Abdullah Ibrahim

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additional name:
Adolph Johannes "Dollar" Brand
apartheid, exile, Islam, modernity, tradition
Music (jazz)
Africa, Southern, America, North
South Africa, United States of America
Cape Town, New York
created on:
May 19, 2003
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since July 16, 2003. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
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Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim © Ssirus W. Pakzad (www.enjarecords.com)


The man who brought jazz back to its African roots

Born in 1934 Abdullah Ibrahim is one of today´s most creative and influential jazz musicians. He grew up in South Africa and has wonderfully blended traditional African, church and pop music with contemporary jazz. His voice became one of the most important exiled voices of the repressed South African majority, and as a composer, pianist and bandleader, he is now known all over the world in jazz and classical circles.
The history of music is also that of society. Jazz, and the blues from which it grew, was for decades the music most closely bound up with the struggle against closed societies and racial repression. This blend of political, intellectual and jazz history is ideally embodied in Abdullah Ibrahim, who was born as Johannes Brand and became world-famous as ‘Dollar’ Brand.

Born in 1934 in Cape Town in South Africa, he was early exposed to various kinds of music. His grandmother played the piano in church, and his mother led the choir. At the age of seven he began playing the piano and soon became keen on jazz, so he used to take dollars with him to buy jazz records from American sailors in Cape Town harbour and was then nicknamed ´Dollar´, which became his career-name.

At 15 he became a professional musician in groups like the ‘Tuxedo Slickers’ and the ‘Willie Max Big Band’, and in 1959 became a member of ‘Jazz Epistles’ led by the saxophonist Kippi Moeketsi and including the trumpeter and flugel-horn player Hugh Masekela. Since the South African race-laws insisted on strict apartheid among listeners, it was hard for even a serious jazz musician to play to a sizeable audience, so ‘Dollar’ Brand founded his own trio in 1962 and went with his later wife Sathima Bea Benjamin to Zürich, where he was heard at a club-gig by Duke Ellington in 1963. This meeting became the turning point of his career. Ellington was so thrilled that he issued the first record of the ‘Dollar Brand Trio’ on his own label.

Afterwards Ellington invited Brand to the ‘Newport Jazz Festival’, and during a tour in 1966 Brand took over Ellington´s role as leader and pianist of the ‘Duke Ellington Orchestra’. Soon he disbanded his Trio and played a while with Elvin Jones and in projects with Don Cherry and Gato Barbien. At this time, the social revolution in the States led many black musicians, artists and sportsmen to turn to Islam. ‘Dollar’ Brand was among them and in 1968 was renamed Abdullah Ibrahim, the name under which his later recordings and compositions have appeared.

In the early 70s Abdullah Ibrahim surprised the jazz world with the number of his compositions blending simple-sounding African tunes and hymn-arrangements with jazzy grooves or free forms. The great number and often infectious intensity of his solo-concerts paved the way for the success of Keith Jarrett and others. In 1971 Sathima and Abdullah Ibrahim went to Swaziland and then in 1973 back to South Africa, though Abdullah Ibrahim still went on world tours and made recordings. Between 1974 and 1976 he made his last recordings for a while with South African musicians in his homeland. The discs included ‘Mannenberg’ (US title: ‘Capetown Fringe’), which became a hymn of the anti-apartheid movement.

Political circumstances led him to leave with his family for New York, where he founded his own production company ‘Ekapa’ and developed his music further with musicians like Carlos Ward and Johnny Dyani. During this exile he became the voice of the oppressed in his homeland and publicly supported the demands of the ANC, the ‘African National Congress’. In 1979, with the cream of the New York jazz scene, he issued the album ‘African Marketplace’ whose fusion of stylistic elements was a milestone in recent jazz history. In 1983 he founded his ‘Septet Ekaya’ (‘Homeland’) which became the nucleus of greater projects, and in 1988 he composed the notable soundtrack for the film ‘Chocolate’, followed by ‘No Fear No Die’.

Political changes let him in 1990 to move back to Cape Town, where he has since been living, though keeping his home in New York too. In 1991 he founded the ‘Ekaya Music and Heritage Centre’ in Cape Town, and in 1998 the ‘M7 Centre’ to make his social commitment tangible. In 1994 he played at Nelson Mandela´s inauguration and was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of the Western Cape. In 1998 some of his compositions were arranged by the Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder for jazz trio and a 22-member string orchestra and performed in Munich. Called ‘African Suite’, these compositions were issued the same year on CD and were received enthusiastically in both jazz and classical circles.

A big symphonic version with ‘North German Radio’ is due to appear as a double CD. After half a century as a professional musician, Abdullah Ibrahim still extends his notable range.

Events at the HKW:
Friday, 13 th July, 2001
Jazz Across The Border 2001
Africa Grooves
Abdullah Ibrahim Band

Abdullah Ibrahim - piano
Belden Bullock - double bass
Sipho Kunene - drums

Organiser: House of World Cultures
Author: Richard Berkowski 


Abdullah Ibrahim was born on 09.10.1934 in Cape Town in South Africa as Adolph Johannes Brand. He began with the piano at the age of 7 and became a professional musician called ‘Dollar’ Brand at the age of 15. In 1959 he played with the ‘Jazz Epistles’, who recorded the first purely South African jazz album. In 1962 he moved to Zürich, where he was heard a year later by Duke Ellington, who smoothed his path to an international career. Since then he has been one of the most reliable and productive musicians and composers in the international jazz scene. In 1968 he turned to Islam and was renamed Abdullah Ibrahim, and from 1976 to 1990 he lived in New York in exile. Since 1990 he has divided his time between Cape Town, New York and parts of the world toured, while also making recordings. His wife is the South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, with whom he has two children.


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Jazz across the border

(21 June 91 - 15 July 01)

Jazz across the border

(21 June 91 - 15 July 01)


Homepage of the artist


"Duke 88"

taken from the CD "Ekapa Lodumo"
enja records
play video