Abdullah Ibrahim: How Improvisation Saves My Life

(Video link here.) When legendary composer Abdullah Ibrahim was growing up in Capetown, South Africa during the apartheid era, he relied on his ability to improvise to navigate dangerous run-ins with gangs and the white police. This survival tactic formed the roots for the astounding musical improvisation he would become famous for.

He tells his story in this lovely animated film.

I realized at an early age that this system of apartheid was totally against the brain of everything because it was not just that they didn’t want you to record the music, it’s that they didn’t want you to think. 

They were proscribing our humanity. 


When arrested one night while drunkenly listening to turtle doves in a white neighborhood —and composing music inspired them in his head — he did the opposite of what the police expected him to do. As with the music he had been improvising, he drew on the turtle doves to rattle the police’s thinking; they let him go.

See, the music kept us on course.

He elaborated in an interview with Zeit magazine:

There are people who can only play if they have sheet music. But we others improvise without knowing where we are headed. This makes us free. We don’t fear situations that we don’t know. We have a song, rhythm, harmony and pitch, and then we start to play with that, turn everything upside down...We jazz musicians are not afraid of letting things take their course.

His 2015 album, The Song is My Story, recorded during his 80th birthday, embodies the philosophy of improvisation that Ibrahim lives. On the CD’s cover he writes:

Improvisation is meditation in motion. 




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