Finding 'The Balance': Jazz Legend Abdullah Ibrahim Looks To Past, Present And Future

Originally published on June 30, 2019 9:00 am

More than six decades into a trail-blazing career in music, and recently named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, Abdullah Ibrahim shows no signs of slowing down. The legendary jazz pianist, composer and anti-Apartheid activist — Nelson Mandela called him the "Mozart of South Africa" — has released his latest album called The Balance and says he's already busy working on the next one.

True to its name, The Balance looks to experiences from the past, hopes for the future and realities of the present in the musical story it tells.

"We deal with the balance: What is past, what is now, and what has to come. There's always a vision," Ibrahim, 84, explains. "The idea is that we reflect on the past; We know there is a future to come. But for us, the most important part is dealing with the present now. And that is the way that we play the music."

The past that Ibrahim references includes his and his colleagues' struggles against Apartheid in mid-20th century South Africa. Ibrahim's group, The Jazz Epistles became the first black South African group to record a full-length jazz album. As Ibrahim describes the oppressive segregationist climate of the time, and what it meant to break such musical ground in that moment, he says, "After long periods and generations of having been told that we do not have the mental capacity to deal with intricate things, such as mathematics, that we would always be relegated to being servants. And so, there was a realization that our inherent cosmology is valid. In South Africa, it was epitomized in the struggle to free ourselves from that oppressive regime. So the music at that time was very urgent, and very important to state our cultural affirmation. And that is how Jazz Epistles was found."

In the present, too, Ibrahim views his work partially in terms of sociocultural progress that can yet be made, and widespread empathy that can yet be achieved.

"We should be able to get to a point where we really understand and perceive what is happening with ourselves and with others, so that we can deal with this moment," he says. "For us, what is our role as musicians? This is how we perceive it: Is that we've been given this talent so that we can develop it and that we can strive for excellence and present this to everybody, regardless of who. And that it is totally void from ego. And so then, perhaps, that could be a catalyst for understanding ourselves and understanding the universe."

Listen to the full aired story at the audio link.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Abdullah Ibrahim is a jazz pianist, a composer, an anti-apartheid activist. And he's also the man Nelson Mandela called the Mozart of South Africa. Over his 84 years, he has collaborated with innumerable fellow legends. And he's been named a 2019 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Abdullah Ibrahim's latest album is called "The Balance", and he joins us now from Munich.

Welcome to the program, sir.

ABDULLAH IBRAHIM: Thank you - pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have said that for you, it is not just about playing notes. It's about telling a story. So what is the story of "The Balance"?

IBRAHIM: We all embark on arduous journeys to try and reach our goals. And then when we finally reach that segment and if we feel fulfilled, then this is the fleeting moment of joy only with the realization that we still have to continue with our quest for perfection. So this is one of the aspects of balance. This is balancing our hopes and our quests.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAZZ EPISTLES' "TWELVE TIMES TWELVE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to take you back. In 1960, your group The Jazz Epistles became the first black South African group to record a full-length jazz album. What did you risk by doing it? Why did you want to do it then?

IBRAHIM: After long periods and generations of having been told that we do not have the mental capacity to deal with intricate things, such as mathematics, that we will always be relegated to being servants - and so there was this realization that our inherent cosmology is valid. And so every day, it was epitomized in the struggle to free ourselves from that oppressive regime. So the music at that time was very urgent and very important for us to state our cultural affirmation. And that is how Jazz Epistles was formed.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAZZ EPISTLES' "TWELVE TIMES TWELVE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think about that time now when you make music?

IBRAHIM: Again, there we are. We deal with the balance, you know, what is past, what is now and what has to come, so there's always revision. But the idea is that we reflect on the past. We know that there's a future to come. But for us, the most important part is dealing with the present...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IBRAHIM: ...Now. And that is the way that we play the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of the now, you felt one of the most terrible forms of institutionalized racism in apartheid. We are now in a period where we are seeing the rise of intolerance and hate crimes. Do you have any reflections on this moment?

IBRAHIM: The universe and ourselves, our lives - it's the way we go through cycles. And we should be able to get to a point where we really understand and perceive what is happening with ourselves and with others so that we can deal with this moment. For us, what is our role as musicians? And this is how we perceive it - is that we've been given this talent so that we can develop it and that we can strive for excellence and present this to everybody, regardless of who, and that it is totally void from ego. And so then, perhaps, that could be a catalyst for understanding ourselves and understanding the universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "DREAMTIME")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Over the years, your signature sound has been making jazz infused with the folklore of South Africa. And that's carried through on this new album, "The Balance." Tell me how you injected it into this new album.

IBRAHIM: (Laughter) All music does is basically - oh, let me put it this way. A very illustrious poet Rumi said words to the effect that, there's only one sound. Everything else is echo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You sound very spiritual, if I may say.

IBRAHIM: We are all spiritual beings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you find - has that anchored you?

IBRAHIM: We understand that patience is the foundation of faith. Lance Bryant - one of my musicians; a tenor saxophone player - is a pastor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh.

IBRAHIM: Exactly. And when we speak about these things or - he always says how he envisions it or how he interprets it. He says, step out in faith. When you leave your home or whatever you do, step out in faith.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And with that thought in mind, what is your favorite composition on the album?

IBRAHIM: The next one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mean the one that you're going to do next - the next album.

IBRAHIM: Yeah, I'm busy with it now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you?

IBRAHIM: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're always looking ahead.

IBRAHIM: Well, that's what Duke Ellington said, my mentor. And he taught us this. When they asked him, what is your best album? And he said the next one because if we have done the best one, there's nothing else to do, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim, his latest album is called "The Balance."

IBRAHIM: "The Balance."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you very much.

IBRAHIM: Yeah, you're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "JABULANI (EASTER JOY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.