DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Finally, this afternoon, we meet a visionary of jazz - South African composer, pianist and flutist Abdullah Ibrahim. Born Adolph Johannes Brand, he became famous as Dollar Brand. Now 72, he's recorded dozens of albums.

Abdullah Ibrahim was a strong opponent of the apartheid regime and lived many years in exile. But before he left South Africa in the mid-1970s, he recorded a tune called "Mannenberg." Named for a black township on the Cape Town fringe, it became an anthem of the anti-apartheid movement.

Ibrahim's musical journey has been shaped by everything from his mentor, Duke Ellington, to his study of martial arts and, since his conversion in 1968 by his Islamic faith.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABDULLAH IBRAHIM (Composer, Pianist, Flutist): (Foreign language Spoken) (Singing)

ELLIOTT: Today, Ibrahim again makes his home in South Africa in the hills outside of Cape Town. He recently spoke with us for the series, Musicians in Their Own Words. He's apt to answer a question by recalling an ancient fable or quoting the mystic poet Rumi.

When we spoke with him, Ibrahim was in a meditative mood, yet his memories of the most brutal days of apartheid remained vivid.

Mr. IBRAHIM: I remember one evening in Cape Town. The police - whew - they were on a rampage shooting - shooting people down. It was ugly. And we were on the grand parade, which is almost like the town square when this thing erupted. We were caught in this crossfire of gunshots firing (unintelligible). And I had the car radio on. All the static and stuff, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: They were playing Sonny Rollins' "Blue Seven." Whoo(ph), two worlds so far apart met in the region.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: And we just laid on the seats of the car and listened to this where there's gunfire going.

(Soundbite of "Mannenberg is Where it's Happening")

Mr. IBRAHIM: We went into the studio in 1974 in Cape Town. We were using a grand piano. And during break, I see this upright piano - old upright piano. They put metal tacks on the hammer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: So when it strikes against the strings, you had this metallic sound. It should almost sound like a harpsichord.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: The song (unintelligible) is pure, plain, tradition. This is what we call Maradi(ph). But it was a combination of Cape Town, Johannesburg. Everybody could relate to it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: And of course, there's the time of the Soweto uprising. And there was (unintelligible) Cape Town. Cape Town. There after Cape Town was up in flames. The whole country was up in flames.

And then we realized that we had created something which was tradition but it was affirmation of a new dawn coming.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: And we have a little record shop in Johannesburg at the bus terminal. You know, a bus terminals is going Africa. This is what really happens. We sold 10,000 over our country in one week. And then we knew. And it became the official national anthem of South Africa.

(Soundbite of "Mannenberg is Where it's Happening")

Mr. IBRAHIM: I study martial arts now for 50 years. It was a Zen master Takuan Soho, Japan. And he was the teacher of most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. But Takuan Soho never picked up a sword.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: One of his manuals is called "The Unfretted Mind," which is basically the way that we play the music, which basically the principle of martial arts, which is no mind. No mind. Once you think about it, it's gone.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: In any discipline, whether it's martial arts, music, there are really no barriers. We will talk the same language.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: In Senegal, they have a concept called anti-gusto(ph), which is almost like back to the future. So you're saying to us, how can we visualize the wisdom of the ancients? And then the thought came what about water. You drink water from an ancient well.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: What (unintelligible) says, the punishment of God gives to a people who do not obey is not the pestilence or hunger or famine. The worst punishment is that he removes the land at once from amongst us. It's a terrifying thought. So "Water From an Ancient Well" is dedicated to those ancient keepers of knowledge.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: The concept is not that the sound belongs to an individual. There is only one sound, and all the rest is echo.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. IBRAHIM: It's a national experience but it's a human experience. But the human experience transcends.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim in his own works. Our piece was producer by David Schulman. You can hear more of Ibrahim's music and listen to him rehearse his band at npr.org.

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