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Photo by Gloria Song.

Jazzfest: The Abdullah Ibrahim “Mukashi” Trio bring Cape Town to Ottawa

By Gloria Song on July 2, 2015

The Abdullah Ibrahim “Mukashi” Trio played to a completely full audience on Tuesday. Presented on the last day of the Ottawa Jazz Festival’s Studio Series at the National Arts Centre, the performance was introduced by the High Commissioner for South Africa, His Excellency Mdladlana.

South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim was born in Cape Town, South Africa and raised on Khoi-san music and Christian gospels. Formerly known as a Dollar Brand until he converted to Islam and took his current name, he was a part of the Jazz Epistles group, which in 1960 recorded the very first South African jazz album by black artists, starting the fascinating South African jazz subgenre which developed parallel to its American counterpart during the height of the jazz era.

Unfortunately, the apartheid regime was a difficult time for jazz musicians in South Africa, where the government was wary of mixed-race associations and anything that could symbolize political resistance.  Ibrahim left the country for Europe, and then New York, where he played as a member of Duke Ellington’s band.

He returned to South Africa during the 1970s and helped shaped the distinctive Cape Jazz sound, which combines improvisation with blues music influences and the local keyboard-based marabi folk style sung by folks in the townships, characterized by long repeating riffs. Although we may not now associate contemporary refined jazz music as being the stuff of anti-establishment political expression, during the apartheid, Cape Jazz tunes like Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg” was a powerful anthem of political resistance while giving black South Africans something to dance to.

Due to the oppressive atmosphere in South Africa at the time, Ibrahim returned to New York, and only came back to South Africa once the apartheid regime fell, on the invitation of a newly-freed Nelson Mandela.  Ibrahim performed at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.  Ibrahim has been a strong figure in the Cape Town music scene ever since, founding Cape Town’s M7 Academy for South African musicians and giving opportunities to showcase the younger generation.  Even his more recent albums, like Cape Town Revisited continue to bear proof of his pride for his country and serve as a strong reminder of its history, with catchy tunes such as “Soweto”.

Tuesday’s performance in Ottawa began with a solo performance, a slow daydreamy number with an impressionist feeling that lingered for the entire evening. Ibrahim’s long ancient fingers drifted from theme to theme with such seamless transitions that one could barely detect where one piece ended and the next one began.

He was soon joined on stage by musicians Noah Alexander on cello and bass and Cleave Guyton on flute, clarinet and piccolo, offering unexpectedly innovative arrangements, with Alexander’s cello playing often giving the pieces a cinematic quality.

At times the flute, cello and piano all carried the same melody, but the performance soon developed into less of a trio than a fascinating conversation between Ibrahim and the two younger musicians, taking turns in an extended back-and-forth exchange reminiscent of traditional gospel call-and-response techniques.

Despite Ibrahim’s earlier political experiences with apartheid, there is none of that angst in his music, no sense of resentment. Instead, his musical style displayed a complex range of emotions, sometimes playful, sometimes sad, wistful and hopeful.

One of the most fun portions of the evening was when the trio performed the instantly recognizable classic “Skippy” by Thelonious Monk, the dizzying melody carried by Cleave Guyton on piccolo while Noah Alexander kept up on upright bass. The enormous, almost absurd contrast between the high-pitched frenzied notes spilling out of the piccolo and the deep resounding bass added to the playful quality of the piece.

The trio also performed original compositions, including an expanded version of Ibrahim’s “District 6”, another homage to the slum quarters home to Cape Town artists that was cleared during apartheid.  Perhaps the most emotionally moving moment of the evening was when the trio performed Ibrahim’s “The Wedding”, a mature and anthemic tune that was an interesting variation from the symphonic arrangement off his album African Symphony. He sighed and heaved along with the swells of the music, his foot tapping along.

I’m pleased to see that South African musicians were prominently highlighted this year at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, including Louis Moholo, Zaki Ibrahim, Freshlyground, and Kyle Shepherd.  This trio is definitely another one of South Africa’s best treasures that Ottawa was treated to this year, receiving two standing ovations from the audience.

“I felt like I was in Cape Town for a moment,” commented one member of the audience after the show.