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Reliving a magical moment

When Abdullah Ibrahim takes the Berklee Performance Center stage Sunday night, under the auspices of World Music, it will be the first time in years that he’s played locally with his big (seven-piece) band, Ekaya. If it’s anything like the last time…

There are some concerts that change the way you look at music. And then there are those rare concerts that change the way you look at life:

Bob Dylan’s 1965 post-Newport concert at Boston’s Back Bay Theatre with the group that would become The Band. The Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense” tour. Laurie Anderson’s “United States” concert. The first time I went to Tanglewood and saw Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

The other concert I’d include in that company is Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya’s outdoor concert at the DeCordova Museum in 1989. I had just read about the South African pianist in the New York Times and bought a CD I liked, so got tickets for the DeCordova concert.

“Magical” is an overused word, but I’m not sure anything else I’ve experienced comes as close as that concert. There was a heavy rainstorm throughout most of it, but spirits were still high as the seven (I believe) musicians took the stage for the mix of African toi-toi rhythms, hints of gospel and American jazz.

Ibrahim was an Ellington-like figure, often just sitting there watching the horn-heavy band lay into a song before taking a solo of his own. He’d talk about the influence of Ellington, who introduced him to a wider world in the mid-’60s, and Thelonius Monk.

Ibrahim’s music also incorporates the prideful assertiveness of anti-apartheid politics during those horrible years and some of the most gorgeous melodies ever composed by a jazz artist.

He was playing one of them at the DeCordova – I’d like to think it was “The Wedding,” though I wasn’t familiar enough with his music to know – when the clouds parted and the sun burst through. It was as if Ibrahim and his band drove the rain away.

Those gorgeous melodies and political strivings – he was exiled from South Africa during the ‘60s and ‘70s – are more connected that you might think. I saw Ibrahim every chance I got after that DeCordova concert and interviewed him in New York for the Boston Globe in 1996. I told him that for all the beauty of “The Wedding,” it seemed like there was a tinge of sadness. “Ah… well,” he said. “It’s the story of two young people in love in South Africa. And then the young man has to leave, but they vow this song will act as a bond between them until he can return. The idea is that it was a wedding, but a delayed wedding.”

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Abdullah Ibrahim. (Courtesy)

The only problem was that after the DeCordova concert he pretty much stopped touring with Ekaya, preferring solo shows and trios. Some of it was economic, but he also said he was hearing different colors.

So this will be the first time I’ve heard him with Ekaya since that mythic concert. It won’t be the same band; musicians come in and out. And it won’t be raining inside Berklee. But with Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya onstage, I’m holding out for the heavens to open again.

— Ed Siegel, editor and critic at large for The ARTery