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Abdullah Ibrahim 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 has worked as a solo performer, typically in unbroken concerts that echo the unstoppable impetus of the old marabi performers, classical impressionists and snatches of his musical idols – Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller. He also performs frequently with trios and quartets and larger orchestral units. Since his return to South Africa in the early 1990s, he has been feted with symphony orchestra performances, one of which was in honour of Nelson Mandela's 1994 inauguration as President. Mandela reportedly referred to him as "our Mozart". In 1997, Ibrahim collaborated on a tour with drummer Max Roach, and the following year undertook a world tour with the Munich Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1999, he founded the "M7" academy for South African musicians in Cape Town and was the initiator of the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece big band launched in September 2006. Ibrahim continues to perform internationally, mainly in Europe, and with occasional shows in North America. Reviewing his 2008 concert at London's Barbican Centre – a "monumental" show with the BBC Big Band, featuring vocalists Ian Shaw and Cleveland Watkiss – John Fordham of The Guardian referred to "his elder-statesman status as the African Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk combined (and his role as an educator and political campaigner)". In 2016, at Emperors Palace, Johannesburg, Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela performed together for the first time in 60 years, reuniting the Jazz Epistles in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the historic 16 June 1976 youth demonstrations.
In 2007, Ibrahim was presented with the South African Music Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the Recording Industry of South Africa, in a ceremony at the Sun City Superbowl. In 2009, for his solo piano album Senzo he received the "Best Male Artist" award at the 15th Annual MTN South African Music Awards. In 2009, the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, conferred on Ibrahim an Honorary Doctorate of Music. Also in 2009, he was awarded South Africa's national honour the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver), "For his excellent contribution to the arts, putting South Africa on the international map and his fight against racism and apartheid."
In July 2017, Ibrahim was honoured with the German Jazz Trophy. In July 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced Abdullah Ibrahim as one of four recipients of the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships, to be celebrated in a concert on 15 April 2019 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Awarded in recognition of lifetime achievement, the honor is bestowed on individuals who have made significant contributions to the art form, the other 2019 recipients being Bob Dorough, Maria Schneider, and Stanley Crouch.
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