Title: Ancient Africa
Artist: Abdullah Ibrahim
Release Date: March 17, 2017
In a 1990 interview, Abdullah Ibrahim stated, “I used to use very eloquent language. Then I realized that hardly anyone understood what I said.” When I first heard the track “Cherry/Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro” from Sangoma (the 1973 vinyl predecessor to this CD) on WAIF radio in Cincinnati about 1977, I certainly felt like it was communicating to me. I was a teen-aged, wannabe classical composer that loved to improvise at the piano, and I was having difficulty with balancing the immediacy of improvisation with preparing written scores which would allow for that freedom. On Sangoma—issued initially under Ibrahim’s former moniker, Dollar Brand—Ibrahim made it clear that you could make big, ambitious, para-classical statements in improvisation alone. What made it different from Cecil Taylor was that Cecil was always ahead of the audience, constantly shifting the thread of his argument from subject to subject, whereas with Ibrahim there was always a sense of moving forward in a kind of continuum, often governed by an ostinato pattern, such as in the early, minimalistic music of Terry Riley.
There was a lot in Ibrahim, however, that was not like Riley. The title track “Ancient Africa” thunders forward with breathtaking intensity and power, whereas the following track “The Aloe and the Wild Rose” begins with blasted fragments of figures that settle, over time, into a distinctly Ellingtonian structure not unlike the Duke’s “The Clothed Woman.”
“Cherry/Bra Joe” was not originally included on Sangoma. Though recorded on the same day, it appeared on a different Sackville album, African Portraits. The first Ancient Africa issued as an album was the initial CD version of this from 1994, now long unavailable. This 2017 edition adds an unreleased track, “Khotso,” mainly a flute solo with some spoken narration. It illustrates some aspects of Ibrahim’s creative thinking, and would’ve been welcome on WAIF radio back in the ‘70s—though one understands why this was held back, given the limitations of album sides and that the rest of this session (“Thunder Sound, Toronto 1973-02-18”) was devoted to piano only.
The next step that Ibrahim would take was pretty far from the rarefied world of Ancient Africa; in 1974, he recorded Mannenberg with a small group in Cape Town, contributing a rallying cry to the struggle against Apartheid and laying the foundation for what became known as Cape Jazz. Nevertheless, the material on Ancient Africa is well worth knowing, both as Ibrahim’s final statements—in that time—in the field of long form, avant-garde solo piano improvisation and to experience the “very eloquent language” that Ibrahim mastered, but was compelled to leave behind.
Reviewed by Uncle Dave Lewis