This collection of ‘the very best’ of the South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim reminds me of a hymnal. What I mean is, it is a collection of songs in praise of people, places and things revered by the man formerly known as Dollar Brand. And the pace, tenor and feel of the playing is worshipful. Not in any denominational way but rather in a way that reveals his deep love and respect for each tune’s inspiration. Like the shimmering piano Ibrahim is pictured playing on the cover, this album is bathed in a numinous quality.
The album also succeeds in providing a glimpse into the man behind the persona, something most ‘Best of’ collections rarely do. Cape Town Songs is not just a bunch of nice songs by one of jazz’s most respected pianists; it is a bunch of songs that allow us to understand some of what makes him happy, makes him tick and perhaps even, ticked off.
The first two opening tracks are called Imam and Zikr, respectively. With clear references to the faith (Islam) to which he converted Ibrahim leaves no doubt about where his ultimate allegiance lies. Zikr, the Muslim practice of prayerfully invoking Allah by the recalling (zikr) of His names, is one of the most beautiful gospel songs ever made.
After this ritual opening of proceedings, Ibrahim directs our attention to Thelonius Monk, Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe (?), as people he believes are deserving of homage. I place a (?) after Mugabe’s name as the song is actually called Zimbabwe. I assume the reference to Mugabe is valid in that in the 80’s when that country was new born, many in Africa held Mugabe up for admiration and considered his name to be synonymous with that of the country he created and offered to others (especially South Africans) with such hope.
From people ibrahim sings praise songs to God’s creation: the mountains and the rain. Pule (Rain) is another candidate for one of his most beautiful compositions.
Chisa as far as I can gather, is a Zulu word for ‘burn’ and mostly used in conjunction with nyama (meat). Therefore, this happy upbeat song seems to be a ditty about the pleasures of barbequed meat, something South Africans of all races love.
Toi-Toi, is the war dance of black South Africans, which dates back to the Mau Mau people in Kenya, who rose against the English colonialists. It is a fine example of South Africa’s rare spirit in the face of impossible conditions and abject poverty. From protests to celebrations, the chants capture the emotions of joy, pain, encouragement, heartbreak and solace. Toyi-toyi is a powerful and infectious statement, by which the oppressed may voice their grievances to the government. During Apartheid, toyi-toyi symbolized the triumph of spirit through song and dance, against one of the worlds most oppressive state apparatuses. (http://www.capetownmagazine.com/whats-the-deal-with/Whats-the-Deal-With-Toyitoyi/125_22_17384) Ibrahim’s composition captures the musicality of the political dance so many South Africans of his generation had to endure.
Ultimately, the hymnal closes with a few songs that reveal his identity as an exile. The frenetic chaos of an African marketplace and his home, Cape Town. Ibrahim runs through all the great cities of the world he has lived or played in…a virtual tourist’s wishlist of locales. And yet his tired, lonesome voice longs for lovely Cape Town
I’ve seen many cities/ The new and the old
Copenhagen bored me/Madrid was dark and cold
New York has such crowded streets
Yet I hear no laughter
I vow that here after/ I’ll never roam
far from home
All that you’re after/come tear or come laughter
I’ll never roam
far from home
Cape Town/Lovely Cape Town
You’re the fairest city of them all
Oh my town/I missed you so
You’re fragrant summer breeze
the old oak trees
flowers sellers on the Grand Parade
early morning taxis market trade
Sweetest love I know
Deep the rivers flow
I’ll never roam
far from home
This is a tremendous record. A spiritual and musical remembrance of God, nature, friends, hope and home. The true hymnal of the gospel according to Abdullah Ibrahim.
03 For Monk
06 The Mountain
07 Pule (Rain)
10 Calypso Minor
12 Cape Town
13 African Marketplace
14 Mountain of Night