REVIEW: Abdullah Ibrahim Solo at the Barbican

Abdullah Ibrahim in 2011. Phphp credit: Michael Hoefner/ Creative Commons

Abdullah Ibrahim
(Barbican, Saturday 27 February 2016. Review by Mark McKergow)

Veteran South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim’s solo performance at the Barbican showed a livelier, more energetic touch than we’ve seen recently as he explored a stream of melodies with exquisite touch and passion.

Now in his ninth decade, Ibrahim has surely earned the right to do it his way – which when playing solo means totally acoustic, him and a piano, and letting the music do the talking. After a moment of confusion when a stage technician received a round of applause that was surely intended for someone else, Ibrahim walked slowly onto the stage in his customary baggy cotton clothes, settled at the piano and embarked on a journey through his own musical heritage and history.

This is not like any other concert experience. As there is no amplification at all, the music is quieter then we are used to and so one needs to ‘get one’s ear in’ at the start. The music flows from one tune to another, linking passages of improvisation with the hypnotic patterns and harmonies of Ibrahim’s compositions. The overall tone is gentle, but Ibrahim showed greater power and chromatic exploration than at his previous solo shows in the UK. The bass in particular is key, underpinning everything with left hand chords – Ibrahim must use the bottom octave of the keyboard more than anyone else around.

The music is utterly distinctive, meditative, with almost healing powers of tension and resolution. Tonight Ibrahim showed his jazz connections to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Ellington once told the young Ibrahim that "You're blessed because you come from the source", and the musical connections Ibrahim makes between African and jazz traditions are compelling and convincing. This performance was considerably livelier than the disappointing (for me) Royal Festival Hall performance of 2014 with his latest rather-too-tidy Ekaya band and trio.

Ibrahim played for 90 minutes in two stretches, the first hour unbroken, then a final half hour. He showed a total mastery of dynamics – while his compositions are often based on simple repeating phrases, he never played the same phrase twice; there were always subtle stretches of time, volume, attack, sustain – this was a masterclass of understated brilliance, turning every moment into an exploration rather than a statement. What did he play? It hardly seemed to matter, but The Mountain, District Six, The Wedding and pieces from his 2008 Senzo album all made appearances. And when he hit the final major chord the entire evening seemed to resolve – that was it, he knew it and we knew it too.

After this sustained period of attention and meditation, the applause started steadily at first, then rose to a crescendo as people gathered themselves together and embraced what we’d all experienced. No encore, no words, much beaming and gesturing.

While many of the audience remained rapt at all this wonder, the presence of the crowd was unusually distracting. At Glyndebourne there are prominent signs saying:

Latecomers are not admitted into the auditorium but will be able to follow the opera via a live relay. If a suitable pause occurs, patrons will be shown to their seats, although this might not be until the interval.

The Barbican could be well advised to institute a similar policy. Frankly there was no ‘suitable pause’ in the first hour of Ibrahim’s performance, and yet a stream of latecomers (some as much as three quarters of an hour late) paced the aisles with light streaming from their phones. The quiet and continuous nature of the music also meant that consumptive coughers played an unwelcome role – Strepsils to be handed out at the door?

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