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Timeline: Abdullah Ibraim (1934 - )

Abdullah Ibraim still tours today, playing piano and leading orchestras, mostly in Europe and sometimes in North America.
michael hoefner
Abdullah Ibraim still tours today, playing piano and leading orchestras, mostly in Europe and sometimes in North America.

Abdullah Ibraim, also known as Dollar Brand, was born Adolph Johannes Brand in Cape Town, South Africa in 1934. He started taking piano lessons at the age of seven and was performing professionally by the time he was 15. Brand was of mixed-race so under the South African apartheid system, he was considered “colored.”

His mother was a church pianist and Brand grew up with gospel music in his blood, but his ear turned to jazz. As a young man, he became well-known as a jazz pianist and in 1960 he performed on the first full-length jazz record by black South Africans titled Jazz Epistle Verse One. This started a new genre of music called Cape Jazz. On March 21st of that same year, a group of 7,000 protestors staged a demonstration at a police station in Sharpeville, South Africa. The police fired on the crowd, killing 69 and injuring 180 more. It became known as the Sharpeville massacre, and caused increased pressure on any public figure of color, including artists and musicians. Brand’s ensemble broke up and he went into exile.

In 1962, Brand moved to Europe and began performing under the name Dollar Brand. The next year, he was performing with his trio in Zurich. That’s where he was heard by Duke Ellington, who was touring Europe at the time. Ellington was so impressed that he made sure the trio was recorded and even put his name on the record, calling it Duke Ellington presents the Dollar Brand Trio. The record was a big hit in Europe.

Dollar Brand moved to New York City in 1965 and began touring the United States. He even filled in for Ellington, leading the Duke Ellington Orchestra for several performances. In 1967, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded a grant to Dollar Brand so that he could study at Julliard. Brand made friends with many leaders of the burgeoning black power movement and in response to the politics around him, started incorporating more African rhythms and influences into his jazz stylings.

In the late 60s, Brand converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah Ibraim. He began making repeated visits to Cape Town. Along with changing his name, he also starting changing his musical style. In the 1970s, Ibraim began experimenting with the fusion of jazz, rock and popular music, to great commercial success.

In 1974, the jazz piece “Mannenberg” was recorded. This was a one-take cooperative improvisation with Ibraim and his ensemble and it was a huge hit, not just commercially. “Mannenberg” was named “the unofficial national anthem” of South Africa and became a favorite piece for those standing against the apartheid system.

After the end of apartheid, Ibraim returned to live in Cape Town. Nelson Mandela called him “our Mozart.” He founded an academy of South African musicians and the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra. Ibraim was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and has been given lifetime achievement awards from the Recording Industry of South Africa and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Abdullah Ibraim still tours today, playing piano and leading orchestras, mostly in Europe and sometimes in North America. In 2016, there was a reunion with Ibrahim’s original bandmates from the Jazz Epistles marking the 60th anniversary of their collaboration that helped to start Cape Jazz and was part of the soundtrack of the anti-apartheid movement.

Learn more and follow the Timeline.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.