Abdullah Ibrahim: Mandela

6 Dec

Nelson Mandela couldn’t easily access the song bearing his name when Abdullah Ibrahim recorded and released it on the album Water From an Ancient Well in the mid-1980s. Mandela was in jail.

But a decade or so earlier Ibrahim’s Mannenberg reached him, smuggled into prison by a lawyer and played for the prisoners. “Liberation is near,” Mandela reportedly said when he heard Mannenberg. It was not so near — Mandela was only halfway through the 27 years he spent in prison, but in his situation, hope was not the thing with feathers but an Abdullah Ibrahim melody.

Mandela had been a fan of Ibrahim’s before he was jailed, though the musician went by Dollar Brand before his conversion to Islam (Duke Ellington, upon meeting Dollar Brand, said jokingly, ”You come from South Africa with a name like Dollar Brand. I’m only a penny brand.” Ellington went on to champion Dollar Brand; Ibrahim thanked him and more with his album Ode to Duke Ellington, among others).

Biographies of both Mandela and Winnie Mandela reference their common interest in music and jazz, including Dollar Brand, before he was imprisoned.

It was another decade or more before Ibrahim recorded Mannenberg, during the height of the Soweto uprisings. Mandela was in jail. Ibrahim was in and out of jail. In the studio, Ibrahim and his fellow musicians recorded Mannenberg in one take. It took, he said, about 17 minutes. “But something had happened with that recording,” he said. They replayed the recording and listened.

“We realized what had happened is that we had captured the spirit and the mood of the nation at that time, and it was confirmation and affirmation of our cultural and political inheritance,” said Ibrahim in an interview with voice of america. “And the public and the people picked up the song, and it was played and sung everywhere.”

Even in Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. One of the prisoner’s wives was a lawyer, and Ibrahim credited her with smuggling in his music. First, he said in the interview with voa.com, she took a song called Peace-Salaam, and Mandela requested it be played. Then came Mannenberg. “Apparently,” Ibrahim said, “when President Mandela heard this, he said, ‘Liberation is near.’ That was the song of hope.”

It took another decade and a half before hope was fulfilled. Mandela had been transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, but was still imprisoned when Ibrahim’s Water From an Ancient Well was released in 1986. The song Mandela was the first cut, Mannenberg (Revisited) the third cut.

In 1990 Mandela was released from jail, and he invited Ibrahim to come home to South Africa. In 1994, Ibrahim performed at Mandela’s inauguration as president, and dedicated a song to him. From Maya Jaggi’s 2001 Guardian profile of Ibrahim: “Backstage, Mandela returned the compliment. ‘Bach? Beethoven? We’ve got better,’ he said.”

sources: npr.org, theguardian.com, voanews.com, africareview.com

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