REVIEW: Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya at the Royal Festival Hall (2017 EFG LJF)

Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya in Gateshead in 2010
Photo credit Mark Savage

Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya
(Royal Festival Hall, 14 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Leah Williams)

This concert was originally programmed as a rare opportunity to see The Jazz Epistles’ two iconic figures — trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim — together on stage. The line-up sadly had to change due to Masekela’s ill health and, instead, Ibrahim alone performing alongside his sextet Ekaya (which means “homeland”) awaited a packed out auditorium at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

The great South African pianist, now aged 83, had decided that the show should go on, quite rightly still keen to celebrate the landmark music that he and Masekela made together. The Jazz Epistles’ one and only album, recorded in 1960, had only 500 copies pressed but went onto become perhaps the most important jazz album in South Africa and is still revered to this day. Its rich, innovative music brought together mainstream jazz and South African sounds against a backdrop of the turbulent sociopolitical times, inextricably entwined with the struggles and horrors of apartheid. Music and messages not to be forgotten.

As the evening began, Ibrahim walked on stage unaccompanied to begin playing alone. It was a beautifully poignant and understated opening piece, the layers of which unfolded gently as first cello and flute, and then drums and horns, joined the stage. A special opener for what promised the be a memorable concert.

However, the night took a slightly unexpected focus as it became progressively apparent that we’d be hearing a lot more from Ekaya than from Ibrahim himself. After his initial solo, there was an obvious lack of involvement from the star. Although he sat in the spotlight throughout and was obviously caught up in and involved with the music, he mainly just played to open and close the pieces with some sparse involvement in between.

Indeed, the band more than filled the gaps with some fantastic playing. For last minute stand-ins they were in fact rather standout. Particular note has to go to band leader Cleave Guyton who swapped between alto sax, flute and piccolo throughout the evening with equal virtuosity. The pieces moved gently and seamlessly one to the other, which allowed for a rich sonorific tapestry to be built up. The continuously mellow tones gave plenty of room for soloing but never really accelerated to the kind of up-tempo, rhythmic, celebratory tones one would perhaps expect of South African jazz. However, it did create a very atmospheric soundscape to get lost in.

Even though the lack of interruption was what allowed for this to happen, it was still a shame there was no real interaction with the audience. At no point were either band members or tracks introduced. Considering the required reprogramming of the evening, it would have been nice to hear from Ibrahim a little on which pieces hailed from the Jazz Epistles and which were Ekaya numbers (as it was advertised there’d be a little of both) for those of us not fully in the know.

Overall, it was still a very enjoyable concert, with Ibrahim’s brilliance evident in the little glimpses we were granted. However, it would have been nice to hear a bit more from the main man himself rather than feel as though he was a guest at an Ekaya show.


Abdullah Ibrahim – Piano
Lance Bryant – Tenor sax
Andrae Murchison – Trombone / trumpet
Marshall McDonald – Baritone sax
Will Terrill – Drums
Noah Jackson – Bass / cello
Cleave E. Guyton – Alto sax / flute / clarinet

This concert was part of the EFG Excellence series

Categories: miscellaneous

7 replies »

  1. A fair and balanced assessment and I agree it would have been nice to hear more from the leader. I would also have liked more ensemble playing from the excellent band and felt that there were too many disconnected solos. FYI Andrae Murchison played Flugelhorn all evening. I didn't see him with either a trombome or a trumpet.
    John S

  2. I'm sorry, but thought it was crushingly disappointing and by far the weakest of the concerts I've attended this festival. I remember the magic of the old days. I wish they'd pulled the plug on this as soon as poor Hugh had to withdraw. Left feeling sad tbh.

  3. I was left bewildered.the musicality was obviously manifest and Abdullah provided a wonderful piece of piano. The adjective “ drab “ was suggested by one of our entourage and I understood what she meant. I play the tenor sax as an armature and indeed Mannanburgh is on our playlist. The subtle senourously sensual township rhythmn was completely absent. Indeed I imagined that there would be an interval where the real Abdullah would weave his township magic in the second half. The playing of the horns had a overly constrained subtlety , almost perversely classical in aspiration. Nonetheless the musical experience had that unique quality that made it unsettling to condem. But put simply , I was disappointed.

  4. I saw A.I. about 10 years ago at the Barbican where it was essentially the same deal; although centre stage, he only had a minor involvement in the performance, although we did get about 30 seconds of Mannenberg on that occasion. I felt a bit ripped off.

    Consequently I'm quite surprised that a number of years later he is still booked for such prestigious venues / events. I'm sure the promoters know what they are selling but I do wonder what proportion of the public know what they are buying.

  5. Sorry but there was nothing really there. No bigger fan of AI exists than I, but he is clearly past it. The band was good, sure, but the opening solo piece promised much and in the end it didn't come. He started on a beautifully voiced Round Midnight as the preamble to one of the band set pieces, but he didn't even get to the B section before the band took over (and they didn't even play Round Midnight!). Even with diminished physicality, he could have done a lot more. I would have been in heaven to hear him play all of Round Midnight, however unenergetically, or any of the glorious Ellington pieces AI loves so much, but it was not to be. A sad occasion, made sadder by all those sentimental Saffers glorying in the idea of AI and what he so gloriously represents, but which in the flesh is now completely lacking.

  6. First time I have seen Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya, was in the mood after many guitar based gigs. The review is fair, but so are many of the commentators statements: no Hugh Masekela (and dwindling chances of seeing Hugh and Abdullah play together); Abdullah Ibrahim was either a 'guest star' or a 'bandleader' showcasing the newer generation; Cleave E. Guyton was a highlight; it was overly 'classical' and my friend really needed some swing after the show (almost like a jazz night for classical fans); 'township jazz' elements were almost non existent; Abdullah Ibrahim 'the idea of AI and what he so gloriously represents, but which in the flesh is now completely lacking.' From a sentimental Saffer, I still enjoyed it but if I saw Abdullah Ibrahim again and it was as it was that evening then I would also fell disappointed.

Leave a Reply