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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

Thursday, September 9, 2010.

Adolph Johannes Brand was born October 9, 1934 in Cape Town, South Africa. Early on, as is our wont with officious sounding names that reflect our parents’ high hopes, Adolph was dubbed Dollar Brand, which is the name with which he first made his mark on both the local and the international music scene.

The sixties, initially in South Africa, and then into Europe in 1962, was a decade of recognition for Dollar Brand. While based in Zurich, Sathima Bea Benjamin, who became Abdullah’s wife, convinced Duke Ellington to listen to her beau’s trio. Initially, and understandably, Ellington was reluctant to go to a small club he didn’t know to hear an African trio he didn’t know, after his own performance. But Ms. Benjamin was persistent and Ellington found himself won over. Duke arrived at the club just after closing time and after being serenaded by an impromptu half hour performance Mr. Ellington was determined to become the group’s patron.

Ellington’s sponsorship led to three recordings on the Reprise label, including one on which Ellington played piano for two selections. As is the case with many lucky breaks, there was a cruel and totally unforeseen twist. The session on which Ellington (and Ellington’s alter ego, Billy Strayhorn) recorded with Benjamin and Brand was not released until 1996—and that’s not a typo transposing the last two digits. Although recorded circa 1964, the session would not be commercially available for over thirty years when it was released as A Morning in Paris by Sathima Bea Benjamin.

Although the recordings did not go as hoped, Ellington’s anointing of Brand did bring international recognition for the aspiring musicians. It is conceivable that Ellington was enthralled by Brand’s composing skills in combination with Dollar’s formidable prowess as a pianist. Dollar Brand was warmly welcomed throughout Europe and developed a sterling reputation working in trio and solo formats.

By the mid-seventies he was based in New York City and had converted to Islam, which resulted in his rebirth as Abdullah Ibrahim. He briefly journeyed back home to South Africa but was unable to stomach the social conditions. Before returning to exile, Abdullah recorded the legendary “Cape Town Fringe” session (read about that here on BoL) and then returned to New York where he was able to bring to fruition his next major artistic development: a partnership with reed player Carlos Ward and the development of Ekaya, a small band—generally a septet featuring rhythm section and a four horn front line (three saxophones and a trombone).

This week’s Mixtape focuses on Ekaya. At some future date we will consider Ibrahim’s solo piano and trio work. A third focus on big band and orchestra works may be forthcoming, but here are selections from three Ekaya recording sessions and a bootleg of a London concert.

Thus far I have refrained from describing the music per se. Abdullah’s music is a spiritual experience. In western music, Bach wrote for the church and Mozart wrote for kings, inspired by the twin influences of jazz and South African culture, Abdullah Ibrahim makes music for the healing of the world.

Living in the world since Europe’s rise to global domination has been an extremely unsettling experience for the majority of the world population. We were socially uprooted, politically and economically oppressed and exploited, and though we live in a post-colonial era, most people are nominally free but socially and emotionally maimed. The evidence is in the desperation and despair that ruin the living conditions and lives of people of color worldwide, our alleged political liberation notwithstanding.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s music directly addresses the repair of the human spirit. His music is majestic, is art that encourages our nobility, our compassion and expressions of genuine love for life and each other. I encourage listening sessions. Think of the music as spiritual exercise to help keep one’s soul in shape.

Ekaya’s music is an extension of what John Coltrane created with A Love Supreme in 1964, and what Ellington conceived with his three Sacred Music Concerts (1965, 1968, 1973). On the surface Ekaya’s music is deceptively simple, mostly mid-tempo vamps and gorgeous ballads, but this music is much, much more than is initially apparent. For one thing, the players are taught the music by ear rather than reading from a printed score. The subtlety and depth of expression that flows from Ekaya is partially a result of the musicians putting themselves totally into the performance of the themes and making excellent use of the extensive solo space Ibrahim’s musical structures provide. In this sense Ibrahim is very much like his mentor, Duke Ellington, who was able to attract dedicated musicians who offered sterling, idiosyncratic solos and ensemble sonorities.

will resist the temptation to go on describing this sublime music partly because I do not want to sully each individual’s listening experience by imposing my own reactions and creating false expectations. I must, however, make mention of a fortuitous anomaly: the June 19, 1990 Ekaya concert in London that featured a radically altered line-up and resulted in music of unparalleled sublimity.

Rather than his traditional septet format, the London concert consisted of a five member combo augmented by a string quartet. String quartets in a jazz setting are no longer a novelty but this is the most impressive melding of horns and strings I have heard.

The musicians are:
Abdullah Ibrahim – piano
Horace Alexander Young – alto & soprano sax, flute
Craig Handy – tenor, flute
Reggie Workman – bass
Mark Johnson – drums
John Blake – violin soloist
Carlos Baptist – violin
Melvyn Rowntree – viola
Akua Dixon – cello
Sathima Bea Benjamin – vocalist (on one number)

Of all the handful of Ekaya recordings, African Marketplace is easily my favourite, but the bootleg of the London concert with string quartet is the actual apogee of recorded Ekaya music. I don’t know how long they rehearsed, or even if they rehearsed as one unit—the string ensemble sections certainly were not spontaneous—but this sounds like a working band rather than a one-off occurrence. Moreover, string soloist John Blake plays beyond himself resulting in jazz violin solos that outrank Ray Nance’s awesome work on the 1958 Ellington Black, Brown & Beige recording featuring Mahalia Jackson.

This is music for devout meditation within the temple of the human spirit. Thank you, Abdullah Ibrahim!

New Orleans writer, filmmaker and educator, Kalamu ya Salaam is co-director of Students at the Center, a writing program in the New Orleans public schools. Kalamu is the moderator of neo•griot, an information blog for black writers and supporters of Black literature worldwide http://kalamu.posterous.com/

Kalamu is also the moderator of Breath of Life, a Black music website http://kalamu.com/bol/ . He  can be reached at kalamu@aol.com


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