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Of Ellington, Monk, and Moeketsi

by Ts’eliso Monaheng / Images by Manfred Rinderspacher / 16.02.2012

It feels as though I have been transported to an entirely different universe. I was here the previous night to watch the Tallest Man gig, and the feeling of ‘otherness’ engulfed me . But tonight, a different energy fills the room; Abdullah Ibrahim’s project ‘Morolong: Precision and Passion’, is making its debut at the Cape Town International Convention centre. It is a Department of Arts and Culture-supported initiative which sees some of Ibrahim’s (henceforth referred to as The Master) compositions arranged for a big-band setting. As he himself informs, “the first gig I played as a professional musician was with a big band”.

So in many ways, tonight is a transcendence of time and space; it is also an homage to the spirit of Ellington, Monk, and Moeketsi, a decryption of ancestral messages communicated on stage for all to hear. The Master is the first to step on stage and take his place at the piano. With an almost-mythical focus, he exerts light flourishes on the keys, and the first notes resound throughout the auditorium. This is the prelude, dedicated to Duke Ellington, the acclaimed bandleader who, after being convinced by The Master’s wife Saatima Bea Benjamin, gave him his first recording contract.

Abdullah Ibrahim - Of Ellington, Monk, and Moeketsi

“I always see myself as a film director, and the musicians [are] my cast. And my task is to draw the best out of them”, The Master said in an interview with the American public broadcaster NPR. The rest of his cast then walks onto the stage. Andile Yenana takes his place at the piano, while the horn section is made up of luminaries such as Barney Rachabane and Feya Faku. The new breed of jazz is also well-represented;on stage: Nhlanhla Mahlangu on tenor saxophone is one of them. For the next three hours (save for the twenty-minute interval), we are treated to a cacophony of sounds, the sparse in contrast with the full; the engaging, constantly-drifting oeuvre of jazz music, the chimes of freedom and liberation in four-part harmony. All is laid bare for the public to witness. No pretense nor re-enactment, just pure sound.

“I mean you”, a dedication to Thelonious Monk, is performed in two parts, with the second being The Master’s own composition. It is a fast-paced affair, and The Master shifts seamlessly amongst his troupe, directing the ship, at times playing the role of conductor, much to the audience’s amusement. He returns yet again to his abode (the piano), still flanked by his entourage. One is immediately aware of the shift in tonality; his composure and touch invariably leads to a different feel of the music. His fingers glide vociferously as flourishes of sustained notes and quarter-notes ensue from the piano and engulf the captive audience.

He stops abruptly mid-tune; the conductor has led the band to play the wrong composition. Such is the relentless quest by The Master to deliver his vision that, even in this almost-full auditorium which doubles as the Rosies stage during the International Jazz Festival, he does not shy away from making sure that his vision is delivered as intended. There are nuggets, what some may deem as horror stories, of The Master throwing inexplicable tantrums at journalists and audiences alike. But such is the elevated mystique of this spiritual being that one is willing to overlook all these minor travesties and focus squarely on the music.

Abdullah Ibrahim - The Master

“Wie’s die moegoe?!”, questions The Master, jokingly, after an audience member asks him to repeat a song title. This is seasoned musicianship, band-leading and crowd involvement of the utmost highest order. The next song sounds like a dedication to the Jazz Epistles, the ‘first African jazz group to record an LP in South Africa’ as they are commonly known. The audience claps in tandem to the beat, tip-toeing around the sharp, fast-paced rhythm of the band. The Master intermittently gets up from his throne, sits down, and gets up again. He encourages the audience to clap on, points at the horn section, and proceeds to let off a few dance moves. This is jazz as it would have sounded, I imagine, in the nondescript halls that The Manhattan Brothers, the Blue Notes, and even Ntemi Piliso’s African Jazz Pioneers played in during the fifties and early sixties.

The Master pulls out a handkerchief to wipe the saxophonist’s brow after a well-executed solo. Yet again, the stage is transformed; what we are witnessing is contact sport of the most musical kind. The Master feigns containing himself; visibly-taken by the music, he paces about the stage in much the same way that an African-American Episcopal Church leader would during a sermon.

“The concept is not that the sound belongs to an individual. There is only one sound, and all the rest is echo”, said The Master in an interview, quoting partly from the illustrious Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. Parallels can be drawn to Bruce Lee’s utterance in the same vein: “Don’t get set into one form. Adapt it and build your own, and let it grow. Be water my friend”. Another parallel can be drawn with Mark Fransman’s showcase at the Mahogany Room two days prior. Fransman and his trio paid tribute to the likes of Coetzee, Galeta, and The Master himself. Tonight, The Master pays tribute to those who influenced him; Monk, Moeketsi, Ellington.

He shares anecdotes of his journeys in-between songs. In one, he quotes Duke Ellington who said “the blues is the accompaniment of man and woman going steady”. Straight after, he instructs the drummer to “play a blues solo”. The spotlight falls on the sticksman, who obliges by purging the skins for well over four minutes while the band stands in attention. “That was the blues in b-flat”, comments The Master amidst thunderous applause.

Abdullah Ibrahim - Piano Man

District Six, erstwhile dwelling of Cape Town’s people (and arguably our version of Sophiatown), is brought into focus. “The theme is District Six”, says The Master when introducing the next song. “It tells of the ancient Cape’s experience; the joy, turmoil, and forced removal. It’s about the people and their experiences”. A militant sound comes forth from the fifteen-piece horn section; five saxophones, four trumpets, and four trombones are leading the migration of numerous souls who were forcefully removed from their abodes by the Apartheid government. It is also a modern-day tale of people who commute to and from the city by bus. By train. It is the consummation of the past with the present.

“Blues for a hip king” receives a big-band make-over; The Master plays a few bars, pauses, then commands his troupe to carry on with the revised version. He makes way again for Andile Yenana, his right-hand man for this journey, to play a solo piece. Yenana plays “Oasis” from his album “We used to dance”. I am enthralled; witnessing two masters intermittently interchange throughout the show has had a deep impact on me. I smile, look around me, and see multitudes of satisfied faces. The connection has been made; The Master has succeeded in unifying not only his troupe, but the entire auditorium.

“I walked from Cape Town to Johannesburg to join Kippie Moeketsi. At that time,when I had a few cents to spare, I would travel as a fourth-class passenger on the train”. This leads to “Mbombella”, similar in spirit to Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela”. The night is drawing to an end, but the band keeps marching to The Master’s instructions. The music has taken on a different tangent. The composition notes no longer matter; improvisation has taken centre-stage. This is almost-reminiscent of Davis who is reputed to have driven his band to explore something beyond the dictates of the musical score. We are witnessing yet another parallel, that of Miles Davis’ methods of playing. “I got Miles’ number…to ask him if there was gonna be a rehearsal. He said ‘nah, just play what you hear'”, says pianist Chic Corea in The Miles Davis Story.

The final piece pays homage to pennywhistle music, to Marabi, and in part to mbhaqanga. It channels the spirit of the Dark City Sisters, Mahlathini and the Mahotella, and Spokes Masheane.

At the very end, I am left to wonder what informs the master’s dreams at night. Does he lie awake conversing with the spirits, or drift under the tutelage of Morpheus to a universe where musical notes and ethereal chord progressions dominate? What informs the master? What is the source of the music?

Abdullah Ibrahim - Of Ellington, Monk, and Moeketsi

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