How Nelson Mandela Inspired South Africa's Music

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Arun Rath speaks with pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim about the passing of Nelson Mandela and his influence on the South African music scene.


For me, when I think of South Africa, the first name that comes to mind after Nelson Mandela is Abdullah Ibrahim. The brilliant composer and pianist was born in South Africa in 1934. It's never been easy to make a living as a jazz musician and exponentially harder as a black South African in the '50s and '60s. By the mid-'60s, Ibrahim was living in exile in Europe. He remained in exile for much of the next 30 years.


RATH: But Abdullah Ibrahim stayed connected to his country and the struggle for freedom. His song "Mannenberg" became an unofficial anthem for the movement.


RATH: Mannenberg was a black township in South Africa created by the government's policy of forced removals. The very name as a song title was an intense political statement. Ibrahim heard directly from Nelson Mandela's African National Congress of the importance of music, and his music in particular, to the fight for liberation.

ABDULLAH IBRAHIM: When he first heard the song, he said it was a sign that liberation was near.


RATH: Ibrahim returned from exile to play at Nelson Mandela's inauguration.

IBRAHIM: It was fantastic because for the first time now in many, many years that we met musicians, some of our friends, some of our colleagues that we haven't seen for decades. So it was that kind of reunion.


RATH: Did he ever talk to you about your music?

IBRAHIM: He came backstage and said, Bach and Beethoven, we've got better.



RATH: Perhaps the most striking quality of Ibrahim's music is that while you can hear the struggle, the dominant emotion is one of exuberance, love of life, even joy.


RATH: Abdullah Ibrahim spoke with us by phone. He turns 80 next year.

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