms of writing orchestration, material, utilizing different instrument colors, and in my case--being a pianist--as a composer."

Ibrahim's music often is described by jazz critics as blending Ellingtonian harmonies and Thelonious Monk-style rhythms. At the same time, Ibrahim's music has a distinctly African flavor.

In 1976, with South African musicians, Ibrahim recorded "Mannenberg," named for an outlying area of Cape Town. When no record company would release it, he had the record pressed himself. Its infectious rhythms, full gospel chords and catchy melody made it a hit in South Africa and the United States, where it was retitled "Cape Town Fringe."

Most recently released on the 1995 album "Yarona"--recorded live at the New York club Sweet Basil--the song remains the unofficial South African anthem.

After the Soweto uprisings in 1976, Ibrahim settled in New York with Benjamin and their two sons. His music, however, continued to evoke images of South Africa, evidenced in his albums from the period: "Soweto," "Africa--Tears and Laughter," "African Market Place" and "African Dawn," among others.

Incredibly prolific, Ibrahim also branched out into other musical arenas. In 1988, he wrote an opera, "Kalahari Liberation," about black Africans' experiences and aspirations, and scored Claire Denis' film, "Chocolat." Currently, Ibrahim is at work on one film score and two albums.

Ibrahim demands a similar level of dedication from musicians in his bands. Drummer Ben Riley remembers playing with Ibrahim and Benjamin in a group called the Loving Family Orchestra. Ibrahim liked to rehearse all day long, Riley said. "That was one of the things that some of the guys weren't too happy with."

While much of the talk about South Africa these days is, naturally, dominated by politics--creating a constitution, dissolving coalitions, starting opposition parties--Ibrahim is focusing his attention on cultural rebuilding. Musicians like him and trumpeter Hugh Masekela are returning. A new music school is in embryonic stages.

And Ibrahim helped create a small string orchestra and jazz band to focus on African musical genres. "We need to have teachers who are in tune with our curriculum," Ibrahim said. "The best way we could do that is to create these orchestras to make the musicians familiar with our music."

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