Dollar Brand

Weekly Music Roundup: Abdullah Ibrahim and The National

PREMIERE: South African legend Abdullah Ibrahim will release Jabula – hear the title track

I know, I know, the word “legend” gets thrown around way too easily. But the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand) is the real deal. Born under the apartheid regime, where jazz became a music of resistance, he was boyhood friends with the great trumpeter Hugh Masakela. He fled South Africa in 1960, made his way to the States, where Duke Ellington produced an album of his. He played at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, and Mandela referred to him as “our Mozart.” His wife is the jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin; their daughter is the rapper Jean Grae. American audiences probably know him best for the piece “Capetown Fringe,” a jaunty blend of South African rhythms and Thelonius Monk-inflected piano, which I can remember hearing on the old rock station WNEW-FM here in New York back in the early 70s. Ibrahim is now 84, and on Friday he releases a single from a new album called The Balance, due out on June 28. Today we are delighted to premiere “Jabula”. Ibrahim explains the title this way: “Jabula means the joy of arriving after a long and arduous journey at the sanctuary within, and the revelation that the road is still open and without end.” The piece features some Monk-inspired horns (except for the moment where they sound like they’re about to break into “Meet The Flintstones”) and of course Ibrahim’s piano playing, which contains, unsurprisingly, echoes of both Monk and Ellington but somehow manages to come up with subtly surprising voicings and harmonic choices.

Perhaps you’ve heard the strange-but-true tale of the song “Old Town Road,” by the Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X. Unsigned and largely unknown just a few months ago, he made a song that featured a typical Atlanta trap beat, but with bits of banjo and lyrics about horses and tractors and cowboy hats. Well the song took off, prompting millions of streams, resulting in a major record label deal, and becoming the unofficial anthem of the Texas Tech basketball team, who play for the NCAA championship tonight. It appeared on Billboard’s Country Music chart too… until Billboard announced that they were removing the song because it was not country enough. While teeth were gnashed and hands wrung in the media, the rapper himself enlisted country music giant Billy Ray Cyrus to lend his voice to what is being termed a “remix” of the song but is really just the same track with Cyrus’s voice laid over it. “Is it country enough for Billboard now?” asked the New York Times this weekend.

While people have justifiably asked questions about race – would a white artist be shunted off the chart like this? – there are other things to consider. Listen to either version of “Old Town Road” and you hear the sounds of Americana refracted through the prism of a young, urban, black rapper. (The cowboy hat in the lyrics? By Gucci.) It’s fun, catchy, and smart. Is it country music? Who cares? If country music fans are hearing it and liking it, it will appear on the chart of what they’re listening to. If a recording of the finale of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto were to sell a million copies for some reason, would Billboard refuse to let it top the Pop charts because it is in no way, shape, or form “pop” music?

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Billboard: after all, the Pop chart just shows what’s popular, whereas the specialized charts are there to give some needed oxygen to other forms of music when pop has sucked all the air from the room. And personally, I would never have thought “Old Town Road” was a country song. But if country music fans are listening, and if country music radio sees Billy Ray Cyrus’s name on the new version and starts playing it, it will be very difficult for Billboard to justify keeping it off that chart.

As noted here beforeThe National are releasing an album and a short film, both called I Am Easy To Find, done with Academy Award-nominated director Mike Mills (who is credited as a co-producer of the album). The film stars Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, and the band’s new single, “Light Years,” seems to draw from that forthcoming film for its beautiful, poignant black and white video. The National’s sound has often revolved around the layered guitars of the twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, but “Light Years” is a keyboard-based ballad. The band’s lyrics, by lead singer Matt Berninger, have often tackled feelings of distance and dislocation, miscommunication and the hard work of maintaining a relationship; that has not changed.

While The National has gone from a Brooklyn-based DIY band sleeping on people’s floors to arena tours around the world, guitarist Bryce Dessner has been pursuing a solo career as a composer; like the band, his trajectory has been steadily onward and upward. Last Friday he released his new album, El Chan, on what is arguably the world’s most prestigious record label, Deutsche Grammophon. The album is a collaboration with Katia and Marielle Labeque, French sisters who have been superstars in the classical music world since the 80s. It includes a concerto and a suite for the sisters, as well as a piece for two electric guitars and pianos that features both Bryce himself and fellow guitarist David Chalmin. This piece, called, Haven, is clearly inspired by Steve Reich’s mid-80s work Electric Counterpoint, for live electric guitar and 12 guitars on tape. Bryce has played that work, and the rhythmic interplay and propulsive thrust of Haven show him absorbing the influence of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Minimalist composer and turning it into something very much his own.

Shana Cleveland has played for us as both a solo guitarist and as part of her band La Luz, and in both settings she brings a distinctly personal blend of dream pop and surf rock. Her new video, “Face Of The Sun,” continues in that vein, with gauzy vocals and elusive, sliding guitar lines. The song is a track from Cleveland’s new solo album, Night of the Worm Moon, which is as spacey and trippy as the title promises. Although she doesn’t appear in the “Face Of The Sun” video, Cleveland did direct it; things that a turn to the psychedelic towards the end and you may find yourself thinking, “what the heck was in that joint?”

This article was originally written for New York Public Radio by John Schaefer.