For the introduction to this excerpt from Fred de Vries‘ new book, The Fred De Vries Interviews: From Abdullah to Zille, we thought we would hand over to Michael Titlestad:
“The book breaks down countless stereotypes. It is beautifully researched, perceptive, humane. De Vries never lets his conversational voice dumb down intellectually engaging content,” Titlestad writes in his gloss. He continues, “He has lived in South Africa for years, but maintains a vital distance from a country on which so many of us battle to keep perspective. It is the unique place from which he speaks that makes his writing so important, persuasive and endlessly intriguing.”
For the excerpt, we thought we’d bring you one of the juiciest “episodes” in the text, what de Vries describes as a “disastrous” 11 minutes and 42 seconds with jazz giant Abdullah Ibrahim. From such lean pickings, he manages to cook up 2500 words:
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ABDULLAH IBRAHIM; HYATT HOTEL, ROSEBANK, JOHANNESBURG, NOVEMBER 2007
The interview lasted exactly 11min42sec, and that included the time it took to find me a chair. Then, after a question about Mannenberg, he snapped: “I think this interview is not going anywhere.” To which I replied: “I think so too. I think we must stop.” I grabbed my jacket, recorder and records to be autographed, and marched out of his hotel suite – humiliated, degraded, call it what you want. But also furious about my professional failure to have a proper interview. But was it really failure?
I had been warned. South Africa’s famous jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is known for his moodswings and volatile character. Everyone I spoke to had a story. A jazz writer cautioned me about his abstruse, esoteric answers. A photographer told me how he had once abused her for simply doing her job. Somebody else said that he abruptly ended a concert when someone lit a cigarette. I met someone who was rudely told to “stay out of his orbit”. And the interviewer before me didn’t get enough answers to fill the required column inches.
I had interviewed awkward people before. German noisenik Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten is notoriously difficult, and so are Miriam Makeba, Nadine Gordimer, French filmmaker Leos Carax and the Slovenian band Laibach. But if you apply the basic rules – prepare thoroughly, come up with enough intelligent questions and try to break the ice with a few friendly remarks – you usually succeed.
A proper in-depth interview requires more. You must try to identify with your subject as much as you can; part of you must become him. Yet another part must stay detached and critical. Essentially, as an interviewer it’s your job to find ‘the secret’ – everyone has something to hide, everybody has unknown flaws and virtues. You must unmask and demystify your subject. It’s your duty to make him human.
That requires more than questions and answers; you have to pay close attention to the voice, phrasing, clothes, reactions to the environment and body language. During the interview you look for contradictions and evasions. There may be lies and attempts at myth-making. You treat your subject with respect, but not as a hero. As rock writer Lester Bangs once said: “A heroe is a goddamn stupid thing to have.”
Although the equation is lopsided (you usually want more from them than they from you) and you have to give up part of your personality, you must try and put yourself out there as an equal. That means: you will only take a certain amount of shit.
So the days before the interview I had the unenviable task of becoming a 73-year old jazz giant from Cape Town who grew up during apartheid and went into exile in the mid-seventies. Reading, listening and imagining I composed my own narrative of his life, from which the questions automatically followed.
Abdullah Ibrahim was born as Adolphus ‘Dollar’ Johannes Brand on 7th October in the Cape Town suburb of Kensington. At the age of seven he learned to play the piano, and as a young man he was introduced to jazz by GIs and sailors who brought records from America. By 1949 he was an accomplished musician. He formed the Jazz Epistles, a band that also included Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwanga and Hugh Masekela.
That was around 1960, the days of Sophiatown and the seminal ‘all African jazz opera’ King Kong, a tragic story about township boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini. By chance I had found an original vinyl copy of the King Kong album, which featured most of the Jazz Epistles, except Dollar Brand who had been left to his own devices after his colleagues had gone to London to perform King Kong there in the early 60s. Stubbornly, Ibrahim refused to leave, claiming that it wasn’t entertainment and playing other people’s music he was after. For a while he became a recluse in a garage in Cape Town where he practiced 20 hours a day for a year.
I note: defining episode.
Next I listen a few times to Mannenberg – is where it’s happening, the haunting hymn about the Cape flats, carried by Basil Coetzee’s yearning sax. On the back of the album cover is a cryptic note that reads: “Is this what Rashid Vally wanted?”, written by Abdullah Ibrahim. Vally was the producer. Asking Ibrahim what he meant by that should be a good lead up to Mannenberg, which in his words “captured the sound of the mood of the people” at the time, 1974.
This may be the right moment to confess that I wasn’t too much of a fan of Ibrahim. I once saw him perform with a trio in Pretoria in the mid-90s and didn’t return after the break. The endlessly tinkering piano failed to excite me. For me jazz wasn’t an esoteric mantra but the wild sax of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the discordant piano of Thelonious Monk and the scathing trumpet lines of Miles Davis.
But as I read more about him, my respect for Ibrahim grew. He was discovered by Duke Ellington when he played in Zürich in 1963. Why, I wondered, had he decided to go to a dull place like Zürich? He subsequently moved to New York with his wife, jazz singer Sathea Bea Benjamin, and led Ellington’s orchestra for a series of concerts. Ellington told him: “You are blessed because you come from the source.”
In New York he became part of the free jazz scene, sharing the stage with Coltrane, Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry. Exciting times, full of wild stories and anecdotes. Must ask him.
I admired Ibrahim’s attitude. Once he had mastered all the technicalities of his instrument he decided that flaunting your skills wasn’t where it’s at. In a 2001 interview with the Guardian he said: “When you have all that technical information behind you, it’s not necessary to manifest all of it. It can be implied by playing one note if your delivery is sincere.”
The same interview, which describes him as “a voluble and often amusing raconteur”, quotes Ibrahim as saying that music has healing powers, that a musician isn’t an entertainer, but a healer. This reminded me of Blixa Bargeld, who once said that “music offers a glimpse of Utopia”. I make a note.
Equally interesting was his gift to absorb everything. His sound is a seamless tapestry of jazz, classical, African folk, Cape Coon carnival, choral music and gospel, all connected through improvisation. I scribble down a quote about “the hell” of improvisation and taking risks.
There’s also Abdullah “the teacher”, the man who opened his M7 school in Cape Town, where pupils are not only taught about music, but also about martial arts, eating and mediation, in order to achieve “a more holistic lifestyle”. This, of course, is perfectly in line with his own post-alcoholism existence of being a vegetarian, a teetotaler and karate expert. He’s a follower of a 17th-century Japanese samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi, whose lifestyle was a mishmash of various Eastern philosophies – a loner with a spiritual message.
Additionally, as I read Michael Titlestad’s jazz book Making the change, an image appeared of Ibrahim who sees himself as a “divinely inspired musician” whose music communicates God’s truth. “My talent is medical formula handed down from the creator. I am a dispenser of medicine,” he stated in 1985. The same book mentions author Bessie Head who called him “a complete and perfect flower in the desert” and his music “a refreshing breeze to the soul”.
Although mesmerized by these mystical descriptions, I was also prepared for hostility. As the son of a Sotho father (murdered when Abdullah was four) and a coloured mother Ibrahim carried a lot of bitterness about identity, colour and race. He grew up rough, surrounded by gangsters, junkies and alcoholics. Apartheid restricted his educational aspiration. Music, he claimed, saved him. “In all that horror it was at least clean; you were dealing with something beautiful,” he told the Guardian. Another reference to music offering a glimpse of Utopia.
Before he gave up alcohol in the late sixties he was described as arrogant and disrespectful. Obviously such characteristics are amplified by drinking, but do they really disappear when you quit? I wondered if it was the intoxicated New York jazz scene that led him to his drinking. I also wondered whether becoming a Muslim and changing from Dollar Brand to Abdullah Ibrahim in 1968 had anything to do with meeting the radical, anti-white Nation of Islam? These were tricky, personal subjects, and I would have to be cautious when asking him about them.
In the 80s he became a prima donna, demanding to be treated like a rock star. That worried me too. Hero treatment makes people narcissistic, unpredictable and obnoxious.
Our interview is scheduled for 15.30 at the boardroom of the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank. With half an hour to kill I check the Musica megastore to see how many of the more than 100 Abdullah Ibrahim albums they have in stock. Only one.
In the Hyatt the publicist tells me Ibrahim has landed this very morning, flown in from Germany. He’s had little sleep. And with a tight schedule of half a dozen interviews that day he might be tired and grumpy. So when we finally meet (he doesn’t shake my hand, just says “hi”) in the suffocating, windowless board room I take the initiative and suggest he orders something to eat and we move elsewhere for our chat.
He agrees, and we go to his R6000 a night suite on the top floor of the Hyatt (the two other band members stay at Rosebank Hotel). There he calls room service and orders a tuna sandwich. He asks if I want one too. I decline, but feel good. He seems relaxed and friendly, and with nothing planned after our interview it all looks positive. I have a list with 31 questions, tackling different subjects and building up to the personal issues.
He sits down behind the desk. He’s dressed in loose fitting black shirt and despite his many years in New York hasn’t lost his Cape accent. I switch on my recorder. Someone brings a chair, so I can sit opposite him. I start with the observation that so few of his albums are available. He says that he’s busy with a plan to re-master and re-release much of his back catalogue.
Then he gets up and walks to his bedroom. It takes a while for him to come back. Later, listening back to the tape I realise that this is where the change in mood and attitude occurred.
A friend of mine has sixty of your LPs. I was wondering if you prefer your music on vinyl or digital?
“I have no idea. I don’t play it.”
Oh. What do you prefer when you buy music?
“ I don’t buy music, I don’t listen to music.”
Not at all?
“No, why should I listen to music?”
Because it’s quite pleasant at times.
“I play it myself.”
So when you want to hear music you play it yourself?
“Yes, but I don’t listen to recorded music, because that’s time gone.”
This, I think, is the right moment to throw in a question about the difference between studio recordings and live performances, between composing and improvising, between the static and the fluid.
From what I read I thought you were a person who actually doesn’t like recorded music, because it’s like a mere snapshot, while music constantly evolves. Is a studio is the right place for your music? Do you improvise in the studio?
“I don’t understand your questions. Do you know what I do? What do you mean: if I improvise in the studio or where do I improvise? It’s a stupid question.”
“What do you mean: do I improvise in the studio?”
What I mean is: do you go to the studio with finished songs, so everyone knows what he must play at a certain point or do you improvise there and then?
“What is it you want to do with this interview? Because these are really dumb questions you know. Ask me something creatively.”
I feel a rush of adrenalin, bad, toxic adrenalin that gives you an instant headache.
Okay, I’ll go to the next question then. I want to know about the current tour. What will you do? Give an overview of your career? Play particular songs around a certain theme?Play new work?
“Are you into jazz music?”
“So what is your understanding of jazz?”
I’m asking a question to you as an artist.
“I’m asking you because you’re asking me a question as a non-artist, and you’re asking me questions about jazz. So I’m asking you: what is your perception of jazz? What happens? Because I don’t know how to answer you.”
From here on things get increasingly worse. He says he has no idea which pieces he’ll play because the concert is only the next day. He says I must come and listen. Stupid question. I know I’ve lost control, this interview is heading towards disaster. Not the tiniest part of me is him. In a final attempt to placate him I decide to try the healing route.
A German musician, Blixa Bargeld, said that music offers a glimpse of Utopia. You’ve always said that your music has healing qualities. Do agree? Does your music offer a glimpse of Utopia?
“Look, you’re quoting me people and I don’t know who they are. This is what those people say and I got nothing to do with this, okay? You must ask them if it has anything to do with Utopia. I got nothing to do with this.”
You said your music has healing qualities.
“What are you asking me?”
Does it ring a bell then when he says this thing about Utopia, is it the same thing?
“You’re asking some dumb stuff man, I don’t know who this person is.”
It doesn’t matter who he is, it’s what he said.
“Of course it does matter. I don’t know he is.”
He’s a German improvisational musician.
“I don’t know, you know. And now you want me to quote something that I don’t know about.”
Sweat breaks out, ugly smelly sweat..
Ok. The sleeve of Mannenberg, can I ask you something about that? It has a little quote that reads ‘Is this what Rashid Vally wanted?’ What did you mean by that?
“Maybe you should ask Rashid.”
You wrote it though.
“Ja, well ask Rashid: what is it that he wanted?”
You don’t know what he wanted? Why did you put that quote there?
“I think this interview is not going anywhere.”
I think so too. I think we must stop.
There. I switch off the recorder, 11min49sec.
The next evening I go to his show. The swooning crowd gives him a standing ovation. For them he’s a hero, a goddamn hero. He loves the adoration, bends forward, hands folded, Zen style. Later people ask me if I enjoyed the performance. Finding it impossible to be objective I say that the part after the break was too much of a greatest hits potpourri. “Stars on 45.”
A few days later I hear of a list of subjects that one isn’t supposed to mention in his presence. These include: any other musicians, in particular Hugh Masekela; politics; apartheid; exile; Sharpeville; ANC; Mannenberg – the song; his German residency; New York; changes in the music industry; any movies; Confucius; his wife; his rapping daughter; Islam; his pilgrimage to Mecca.
The exhaustive list provides some comical relief. It wasn’t me then. It was him, his ego. But the whole affair does beg some questions. Was he simply tired? Did I fail as an interviewer? Or did I, unwittingly, uncover something? Something nasty and hypocritical about this adulated healer, teacher, master, whose off-stage attitude smacks of narcissism, bitterness and an urge to degrade?
CV and selection of albums
1934 Born in Kensington, Cape Town
1941 First piano lesson
1949 Becomes professional musician
1958 Forms Dollar Brand trio
1959 Joins Jazz Epistles with Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Kippie Moeketsi
1960 Releases Jazz Epistle Verse 1
1962 Leaves South Africa for Europe
1963 Meets Duke Ellington in Zürich
1964 Releases Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio
1965 Marries Sathima Bea Benjamin
1965 Moves to New York
1965 Plays Newport Jazz Festival
1966 Leads Duke Ellington Orchestra
1967 Attends Juilliard School of Music, New York
1968 Returns to Cape Town, converts to Islam and changes his name into Abdullah Ibrahim
1970 Pelgrimage to Mecca
1973 Releases African Sketchbook
1974 Releases Underground in Africa
1974 Releases Mannenberg – Is where it’s happening
1976 Moves to New York
1976 Returns to New York
1979 Releases Africa – Tears and Laughter
1980 Releases African Marketplace
1982 Releases African Dawn
1985 Releases Water From An Ancient Well
1987 Releases Zimbabwe
1987 Releases Banyana
1988 Releases Mindif
1988 Composes soundtrack for Chocolat
1989 Releases African River
1990 Returns to Cape Town
1990 Composes soundtrack for No Fear, No Die
1990 Meets Mandela
1991 Releases Mantra Mode
1991 Releases Desert Flowers
1993 Releases Knysna Blue
1994 Performs at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration
1995 Releases Yarona
1997 Releases Cape Town Revisited
1997 Releases Cape Town Flowers
1998 Releases African Suite
1999 Opens M7 music academy in Cape Town
2001 Releases Ekapa Lodumo
2001 Releases African Symphony
2002 Releases African Magic
Unfortunately we didn’t reach that stage. But Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and the 17th-century Japanese samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi.
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- The Fred De Vries Interviews: From Abdullah to Zille is published by Wits University Press
- The Fred De Vries Interviews, From Abdullah to Zille by Fred de Vries
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