Searching for a chord

While writing or arranging music at the piano, there’s always the moment that I have an idea of a beautiful chord in my head that I know would fit just right at a specific part of a melody or phrase. As I search the keyboard for this elusive chord, I try out different combinations of notes, different inversions, and finally – I hit the perfect sound, the sound I’ve been looking for, the sound that makes everything right. And for that moment in time, all the pieces fit together and everything makes sense.

Just for that instant, life is as perfect as it gets.

Experiencing Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim (Copyright John Edwin Mason, 2010)

On Thursday night I attended a concert given by the most successful jazz pianist to come out of South Africa, Abdullah Ibrahim. Formerly known as Dollar Brand (and born Adolph Johannes Brand) before his conversion to Islam, he is also one of the greatest composers to come out of South Africa and drove the development of the “Cape jazz” style of music. He has even recorded with the great Duke Ellington himself.

I was so excited about this concert I couldn’t contain myself; I couldn’t even concentrate properly at work during the day. I had never seen him perform before, as he is now based in New York, and being 79 years old, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have another opportunity to witness his greatness. As a classical (and aspiring jazz) pianist, it is one of the most inspirational and beautiful experiences to watch a master such as Ibrahim at work. So my (also classical pianist) sister, Meruschka and I rushed off to the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City after work for this most epic event in our musical lives.

The theatre is beautiful and small enough so that every audience member can still feel connected to the musicians during the performance. The front of the piano was also tilted relative to the stage edge, which is not normally the case, so that people on all sides of the theatre could still see the pianist’s hands. Once seated, we looked around to see if we could spot any celebrities and other musicians in the audience. The audience looked quite jazzy themselves, with a lot of people who looked like they could be famous. We did end up having our deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe sitting 3 rows in front of us, which got Advocate Mer really excited and wondering if she can take a photo with him (and then trying slyly to get pictures of him, all stalker-like). We like him even more now, for his good taste in music.

Eventually the band, Ekaya walked onto the stage, followed by the great Mr Ibrahim himself. The band consists of four wind players using a combination of alto/tenor/baritone sax, flute, piccolo, trombone and trumpet, a double bassist and a drummer. Every single musician showed extraordinary skill and discipline and the most amazing solos were heard when it was time for each one to let loose. I have to say that those were the most enjoyable bass solos I’ve ever heard.

Not one word was said during the entire concert (except by enthusiastic fans), with Ibrahim showing a humorous “time out” signal to the audience to indicate a break and the end of the show. Watching the behaviour of Ibrahim and his band made me admire them all even more. The show was all about the music, with the humble musicians themselves seeming to acknowledge the music as being far greater than they are. Ibrahim, even though the star of the show, preferred to remain in the background for much of the performance, providing a soft, solid support on the piano against which the other soloists got to shine, although he did astound the audience with his virtuosic skill during a few songs. He always thanked the band, calling them out repeatedly to take a bow and applauding them, and putting his hands together to thank the audience. It was so heartwarming.

The thing that most impresses me is the honesty and realism in Ibrahim’s music. It’s not many people that can paint a scene with sounds, using not a single word, and bring across such strong imagery, reminding me very much of the impressionist style of Debussy. And he uses such simple, straightforward themes. There’s no way that you can compose that out of your head only; it’s straight-from-the-heart kind of stuff and when you listen with your heart you immediately know what he’s talking about. I’m sure many were disappointed that night when he didn’t perform one of his greatest compositions, “Mannenberg“, named after the township Manenberg in the Cape Flats. This piece was an apartheid anthem, the unofficial national anthem of South Africa in the 1970s, because it represented so much of the struggle and reflected clearly the personality of the townships that were destroyed by the apartheid government.

The band did, however, play my favourite Abdullah Ibrahim song, “The Wedding“, even though Ibrahim himself didn’t play a single note. I find this song so realistic, it’s unreal! It’s so simple, with such an enchanting melody. And it’s the most perfect blend of every emotion that exists at a wedding, with a typically South African vibe. How you achieve this without getting all complicated, I don’t know. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s spiritual, it’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it’s hopeful and optimistic and full of love – all created by the expressive saxophone melody over the steady “churchy” accompaniment. I can even picture the weather from the way he’s written this!

I feel so fulfilled after that experience and I’ve learnt so much about making music and about jazz. I’m so grateful to have been able to witness the bringing to life of such great music by great musicians, and to have seen a South African that has touched so many through music.