Abdullah Ibrahim (born Adolph Johannes Brand on 9 October 1934 and formerly known as Dollar Brand) is a South African pianist and composer. His music reflects many of the musical influences of his childhood in the multicultural port areas of Cape Town, ranging from traditional African songs to the gospel of the AME Church and ragas, to more modern jazz and other Western styles. Ibrahim is considered the leading figure in the subgenre of Cape jazz. Within jazz, his music particularly reflects the influence of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. He is known especially for “Mannenberg“, a jazz piece that became a notable anti-apartheid anthem.
During the apartheid era in the 1960s Ibrahim moved to New York City and, apart from a brief return to South Africa in the 1970s, remained in exile until the early ’90s. Over the decades he has toured the world extensively, appearing at major venues either as a solo artist or playing with other renowned musicians, including Max Roach, Carlos Ward and Randy Weston, as well as collaborating with classical orchestras in Europe. With his wife, the jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, he is father to the New York underground rapper Jean Grae, as well as to a son, Tsakwe. Ibrahim was born in Cape Town on 9 October 1934, and was baptized Adolph Johannes Brand. He attended Trafalgar High School in Cape Town’s District Six, and began piano lessons at the age of seven, making his professional debut at 15. He is of mixed-race heritage, making him a Coloured person according to the South African government. His mother played piano in a church, the musical style of which would remain an influence; in addition, he learned to play several genres of music during his youth in Cape Town, including marabi, mbaqanga, and American jazz. He became well known in jazz circles in Cape Town and Johannesburg. In 1959 and 1960, Ibrahim played with the Jazz Epistles group in Sophiatown, alongside saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa (who were all in the orchestra of the musical King Kong that opened in Johannesburg in February 1959), bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko; in January 1960, the six musicians went into the Gallo studio and recorded the first full-length jazz LP by Black South African musicians, Jazz Epistle Verse One, with 500 copies being produced. Although the group avoided explicitly political activity, the apartheid government was suspicious of it and other jazz groups, and targeted them heavily during the increase in state repression following the Sharpeville massacre, and eventually, the Jazz Epistles broke up.