Abdullah Ibrahim in Japan

21 Sep 2017

Abdullah Ibrahim has toured around the world as a solitary pianist since the 1960s. His captivating performances at the famous halls and religious buildings around the world have inspired countless people. Among these many performances was one held at the World Heritage Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, after which Abdullah himself stated was “a truly special experience that can not be obtained elsewhere.” It seems that this South African pianist and Japan have forged an unexpected but deep relationship. However, there are not many people who can see the shadows of the samurai Musashi Miyamoto and the haiku saint Basho Matsuo behind Abdullah’s sound which continues to evolve after himself reaching the age of 80. Tetsuya “Tet’s” Chaki, the Jazz Cafe Lush Life’s owner in Kyoto, is one of those few.

Tet’s from Lush Life

Tet’s listened to the vinyl of African Piano in 1970. “It was the jazz that I had never heard before. The way he played was jazz for sure but the things he conveyed was Africa.” 30 years later, Tet’s came up with an idea. He needed the help of his regulars he called “Lush Life Family” to make this dream come true. He wanted to invite and hold Abdullah Ibrahim’s solo acoustic concert at a special place in Kyoto. It was a completely new and erratic idea. Strangely enough, he was able to get in contact with Abdullah Ibrahim directly through one of the family members. In addition, Kamigamo Shrine was able to be used as the concert venue, an incredibly rare opportunity. It is uniquely famous and one of the oldest among over 80,000 shrines in Japan. The original shrine was built in 678 to worship the kami, Kamo-Wakeikazuchi-no-Mikoto. Kami is a spiritual force. It is stated that the powerful kami ventured down to the mountain behind the shrine, making the very mountain itself an object for worship. The sacred air around the area is known as “the energy spot” in Japan, and brings purification of the mind and body of visitors.

Lush Life Family in Kyoto

The Lush Life Family consisted of an eclectic variety of members, including carpenters, electricians, printers, designers, photographers, radio personalities, musicians, a piano tuner and a Shinto priest, among others. They were able to fully organise and run the concert from the planning and preparation stage through to its completion by contributing their respective skills. For the two-day concert, they separated into 2 groups. One group manages the proceedings on one concert day, and is then able to attend another day as an audience member by buying a ticket to enjoy the sound of Abdullah. The concert was not for commercial benefit, but for the pure love for music. Each member of the family did not hesitate to devote one’s time and effort. Some took a day off or few to support the whole schedule. The ticket fee was set comparatively lower. Tet’s’ s simple idea was “I want people who love music to listen to great music, at an incredible venue.” Despite the unusual condition of the offer, Abdullah who valued the passion of the Lush Life family accepted it as a charity concert. When Tet’s received the news of Abdullah’s confirmation, he told himself; “I have the Lush Life Family backing me up. Plus, Kamigamo Shrine’s kami is a mountain. My intuition tells me that it somehow connects to the belief in the spirit of nature in Africa. Now my job is to bring the best performance of the pianist in the relaxed condition, to let him be in the state of mushin—no thinking—to immerse himself in the performance.”

The Concert at Kamigamo Shrine

In autumn of 2003, minimal amounts of lights were lit for two nights inside the old wooden building situated in the corner of the sacred forest. During the performance, only the piano and the pianist were illuminated. When the very first set was over, the audience responded with loud applause. Abdullah returned to the back stage without changing his facial expression. Tet’s remembers the moment, “Despite the audience’s reaction, he seemed as though he was not feeling comfortable with the set.” During the break time, the staff was thrown into the unpredicted trouble. The figure of Abdullah disappeared from the back stage. He could not be seen anywhere outside either. After the appointed time for the second set began, Abdullah finally returned, delivering a remarkable performance incomparable to the first set. An audience member said, “It was as if the venue of the old wooden building hovered up and moved somewhere slowly, carrying everyone together.” This was a feeling shared by many of the attendees. A pastor who is one of the Lush Life family said, “The sounds played by Abdullah Ibrahim can not be expressed in a single word—there is strength and blues unique to those who experienced apartheid, yet at the same time it is clearly transparent.” Abdullah ‘s concert at Kamigamo Shrine was a huge success. By people’s demand it was organised again in 2006, 2010 and 2015.

Japaneseness in The Evolvement

Tet’s was surprised that Abdullah’s performance continued to evolve every time he came back. “It became simpler and simpler. I was intrigued by how much he reduced the sound and made the resonance so improved. Its persuasive power has become much deeper.” The concert in 2015 was decided to be the last Kamigamo concert by Lush Life due to the aging of the Family. Kamigamo Shrine offered the last concert to be the celebration of the ceremonial Shikinen Sengū of the shrine. It is a sacred ceremony to celebrate the construction of the house for kami that is newly built every 21 years. Tet’s was once again surprised. The performance of Abdullah had undergone further changes. His performance let us feel “ma”, which is highly valued in the Japanese art. It means “space”, “atmosphere”, “interval”, “pause” and “perfect timing” all at once. Tet’s states that “The blank margin is asserted in his performance like the masterpieces of Japanese paintings. His resonance somehow is in the same league of the sound of a bell at Buddhist temple in Japan that makes you feel simply blessed by just one long tone.” Tet’s also describes Abdullah himself as “The person who I respect as a human even after removing the title ‘Jazzman’. He has reached the point where he can express the way of thinking and way of life through the piano. To be able to do that is showing that one is close to kami. I think of him as a buddha rather than a jazzman. His performance is always regally headed for the future.”

The Experience in Kyoto

Tet’s has one thing in his mind that he would like to ask Abdullah; “I want to know how he feels about Kamigamo Concert.” He does not seem to know what Abdullah already told one of the Family members.

“For a long time I have been playing in various places all over the world, but the experience at Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto, is definitely one of the most special, one of the best. With my body and mind purified, I completely immerse in music. The particular love, sympathy and compassion of those who realise the stage. In their smiles, I feel relaxed and moved as if I returned home. — Abdullah Ibrahim”

Japanese Wisdom with Nature

Interestingly, Abdullah has an unusual link with Japanese tradition and culture. He is an unsurpassed pianist but also an expert in budo—the practice of Japanese martial arts as a way of life. He has been conferred full mastership from the 15th grandmaster Yukio Tonegawa of Bujutsu-Kōdōsoku-kai Yakami-ryū Taijutsu. In the Bujutsu-Kōdōsoku-kai institute, you realise the unity of mind, body and nature through the behavioral laws of the body obtained from nature’s providence. For each action, natural yet physically-logical movement of body and the correct breathing method is required. Abdullah has kept strict practice with Tonegawa for over 50 years. He is the only non-Japanese who has received the full mastership in the long history of Yakami-ryū Taijutsu. This South African who has survived his difficult but uniquely guided life visited Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto through a fortunate bond with the place and people. This man, who understands the spirit of ancient Japanese body technique and culture, succeeded to resonate with the sacred ground of Japan and with the people who were able to experience these concerts with him. His sound contains the oldest wisdom and at the same time, the deep breath of the magnificent universe that awakens the force of the new life.

Yushi Yanohara
Kyoto, Japan
October 2017