Picks and Pans Review: African River

updated 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya

In the wake of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, this superb album by South Africa's premier jazz musician evokes a mood of painful longing mixed with hopeful expectation.

Now a devout Muslim living in exile in New York City, Ibrahim, 56, was christened Adolphe Brand and weaned on gospel music in the cosmopolitan port of Capetown. Nicknamed "Dollar" as a teen because he was forever scrounging U.S. currency to buy jazz albums from U.S. sailors, he eventually gained a devoted local following as a rollicking boogie-style pianist. But worsening political conditions prompted him to leave South Africa in 1962, the same year Mandela began his long prison ordeal.

Like his mentor, Duke Ellington, Ibrahim plays the piano, but his principal instrument is his orchestra. His septet, Ekaya, which takes its name from the Zulu word for home, sounds a clarion call for freedom on African River with the grace and power of a big band. As a composer, Ibrahim favors chantlike rhythms and gospel-inflected harmonies and mixes traditional African motifs with bits of township jive and modern jazz. "Toi-Toi," inspired by the dancing in the streets at political demonstrations in South Africa, is full of infectious energy. By contrast, the ballad "Joan—Capetown Flower" pays tribute in moody pastels to Ibrahim's sister-in-law and other long-suffering black women in his homeland.

During the early '70s, Ibrahim regularly visited South Africa. But he was forced into permanent exile in 1976 after he organized a jazz festival that flouted the rules of apartheid. Before he left South Africa for good, he completed a remarkable body of work, recently rereleased by Kaz Records. Voice of Africa, African Sun, Tintinyana and Blues for a Hip King include warmly melodic, sensual sessions featuring the outstanding South African saxophonists Kippie Moeketski and Basil Coetzee.

Most of all, Ibrahim offers proof of the power of the human spirit. His hymnlike laments have a hypnotic quality that will leave you feeling emotionally cleansed. And his anthems to the possibilities of an apartheid-free South Africa will make you want to shout for joy. (Enya)

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