Weekend Music Break No.110 — Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘tawhid’

Samuel Argyle in Africaisacountry:

Ibrahim-piano-1024x682A shadow underlies many artistic expressions, including human spirituality and religion. In 1962, with Nelson Mandela imprisoned, the Cape Town-born Ibrahim left South Africa for Europe – where he met his mentor, Duke Ellington – and then on to New York to attend Juilliard. After struggling with alcohol and marijuana misuse and “searching for spiritual harmony in an increasingly fractured life,” Ibrahim returned to Cape Town. “Years of smoking and drinking had battered his body,” writes John Edwin Mason, a professor of African History at University of Virginia. “In New York, doctors and a Native American medicine woman both told him to ‘straighten up.’ And he did, entering a period of ‘cleaning’ and embarking on a spiritual quest that began in New York City and culminated with his conversion to Islam, in Cape Town.” Speaking about this turning point in his life with the UK Guardian in 2001, Ibrahim said, “I went back to church; I didn’t find it there. I went into all religions – the [Bhagavad] Gita, I-Ching. Then I realized most of the friends I grew up with were Muslim. Cape Town has a rare harmony, intermarriage.” The musician converted to Islam in 1968. During this period in the 1960s, harmony was sought after in America as well. Many American jazz musicians viewed Islam as part of a decolonization movement, as an escape from their country’s segregation laws. Before his conversion, Ibrahim was exposed to many musicians involved in the Muslim movement in America. Figures like Sheikh Daoud Faisal, a fellow alumnus of Juilliard, inspired up-and-coming jazz musicians like Ibrahim. Faisal lead a mosque in Brooklyn Heights and was a representative of Morocco at the United Nations. Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders, to name a few, were also influenced by Islam, specifically Sufism and the Gnawa music of Morocco.

…While tawhid refers to the unity of God, it also maintains that the rest of the world is many. This paradox of oneness and multiplicity is central to Islam. It is also a major theme in Ibrahim’s music. Musicians perform in aggregate, forming an apparent whole. This dialectical relationship forming a captivating breathe of sound is only possible with someone as talented and devoted as Ibrahim guiding the movement. “The most beautiful, potent aspect of Islam is the unity of things,” Ibrahim told the Guardian. “You can’t throw anything out of the universe. This realization has been a driving force for me.”

More here.