If Abdullah had a dollar... an interview with Dr Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand)
The last two phone interviews I've done, I've been serenaded by the talent. I had David D'Or (counter-tenor, world music singer and hunky Eurovision Song Contest finalist) doing thrillingly good impersonations of Robert Plant ('Rock and Roll') and MIKA ('Grace Kelly') down the line from Tel Aviv in February. It was a couple of hours before a concert, so I guess I served as a vocal warm-up!
More bizarrely, I had South African ex-pat and third dan Jazz Master Dr Abdullah Ibrahim -- still better known to the world by his half-century old stage moniker Dollar Brand -- singing hymns to me one minute, and Harry Belafonte's Jack-Ass Song the next. This time from Germany. At breakfast time (his time) no less!
"Let him bray, let him bray, let him bray." Abdullah Ibrahim.
(Photograph © Manfred Rinderspacher, click to enlarge)
Ab/dollar (sorry) is in Australia for a lightning visit which started yesterday afternoon, with a master class in Melbourne at Federation Square, and continues tonight [Thursday May 1, 2008] with a concert at the Regent Theatre (with his Ekaya ensemble) and a very special trio performance, a late show at Bennetts Lane, tomorrow night [Friday May 2, 10:30 pm]. All of these are part of Melbourne Jazz 2008.
Interviewing The Doc is -- in a word -- daunting. Like sparring with an angel. And our brief conversation was packed with head-of-a-pin musings and bad bad badinage. Most conversations are a bit like pinball, with a few unexpected ricochets, a few good shots that cause the machine to light up, this one was all that... in four dimensions.
I'll leave it pretty much intact -- meanderings, stagnant billabongs and all -- to give you a sense of the scarily rapid cross-fire. I begin, bravely, by attempting to describe the feelings Ibrahim's music evoke in me.
[CHRIS BOYD:] 'JOYFUL' IS NOT QUITE RIGHT. IT'S MORE THAN CONTENT. MORE THAN JUST RESTFUL. TOP OF THE WORLD? SMELL THE SALT ON THE OCEAN MUSIC. FEEL THE SPRAY. THIS IS BRIGHT MUSIC. HAPPY MUSIC. SUNDAY MUSIC. DAY OF REST MUSIC.
[Abdullah Ibrahim, with a low laugh:] Well. Duke Ellington said the most important thing about music is listening to it. Cos there's nothing else to do. As a musician, once you strike the note, there's nothing more you can do about it.
YOU GIVE IT AWAY.
So, the smart thing to do then is to make every note that you strike [with] the best of intentions. The best of intentions and sincerity. So we try in our daily lives to do the same. To re-establish our angelic qualities and be sincere. That's what music is about, play about what you experience on a daily, minute-to-minute basis.
IT'S DIFFICULT TO BE ANGELIC IN THE MIDST OF STRUGGLE, EXILE, CHALLENGE... HAVE YOU NEVER DESPAIRED?
No problem. Our illustrious poet Rumi said: God made us part angel and part donkey. We have to accept there can't be one without the other.
IS IT POSSIBLE FOR THE ANGEL TO RIDE THE DONKEY? [LAUGHS]
We say when a cock crows it's seen an angel. And when the donkey brays it's seen a devil. That's why the calypso song says: if jackass were jumpin' let him bray let him bray let him bray. [That's Harry Belafonte's Jack Ass song, dear reader!]
IN HAMLET, THE COCK'S CROWING KEEPS THE GHOSTS AND EVIL SPIRITS AWAY... I'M PARAPHRASING IT TERRIBLY. AT CHRISTMAS, "THE BIRD OF DAWNING SINGETH ALL NIGHT LONG." IT'S A HALLOWED AND GRACIOUS TIME...
Well, we have to reconsider Hamlet as well, see.
IN WHAT WAY?
Again, it has to do with the reading. Music has to do with sound. With Hamlet and all that reading. Remember? When they asked what are you reading: words words words.
FUNNY. WHEN I LISTENED TO YOUR "BEST OF" CD, I THOUGHT: THIS IS LIKE SEEING HAMLET AND RECOGNISING ALL OF THE EXPRESSIONS THAT ARE NOW IN COMMON PARLANCE, THAT THEY CAME FROM HERE. I HEARD BITS OF KEITH JARRETT AND BITS OF PHRASES AND FRAGMENTS THAT HAVE BEEN PASSED AROUND FROM MUSICIAN TO MUSICIAN LIKE A JOINT!
Our illustrious poet Rumi said words to that effect: there's only one sound all the rest is echo!
I THINK NARCISSUS MIGHT HAVE SOME SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT THAT! LET ME ASK AGAIN WHERE THE ANGEL COMES FROM IN THE MIDST OF THAT?
If we knew, we would all be staying in one place, right?
There's no duality. It's one. Our lives are spent trying to dissolve this [opposition] of predestination and free will only to realise that it's the other side of the coin. Yin yang.
IT SEEMS TO ME YOU LIVE A HIGHLY DISCIPLINED EVEN ASCETIC LIFE --
What else is there to do?
We're on this planet, right?
IT'S ANOTHER OF THOSE FLIP SIDE OF THE COIN QUESTIONS: HOW DOES THIS FREE-WHEELING, IMPROVISED MUSIC -- YOUR PERFORMANCE -- FIT IN TO THAT DISCIPLINE? HOW DOES IT COME OUT OF THAT?
Unless you have the discipline you can't be free.
I DID ANTICIPATE THAT ANSWER, BUT I WANTED TO HEAR IT IN YOUR WORDS.
I've practiced martial arts for 50-60 years and [the] basic principle of traditional martial arts is to have no mind. No mind. Stop thinking. But before you can stop thinking, you have to think.
Charlie Parker said: you practice and practice for 20 years, all that technique, and then you forget all about that shit and just play.
I LOVE THE WAY ROBERT HUGHES CAN STAND IN FRONT OF A WORK OF ART, FORGET EVERYTHING, AND RESPOND TO IT PURELY.
Our lives are... pyramid.
IN WHAT WAY?
When we reach the apex. Going up the hill and you look down, you'll see where you came up. And if you're 20 years of age, 70 looks like a long time ahead. When you're seventy and you look back, it's a flash.
IT'S 30 YEARS SINCE THE JOURNEY. IT'S 25 SINCE AKAYA WAS FORMED.
Time. We just do our best. This is one of the things about the concept of playing this music. The concept of The Now. This moment of expression. It crystalises everything that you learned and everything...
We've one quest: is to perfect. Is to perfect our art. We'll never reach it. [quietly chuckles] Is to perfect in everything, whether it's martial arts, everything. It's the same formula.
There's more than an octave in each of these babies...
Abdullah Ibrahim (photograph © Žiga Koritnik)
And perfection really means to understand the unity within everything. Understand the unity with trees and flowers and birds and cows and god's creation and ourselves. In the scheme of universal things, we are new kids on the blocks. [chuckles again]
EVEN AT 73!
What is that hymn? My grandmother's favourite hymn: "A thousand ages in his sight are like an evening gone. Oh god our help in ages past..."
I THOUGHT I KNEW THAT HYMN, BUT THAT'S A LINE I DIDN'T KNOW. WE HAVE A HISTORIAN WHO WRITES IN MUCH THE SAME WAY. INSTEAD OF CONCENTRATING ON A MERE CENTURY, HE'LL CONCENTRATE ON A MILLENIUM... QUITE WONDERFUL.
They took away time and gave us a clock.
THAT SOUNDS LIKE 'PAVE PARADISE'! THAT SOUNDS LIKE A POP SONG! YOUR DAUGHTER, SHE'S A RAPPER -- IS SHE?
Wonderful. We have a family of musicians. Sathima [Bea Benjamin, his wife] a jazz singer, my son Tsakwe a musician and my daughter Tsidi [aka What What] a rapper!
I ALWAYS THINK OF ELLINGTON AS THE FIRST RAPPER. I LOVED THE WAY THAT MAN SPOKE...
Rap goes back in all traditions. You know.
Moonlight, fireside, story-telling, cinemascope. Sit around the fire. The elders go through their paces. We had ancestral cinemascope, and you sit there [near the] fire transfixed. Then the cock crows. Daylight breaks.
AND THE DONKEY BRAYS!!
Depending if they're coming or leaving! [!!]
I WAS SURPRISED TO DISCOVER YOU BEGAN YOUR CAREER AS A SINGER?
Where else would we begin it? That was the first sound. You cry. Otherwise I would have been born with a horn in my mouth. Or a piano.
I THINK MILES DAVIS WAS BORN WITH A HORN IN HIS MOUTH.
You know the story of Miles and Coltrane?
When Trane came to play with him, Trane took a solo, Miles got off the stand and went to the bar. Had a drink. And he said: "Hey, John, why don't you play shorter choruses." And Trane says: "Hey Miles, the music is so beautiful, I get carried away I can't stop." And Miles says: "Have you tried taking the horn out of your mouth."
[LOL] I THOUGHT MAYBE YOU SUBSCRIBED TO THE "DON'T TALK JUST SING" PHILOSOPHY.
Angel and Donkey syndrome.
You're soaring you can't come back get your feet on the ground.
WHEN I SIT IN FRONT OF MY KEYBOARD, MY COMPUTER KEYBOARD, TO WRITE, I DON'T KNOW WHAT WILL COME, BUT I KNOW SOMETHING WILL. IT'S LIKE A RAIN DANCE THAT I DO. I'D LIKE TO HEAR YOU DESCRIBE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SIT IN FRONT OF YOUR KEYBOARD.
I have no idea.
WHAT DO YOU DO? DO YOU CLEAR YOUR MIND? WHAT IS THE THING YOU DO TO START?
I have no idea. I've absolutely no idea. This is the basis of martial arts. [Hard bop drummer Albert] 'Tootie' Heath says: "Damn jazz musician, can't play the same thing twice!"
THERE'S A REAL DRAMA IN PLAYING WITH ANOTHER MUSICIAN. IT'S VERY EASY TO BE A SOLO ARTIST. BUT TO ACTUALLY -- TO RESPOND TO ONE ANOTHER. TO HAND THE PULSE AROUND. TO FOLLOW THE PULSE. IT'S LIKE THEATRE TO ME. ACTORS LISTENING TO ONE ANOTHER. INSTEAD OF JUST RECITING THE WORDS, THEY LISTEN TO ONE ANOTHER AND RESPOND...
There are musicians and there are people who own instruments.
WHAT'S THE DEFINITION OF A GENTLEMAN. THE MAN WHO OWNS A BANJO BUT CHOOSES NOT TO PLAY.
No, that's a master.
IN MARTIAL ARTS --
When you can play the solid iron flute, you've mastered.
IS THAT THE ONE WITH NO HOLES?
THAT'S SO ZEN!
I SAID 'ZEN'... OR WAS THAT A JOKE AND I JUST MISSED IT!
I said 'when'.
When I first went to Japan, the first thing I did when I get to the airport as asked to go to the hotel. I said I would I like to go to [Sengaku-ji]. [Sengaku-ji] is the grave of the 47 masters of the Samurai. 47 Ronin. Who commited seppuku. Under order, killed themselves. I went to see them.
[I met an American man. He said:] "I've been here, I've been living in Japan for 20 years and I study Zen." And I said: "Oh, congratulations." And he said: "What do you know about Zen? I hear you practice martial arts." "I don't know anything about Zen." "You study it. So what is Zen?" "I said it's saying the first thing that comes into your mind." Then he says: "that's not true!" That was the end of the conversation.
I DID THINK -- WHEN YOU SAID "WHEN" -- IT WAS LIKE: WHAT'S THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING...
It takes a minute.
They say musicians -- people in creative fields you see -- we have a big problem because we can't find a foothold in society. You see? So we levitate.
LIKE THE SIDHI YOGIS!
The most profound energy is generated... You go through this process of purification on the way to -- hopefully -- find... [trails off]
WHO DO YOU HEAL? HOW DO YOU HEAL?
[Very softly] I have no idea. [long pause] I have no idea.
What do they say in India? If a doctor has money, don't trust him!My people are all over the world... Healers. What do they say in India... If a doctor has money, don't trust him!
WHERE'S HOME FOR YOU?
The beauty of being homeless is always being home.
WHAT DO YOU TRAVEL WITH?
THAT'S QUITE ENOUGH, REALLY.
BETTER THAN A DINERS CLUB CARD.
There's a blues singer that says... She sings and she says:
My man left man, I'm really feeling low down.Credit card blues.
My man left man, I'm really feeling low down.
I'm gonna take this credit card and buy everything in town.
I THINK SPENDING IS PROBABLY CHEAPER THAN THERAPY. PROBABLY A BETTER BANG FOR THE BUCK.
[AT LAST, I GET TO SING BACK:] "THAT'S THE NAME OF THE GAME!" OH, NO, WAIT. THAT'S MULTIPLICATION.
I PUT ON A BELT EARLIER. MY FAVOURITE BELT BROKE. I DUG UP AN OLD ONE THAT WAS GIVEN TO ME IN 1990. I LOOKED AT IT AND THERE ARE RINGS WHERE I'VE EXPANDED AND EXPANDED. I THOUGHT: MY BODY IS LIKE A TREE TRUNK. IT HAS RINGS OF GROWTH.
In martial arts we have the the principle of the tree.
You see, I live in the country. I have trees around me now. Mountains, lakes, birds, ducks, cows.
What's that song? "I think that I will never see a poem lovelier than a tree."
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Trees (1913) by Joyce Kilmer
God says everything between heaven and earth makes praise to me, only you don't understand it. You look at a tree and it's also the basic structure of flower arranging, you see. And the basis of martial arts is the basis of the structure...
In the tradition, the tree consists of three branches. One branch, it reaches to the sky is for heaven. One branch, it reaches lower down is earth. And the one in the middle is a person. So: dragon, tiger and a monk.
[Then we get onto ikibana... But there's still one more song to be sung.]
In Australia, I attended a dance ceremony and they did the dance of Brolga. I was going back to Copenhagen to get an examination for my third degree black belt and I was doing a bird kata. And I spent four or five days with your dancers and their different versions of Brolga.
And then I understood what it means to -- not to do a bird form but to become the bird. And I went back to Copenhagen and I performed my kata. My master said it was the most beautiful and best one he had ever seen.
So there's the camp fire. What is happening with us now in South Africa? We have AIDS. See. The circle is broken. The circle is broken. There are no camp fires anymore. We don't sit in circles anymore and pass the drink and information anticlockwise, which is the movement of the stars. The circle is broken.
And the musicians, we are displaced healers. In traditional society, if we showed any signs of musical inclination, we were immediately drafted into medicine.
And I wrote a song about Uluru. Ayers Rock. So when we were there with the Aboriginal people we showed them some of the photographs of our family. The bushman people. My grandmother's people. So they looked at me...
"Where are these people. These are the old old people from the dreamtime."
There's an interconnectedness. During that festival in Australia we had the Bauls of Bengal. The traditional people, they came and played, and the Aborigines played the same song.
My solo concerts now are called Senzo. In Chinese and Japanese it means ancestor. But it's also the name of my father. From the land of Lesoto. Same word.
The circle is broken. The circle is broken.
CAN IT BE UNBROKEN?
My grandmother used to sing: "Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, by and by. There's a better land waiting in the sky, in the sky. Will the circle be unbroken..."
Photographs used with permission.