Louis Armstrong Back in the Day

Louis Armstrong Back in the Day
With His Signature White Handkerchief and Smile

The significance of the blues aesthetic for those who are not professionally conversant in musical notation or the academic discipline of music or jazz history.

Tuesday, April 14

Abdullah Ibrahim: A Brother with Perfect Timing

A number of years ago I stumbled across a dvd documentary called Abdullah Ibrahim: A Brother with Perfect Timing (1987).  Want to add into here as well that in Robin Kelley's biography of Thelonius Monk we learn that Adullah Ibrahim was enormously inspired by Thelonius Monk and fashioned himself the South African Monk, somebody who full understood and utilized Monk's unique approach to chords and stride rhythm on the piano.  They met and liked each other much and Ibrahim continued to be his emissary.  Ibrahim still lives and still performs. 

It is difficult to remember a time when I was not aware that there were many South Africans who had made New York their home, and that South Africans were prolific musicians who had contributed meaningfully to the development of world music.  They were the first Africans that I met socially in New York and I had many enjoyable times with them.  

When I was a child, Mariam Makeba was a favorite of my family, j ust as Hugh Masekela would become a personal favorite of mine. Not sure when this started although I was further impressed by the fact that Masekela's talents often were utilized in the musical scores and performances of the occasional South African musicals we had the pleasure of attending from time to time in New York during that long dark period when apartheid still reined in South Africa.  

Apparently, Abdullah Ibrahim, pianist and composer, was a brilliant jazz musician who was part of this South African diaspora.  Aside from his providing a cogent illustration of the close relationship and kinship ties between African American jazz and South African jazz and music, he is also, himself, descendant of the Khoi people, a South African minority that were for a long time known only as the so-called "Hottentot."  His people who were indigenous to the part of South Africa the British first conquered were subject to wholesale slaughter.  Their skulls I am told still reside in the British Museum and the so called Venus Hottentot, Sartje Baartman, who was perhaps coerced into renting herself out as a human exhibit in France and English in the early 19th century is also descended from them.  

Often I think it is simply assumed by African American who have some interest in this topic that the Venus Hottentot was a black African just like all the other Africans and that the inhabitants of Africa were a racially homogenous peoples.  Not too surprisingly given the space and the diversity of Africa, everyone in Africa is not exactly like everybody else.  

In the South African case, these Khoi people who have since become a distinct minority, nearly extinct, were apparently quite different from the larger more homogenous and perhaps more exogamous and migrating groups of African blacks.  

If you look at the drawings that exist of the Venus Hottentot, aside from her large buttocks which provided her appeal for European audiences we are told, she has a kind of yellowish brown color and a face shape and hair that become identifiable upon closer visual examination with this subgroup of the Khoi. When you look at Abdullah, you see someone who has a face that is related to Sartje's face.  He talks in this film about how his ancestors were exhibited in museums and how difficult it was to be descendant from the Khoi as a child.  

Another thing I love about this film as well is that he talks about the difficulty of being a jazz musician in a black context in South Africa (the same I think in African American culture too), that it is not a profession his parents welcomed, and how the vocation of the musician is misunderstood when it is placed primarily under the rubric of entertainment.  Jazz musicians in particular are better understood as healers than as entertainers.  

Nixau from The Gods Must Be Crazy, 1980,

Related to my discovery of Adullah Ibrahim's film, which also gave me the courage to jump out on a limb and really embrace the notion of Blues People as an overarching approach to African American culture was another dvd I got from Netflix, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which was first released years ago and which profiles a group of the Khoi in an exploitative and comedic setting.  On this dvd, the film is paired with a documentary about the young man who starred in the original version.  The story is much like the situation for the Inuit male who played Nanook in Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty 1922), except that in this case the film was not intended in any manner to be a serious anthropological documentary at any level.  Nonetheless, the follow-up story about the young man who was catapulted briefly into international fame via the success of the original film qualifies as a very serious and enlightening treatment of the problems that have plagued the Khoi.  Here again is another look at the history and the development of Sartje Baartman's people.  

These films together help me to understand how diverse African peoples, and moreover what a thrilling intervention the blues has been in drawing our histories together in the Americas.
Will show some of A Brother With Perfect Timing and the documentary on The Gods Must Be Crazy in  class on the Tuesday we return to our Graduate Seminar.

Ibrahim has a website and contact information at http://www.abdullahibrahim.com/start.html

Apparently this film was made vhs and transferred to dvd in 1995.  It is available via Amazon for less than $20.  I recommend that everybody get this one.  It is beautiful.

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