South African heart and a New York soul

Phil Johnson talks science and spirituality with jazz legend Abdullah Ibrahim on the eve of his British tour
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The Independent Culture

The lobby of New York's Chelsea Hotel is just as you expect it. Japanese tourists wander to and fro, and there's a mad woman screaming at the reception desk. Abdullah Ibrahim sits among all the mayhem looking preternaturally calm and beatific. The South African pianist and composer - who begins a British tour this week - has lived in the Chelsea for 20 years now, and what started as an exile has ended up becoming home. Forced to flee the country of his birth during the apartheid regime - possession of one his records or tapes was enough to get his fans arrested - Ibrahim returned to South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela, and though he retains a house in Cape Town where he tries to spend each winter, the bohemian atmosphere of the Chelsea is just too congenial to leave.

The lobby of New York's Chelsea Hotel is just as you expect it. Japanese tourists wander to and fro, and there's a mad woman screaming at the reception desk. Abdullah Ibrahim sits among all the mayhem looking preternaturally calm and beatific. The South African pianist and composer - who begins a British tour this week - has lived in the Chelsea for 20 years now, and what started as an exile has ended up becoming home. Forced to flee the country of his birth during the apartheid regime - possession of one his records or tapes was enough to get his fans arrested - Ibrahim returned to South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela, and though he retains a house in Cape Town where he tries to spend each winter, the bohemian atmosphere of the Chelsea is just too congenial to leave.

It would be difficult to overestimate Abdullah Ibrahim's importance to contemporary jazz, both in South Africa and the world at large. Born Adolphus Brand in Cape Town in 1934, he learned piano first of all from his grandmother, who played hymns in their local church. Later, having taken the nickname of Dollar Brand, he formed South Africa's first modern jazz group, the Jazz Epistles, with Hugh Masekela. After moving to Europe in 1963, his wife, the singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, encouraged Duke Ellington to come and hear him play at a jazz club in Zurich. Ellington subsequently sponsored a recording session and helped his protégé move to America in 1965, where he played at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival. In his first years in New York, Ibrahim (he became a Muslim in 1968) experienced the full flood of avant-garde jazz, working with John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, and also meeting his hero and - apart from Ellington - his most constant influence, the pianist Thelonious Monk. Then, after returning briefly to Africa in 1968, Ibrahim rejected free-form jazz in favour of a renewed enthusiasm for his musical roots, which has led ever since to a canon of rich, unembarrassedly lyrical, compositions that represents one of the most crucial legacies in all of jazz.

The British tour is particularly important because it is the first time Ibrahim has worked with a full band - Ekaya - for some time. As part of the tour, Ibrahim will be giving a lecture and solo performance at London's Gresham College, to celebrate his appointment as Visiting Gresham Professor of Music. He has also recorded a TV programme on the history of jazz piano with Jools Holland, to be broadcast later this year.

What Ibrahim - who applied to study first medicine and then music in South Africa, with both applications refused because of his race - had to struggle against most of all was the principle of separation enshrined in the doctrine of apartheid. "South Africa was a fantastic school because the whole thrust of the mind-set was to say to you that the principle of separation of things is a norm, so resistance was not against the people in charge, or not entirely, it was against this principle," he says. "You say, wait a minute, I'm looking at some music and this principle does not work; look here, see what this sounds like?" So you begin to study mathematics, logic and physics, and you see that this theory of separation is impossible. It created an incredible appetite to study ... You confront this thing with scientific proof, but how are you going to tell them, because they're going to say you're crazy in the head!"

Slowly, he began to put all this forbidden knowledge together, linking numerological theories about the Golden Mean to Coltrane's "sheets of sound", and then to architecture and science. "We never spoke about it, because the first reaction would always be, 'He's a black boy from South Africa, what the hell does he know?' "

The result of this reaction against separation has been, not surprisingly, an enhanced regard for the holistic. To this end, Ibrahim has started a musical academy in South Africa, called M7. Dedicated to training students in music, movement, medicine, meditation, martial arts, menu-masters (ie cookery), and a final M that today eludes him, M7 has bases in Cape Town and Johannesburg. "In some sense all these years of studying have paid off," he says. "Now we can share this idea, because basically we believe in the same truth: all this comes from God."

Abdullah Ibrahim: Warwick Arts Centre (0247 652 4524), tomorrow; Cabot Hall, E14 (020 7316 4709), Wed; Brighton Corn Exchange (01273 709709), Fri

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