"I write what I know best..."

On June 26, 2006, Sunday Times Heritage Project researcher Sue Valentine conducted an extensive interview with Abdullah Ibrahim. This is an edited transcript of the musings of a man not usually given to many words.

Sue Valentine: What were your musical influences?

Abdullah Ibrahim: A high school teacher taught me something that made a great impression on me. Sometimes in your life you find little pieces of information that serve as guidelines, or open new vistas. This was [for] an English composition [and] he said, "When you write, write about something that you know best." So, at an early age, I started composing.

About two, three weeks ago, we were in Johannesburg and... got a call from friends in Vereeniging to say this lady was on her last, she's dying. She'd been stricken with cancer for many years, but I couldn't make it there, the next day about five o'clock she passed away. But this is my childhood sweetheart; we grew up here in Kensington [Cape Town]. Our home was back to back with theirs and I wrote a song called Over Your Fence, which was a love song. And at that time, we couldn't record it anywhere. At that time our works were not seen to be valid according to white standards. If you could get into a recording studio they would tell you what to play. But we played this song in dance bands... and as I say, I wrote about things that I knew best.

I wrote another song at that time called Gafsa, wrote words for it [and it] was sung by Yachia Abrahams - we called him Ziggy Grey - and this song became very popular, but again we could never record it. There's this trumpet player, Henry Marconi, a fantastic trumpet player, and he wrote some compositions [that were] never recorded. He played me one piece which I wanted to go and record; he didn't have a bridge for it, so at an early age I was a composer and always bearing in mind that, "write about the thing that you know best".

When we recorded this song, Mannenberg, when it came, we just played, we just played.I grew up in South Africa, so what do I know best; from a musical perspective what are my first influences? If you look at all the masters, the so-called classical masters, invariably they took folk tunes. You look at Bartok, the Hungarian folk dances, Tchaikovsky; they took folk music, it was their music. Where else must your inspiration come from? But of course, under the system of apartheid they didn't want us to record this, you see, because there was this concept of what we were supposed to be, you know this concept of "the negro". Here, of course, we were "kaffirs", "koelies" and "boesman".

They never wanted us to play this music, but from an early age when I started working with this music, I played jazz music, I played classical music. When I researched this traditional music in South Africa, I thought, man, this is quite complex. The trick is, the complexity of simplicity. Know what I mean? The trick is to make the listener think that it's simple, you see. So, I started writing these songs, but nobody wanted to play them. Nobody wanted to record, but what was worse, nobody wanted to play them. The musicians didn't want to play them.

SV: Why?

AI: It's something that still exists today. Now they're playing traditional music because they can make money. It's still a class thing. If you look at the Cape Town klopse music, I did deep research on it, but the musicians, didn't want to play it, you know what I mean? [chuckles]

So for years and years, I wrote big band scores incorporating this, but I couldn't get musicians to play it, they all wanted to be sophisticated jazz musicians, you see? And this exists even up 'til today. You'll find jazz musicians don't want to play traditional African music because it's culturally and socially beyond their dignity.

For years and years I tried to play - at least I was fortunate, I'm a pianist, I can play alone. Then I met Basil [Coetzee]; I knew him from District Six. He was a youngster. He used to come to the jazz club that we started, Ambassadors... I knew his music because he used to play pennywhistle. Basil would come to Ambassadors and come and sit in with us. From pennywhistle he already had that grounding in the tradition. Then of course with the saxophone he already had this grasp of the music, so Basil was the first one to take it on.

We are almost like the first generation of improvisers in this genre. We didn't have a reference we could go back to, you had to create the letter, the word, the sentence, the whole story and it has to sound uniquely you. And Basil took on that challenge. I think musicians don't even understand the scope of his maturity.

So, we decided now, we wanted to... I said to Rashid [Vally, producer of Mannenberg]: "Man, I want to record something. I've got Basil at least." I said to Basil, "Who do you suggest we get?" And Basil said, "Monty Weber". I said, "Yeah, I know Monty. Monty's a good jazz drummer." He said, "Paul [Michaels]". I said, "I don't know who Paul is." So he said, "I've got another guy here, Robbie, Robbie Jansen." I said, "OK, bring him in." And Robbie said I'd have to be very patient because Robbie would take a minute to find the key.

So, I'm writing big band scores, I'm looking at the idea of having a big band, but, number one, most of the musicians don't read music, so what to do? Let's make an extended project - I've got Basil, Robbie, but nothing beyond horns.

So OK, I need five trombones, saxophones, and so on. So we get into the studio, we've only got three horns, Basil, Robbie and me and Morris Goldberg... Morris is not a problem; he can read. Basil, Robbie, that's another story... So now you have to spend days and nights to get the parts correct and they have to memorise the stuff, or write it down alphabetically and the next rehearsal they've probably lost it or forgot and you have to start all over again.

And of course, the smart thing to do is to do the rehearsals outside the studio, because once you get inside the studio you lose all that time. We tried, we tried also with Winston Mankunku; we set up a recording in Johannesburg, paid his air ticket; he never pitched. Up 'til today he never said, "Sorry, I missed the gig."

So we had to pay studio costs, the gig was lost so we had to pay musicians, some heavy money...

Of course, when we recorded it, we took it to all the record companies and nobody wanted it. Nobody wanted it. We walked.I wrote about eight pieces, I spent time writing these charts, and I said, "Well, at least if I have Morris there, at least he can help translate to the musicians." So we kept on rehearsing, these songs... We're working on a grand piano. I thought, "Great, an old upright piano", I touched this piano, and I thought, "What?" This is what they did in the old days, they take an upright piano, put tacks on the hammers, that's what the marabi players used to do with the harmonium. You take a match stick and set up your tone role; you want to hit an F, you put a matchstick in there, it holds it down; you hit a C and it drones on in the background, you can do your thing on top of it.

I sat at this piano and it goes [sings out opening notes of Mannenberg], first time. Wow! This thing sounds so nice, it's grooving. I tell my musicians that I work with a lot of music that is written right there. So they bring pens and pencils and paper. I'm a composer; you don't know when it's going to happen.

So this is how Mannenberg was written. OK, now we have a bridge; OK, let's go.

SV: So it was as you sat down at that piano that you developed that refrain?

AI: Yeah.

SV: So all that rehearsing beforehand?

AI: It was all gone. [laughs] All the stuff we had rehearsed, when we went back to it, it sounded so flat.

SV: So it was as much the sound of the piano that inspired you as other things?

AI: The sound of the piano. Also the upright piano, because I grew up playing upright pianos. And the sound of it, it just transported me. They used to call it "diepa", the equivalent of the house-rent party, with the boogie-woogie piano, but they called it "diepa" it was like African stride, you know. You'd go all over, like Kensington here in [Cape] town; you'd go all over the country you'd hear it, stride piano. It came out of Kimberley, because with the discovery of diamonds there was a lot of ragtime...

SV: All the musicians who pulled in there?

AI: Mining towns and ragtime. And they incorporated it. They would start like Friday night and it ends Monday morning. [laughs] "Diepa", it was just piano and people dancing and there was a table with a plate. And you would say, "A shilling and I want this song". And another one would say, "No, two shillings I want that song". And it was a house-rent party, to pay the rent. They had the same thing, that's where all the pianists got together.

SV: And so when you hit on that melody, how much did you develop that melody? Because I suspect there are a lot of urban legends about this song, Basil picked up on it [Ibrahim nods] and between the two of you...

AI: Because they were all standing there, they couldn't figure what was going on. But Basil was attuned to this because he'd started off playing pennywhistle; he was locked in to the tradition. And then of course, I'd had the experience of playing dance bands, African dance bands like the Tuxedo Slickers, and we played Xhosa, American swing music, mbaqanga. On the other hand, I also played with coloured dance bands: waltzes, quick steps, squares, pasa double, then also the traditional Cape music.

The songs my grandmother used to sing, the songs I heard around her, Daar kom die Alibama, a confederate ship. When I went to Malaysia and Indonesia, I went to visit the Batavia, the ship that was coming from them. Also, Sheikh Yusuf, the Kramat, he was from Macassar, that's why the beach is called Macassar. And of course, he's not there because the body was taken back to Indonesia... so, all these linkages...

[Sings/hums] "'n Man van Sofia... na Batavia, na Batavia". That was a Nag Troep. You know the difference between the Klopse and the Nag Troep and the Christmas choir?

SV: What's the difference between them?

AI: Christmas choir are people who are very sociable, smart dressers, suits, hats, the play violins, they play Christmas hymns on Christmas and Easter. The Klopse are coons and the Nag Troep are Malay.

Now there was a Christmas Choir with only Malays in and the people of District Six would say, "Hier kom die Slaamse Christmas Choir!" You know, Slaamse, the Muslims ... [laughs] ... So from an early age, even now, there are so many things I've discovered, just driving around here ...

When we recorded this song, Mannenberg, when it came and we just played, we just played. Normally they will tell you, you must have stated airtime three or four minutes, I just said, "let it ride, let it ride", it felt so good... Now we went back to the other stuff, but the stuff sounded flat, so I said "Vic, [the recording engineer] can you play this back again?" Then we realised something had happened then, and it was actually the mood. I've written stuff like that, but to be in the studio and have it recorded, that was the first time that it ever happened.

And of course, Vic was very receptive to the music - that was very important. I mean the recording studio is only as good as the engineer. He also realised what was happening. So we finished the song and we listened to it over and over again, so he said, "What is this song?" We said, "Mannenberg". He said, "What?" I said, "Mannenberg - it's happening in Manenberg [sic] right now". People were being shot down all over.

SV: Why Manenberg as opposed to anywhere else on the Cape Flats?

AI: Because Basil was from Manenberg and for us Manenberg was just symbolic of the removal out of District Six, which is actually the removal of everybody from everywhere in the world, and Manenberg specifically because... it signifies, it's our music, and it's our culture ...

And of course when the thing was released, when we listened to it, we said, "OK, it has the combination of everything in it." If you listen to Monty, [makes drum sounds] which is actually this Cape beat. Now in Johannesburg they used to call it tiekiedraai, which is almost derogatory, and in Cape Town they used to call it kaffirmusiek, but now if you listen to pantsula, it's the same thing. And then, technically also, when I try to work out what has happened, the chords and the melody line, it was quite something, from a technical perspective, which I won't bore you with ...

Of course when we recorded it, we took it to all the record companies and nobody wanted it. Nobody wanted it. We walked. And the musicians, before we went into the studio, I said, "Why don't we start a co-operative? Why don't we create a corporation? We've got this band together, we're all in need of daily requirements, we don't take any money, we form a corporation, then we share the income, then we get our families and we buy food in bulk. Nah [they said], just pay us for the gig!"

OK, so now sitting with this, Rashid, we go to the record companies, nobody wants this. I say Manenberg - I asked the photographers, the graphics people, "Can you create something?" They came up with rubbish, so I just took a camera to Manenberg and took a photograph.

SV: That picture of the woman with the doek?

AI: That's my photograph! Because I studied photography and film-making. So now we're in Johannesburg, nobody wants it. Rashid has this little record shop... So I say to Rashid, "Why don't we just make demos and put loudspeakers outside and play them?"

We sold 10 000 in two weeks, without covers, it was incredible!We sold 10 000 over the counter without covers. [laughs] We sold 10 000 in two weeks, without covers, it was incredible! And the stories... There was, you know, at Diagonal Street, the bus terminus, there were these two guys, they commute every day - the one is blind, the one is disabled. So the disabled [guy] meets the blind [guy] and every day they come to town, and they never came into the shop. [One day], they walked past the shop and the music was playing. They stopped, they asked, "What is that?" so Rashid told them, and they said, "OK." The next morning when Rashid opened the shop they were there with the money, they were there with the money to buy the record. There are so many stories about it.

In exile, MK [Mkhonto we Sizwe] used to say to me they used to play this stuff on Christmas eve, New Year's eve in the camps. When I was invited by the late Johnny Makatini, who was the [ANC] foreign minister in exile, and also by the late Oliver Tambo, we went to the [ANC] school [in Tanzania], there also we found this music, and of course it became almost like a signature tune, an anthem.

SV: I remember it in the '80s...

AI: You see Basil's solo on that - sjoe! All the solos on that, Basil's one especially. It's a masterpiece. And, of course, then the thing became a hit. Then the problems started... You know, I wrote the song Gafsa, about three months later and there was a woman who claimed she'd written the song, so we said, "OK, why don't you come here?" We never heard from her...

But Mannenberg is synonymous, not with me, with us. It's our story.

When the thing was released, in Johannesburg, even here too, it actually was almost like mainstream affirmation, confirmation, that our inherent culture is valid. Because there's always this attitude, "Ai man, I don't want to play this music because you can't make money." Mannenberg just proves the opposite. Not that we set out to do it, to do something commercial.

SV: It resonates with people...

AI: This is what's so fantastic about it. You don't know. As a musician you figure everything you write is platinum [laughs]. Platinum or no platinum, you just do this jazz music. What you do is strive for perfection. You know, I practice martial arts. For the last five years I've been doing two steps; two steps, trying to perfect it. And the same thing, playing the music... Jazz music is... "Maybe one day I'll play just 10 seconds, one day..." My martial arts teacher says to me: "One day, one day, he can make one form that's 100 per cent."

SV: Do you still include Mannenberg in your concerts now?

AI: I have to, I have to. [laughs] Even if it's just a little touch, I have to... But it opened up a lot of things - and not just in South Africa, internationally - like other compositions; The Wedding, and Water from an Ancient Well...

And again, the old problem that we had - but it's solved now that we have this deal with Sony - all the back catalogue is going to be re-issued and repackaged out of the [United] States, repackaged in a heritage package. Beautiful liner and package - we're doing that. And we're also doing things that are still in the can from that time and quite recently... later stuff, like the BBC Big Band. We're working on a project with the Istanbul Symphony. For the first time we have an accredited company. Even now you can't find my stuff in the stores. We're going to re-release all of that. We have to do it through a US company because the industry here [in SA] has massive potential, but it's still fledgling. Like with everything else, we don't need missionaries any more, we need visionaries.

SV: When will they release the package?

AI: I think in the next couple of months... The publishing, what we're going to do, for example... We're going to have a children's booklet with a simplified version of Mannenberg, with the story of Manenberg, and then we're looking at visuals. Then there's an intermediary and then an advanced. All the songs in the catalogue, educational and entertaining...

And then about 99 per cent of all the music I've written; there are words to it, lyrics that I've hardly recorded. There are words for Mannenberg. The people wrote words for Mannenberg. Check in Johannesburg, ask Rashid to introduce you to Oupa. It was the bum jive, Mannenberg. There were Sotho words for it, and Xhosa words for it. The Sotho words were like, "The bride looks like a horse..." I don't know what the connection is!



back to the Mannenberg memorial page

"Mannenberg catapulted musicians' minds into what was really happening."
Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim
Picture: © Sunday Times


Interviews as historical sources

In this lesson plan, students are asked to think about how music enables people to express ideas and to affirm the cultural diversity of South Africa. They will be asked to reflect on the value of interviews as sources.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Images of the men who created Mannenberg.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Check out the “sound” memorial marking the recording of Abdullah Ibrahim’s famous anthem, Mannenberg.
Audio Archive
Listen to Abdullah Ibrahim and others reminisce about what gave rise to their famous tune.
A 360º view of the memorial on Bloem Street, Cape Town.
Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee 1
Part 1: Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee explains why they named the song after a Cape Town township, and how it became an anthem of the struggle against apartheid
Basil “Mannenberg” Coetzee 2
Part 2 of a 1998 SABC3 documentary on Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee
Curious to see and hear the Mannenberg memorial?
SABC2’s Curious Culture magazine programme goes to Cape Town to report on the Mannenberg memorial
Launching the Mannenberg Memorial
SABC2’s Weekend Live programme reports on the launch of the memorial to Mannenberg