Cape Town Jazz Ibrahim and Ramon

In the days of apartheid in South Africa, jazz was happening, but there was little hope in reaching its full potential; much of it went unnoticed, disrespected and certainly uncelebrated. Today, the founder of Cape Town’s i-Sound Studios, Leonardo Fortuin, has been pivotal in bringing back one of the country’s pioneers to reclaim the genre, and his name is Ibrahim Khalil Shihab (earlier known as Chris Schilder).

To hear Shihab’s music of then and now is to witness a heartwarming return to beautiful melodies and perfection in phrasing that can finally, joyfully be shared with jazz lovers around the world. The new album “Essence of Spring” features a stunning Shihab who sparkles on piano and his powerhouse co-producer Ramon Alexander, amazing on piano as well.

How did you come to start i-Studios and what is your mission, what is your hope?

Leonardo:  i-Studios is a direct result of me meeting Ramon. Just before my 37th birthday, I asked my cousin to recommend a Jazz pianist for my birthday dinner. I called Ramon on his recommendation and agreed on a two-hour session which ended with Ramon leaving 2 a.m. the next morning. This was a special encounter, besides the fact that I have never heard my home piano sounding that good, we chatted about his current status as a musician among other things (January 2014). I have never been involved in the music industry before this and had absolutely no musical background. I can’t play any instrument, I don’t sing unless it’s something I really know and definitely can’t dance to save a life. With all this in mind I called Ramon for a meeting the following Monday and asked if he would allow me to manage his career. He was willing to take the risk. I think we are both grateful he did.

At the time I had another business as well as traveling extensively as an offshore worker. Between myself and my South African business partner we took this venture on with the little knowledge. We had however been guided by Ramon’s musical know-how. I-Studios was formed during the production of the “Echoes from Louwskloof” album. We did everything in-house from album design to registrations, concert arrangements and more. This was not flawless at all but the result of “Echoes” was good and we managed to get the album on the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2015.

My hope/mission is to create an understanding and appreciation for music and specifically Cape Jazz. The plan is to give recognition to more musical legends while they are still alive and if it means producing more noteworthy albums then it will be. Ibrahim’s Essence of Spring was only the start. A Cape Jazz world tour is definitely one of the goals.

More countries need to experience our contribution to the art. 

What is your musical background?

Ramon: I am classically trained as a pianist and always had an interest in composition for as long as I can remember. However, I never had formal training. I’ve had very good teachers though.

When I was 18 years of age (back in 1998) I took lessons with one of Cape Town’s leading jazz pianists and teachers, Merton Barrow. There I learned about jazz in general, plus theory, harmony, composition and jazz piano. We discussed the contributions of artists like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans and more modern pianists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Michel Petruccianni, Abdullah Ibrahim and Keith Jarrett. It was Merton who dropped the name of Christopher James Schilder in my ear for the very first time in my life. I later learned that he was known as Ibrahim Khalil Shihab and has been an Islam convert since 1975.

What is the essence of Cape Town jazz?

Ramon: Cape Town is a cosmopolitan port city and there are well documented stories, for instance, about a young Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Adolph Johannes Drand) buying jazz records from visiting sailors for a dollar each. This is when he picked up the nickname “Dollar” and soon he was known on stage as Dollar Brand. This is how jazz infiltrated the city, initially. 

People of mixed race here in South Africa consisted of Malay (colonial slaves from Indonesia and Malaysa), European and indigenous lineages. All of these different roots surfaced in the music. Jewish, Indo-Malayan, Christian Choral Music, Western popular culture, remnants of largely undocumented Khoi-Khoi sounds and of course jazz are all evident in a cultural melting pot known as Cape Jazz. A typical rhythm that comes from this music is known as Goema (pronounced as Ghu-mah). Since the world has changed into a more globalized community, Cape Jazz has evolved to a much more contemporary, global sound and is exploited well by current, young South African artists such as Kyle Shepherd, Mark Fransman, Benjamin Jefta and Bokani Dyer.

How has the jazz scene in South Africa become such a strong force in international jazz today?

Ramon: South African music was exported by great artists like Abdullah Ibrahim, Chris McGregor, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Anthony Cedras (Paul Simon Band fame), Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee, Errol Dyers and Jonathan Butler. That flame is still kept burning through current artists like Kesivan Naidoo Kyle Shepherd, Mark Fransman, Benjamin Jefta and Bokani Dyer. South Africa also has, for the past three decades or so, jazz institutes at universities and arts festivals with a healthy dose of foreign exchange to boot.

To the uninitiated, what should people know when they are about to explore the sound of Cape Town jazz today?

Ramon: The sound of the Goema rhythm is the defining sound of the Cape. However Cape Town has its fair share of jazz masters who are skilled in most branches of jazz. Hard bop specialists, interpreters of Bill Evans and artists with an ear for the sound of the ECM label etc. are all alive and well in the city.

Jazz dancing (a Cape Town version of salsa) is often performed in nightclubs and other social gatherings to, for example, the music of Earth Wind and Fire, Chaka Khan, El DeBarge and Stevie Wonder. These influences you can typically expect in the repertoire of a Cape jazz artist. Jazz Rock Fusion (by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever”) is also evident in the typical Cape jazz musician’s arsenal. 

How did “Essence of Spring” come about since Ibrahim Khalil Shihab had not recorded in nearly 50 years? Did he seek you out or did you find him?

Ramon: Ibrahim, after the days he was keyboardist and primary composer for the Cape Town -based super-band Pacific Express, had to leave the country for better work to support his family. He worked as an entertainer on hotel circuits in the UAE, China and Southern Africa. Back home, his keyboard and composing skills were legendary, but no recordings of post-Pacific Express were available. I used to play with legendary Cape alto sax player, Robbie Jansen (from the Sons of Table Mountain) on various occasions and eventually I became very close to Jack Momple, the band’s drummer. Robbie and Jack were very close and were both members of Pacific Express. After Robbie died in 2010, Jack took over the band and recruited me to what is known as The Cape Jazz Band.

During my time in this band, I learned such a lot about Cape Jazz and its major players and had already arranged Pacific Express music for a fresh, new audience since the original recordings sounded old and jaded. The music of course was excellent in my opinion. Jack, even today, always left the thought in my head that Ibrahim still has a lot of music in him and that I should look into ‘finding’ that music and possibly documented it in a studio recording. In August 2017, Leonardo and myself met up with Ibrahim and proposed to record an album for him. He agreed. 

Cape Town Jazz Ibrahim CD cover Essence of Spring

How is this album an homage and expansion upon the much earlier “Spring”? 

Ramon: The original “Spring” album was recorded in an hour during the hours after midnight. In the Apartheid days people of color were treated with the utmost disrespect. Therefore Ibrahim could never really be proud of “Spring.”

The new album, “Essence of Spring” has an updated version of the 1968 title track and features once again, young, current and relevant players on the Cape Town jazz scene. The album contains new compositions by Shihab. “Jing’an Park,” for instance, talks about his meditations in the park in Jing’an District while he was working his residency at the Hilton Hotel in Shanghai, China. “Cancerian Moon” is an original tune that fellow bassist Lionel Beukes remembered playing with Ibrahim way back in 1986.

As producer I felt that after 40 years not being in a studio for a substantial album, Shihab needed to be reintroduced to the people who knew his music and still remembered him as Chris Schilder from the 70’s (there is a fantastic 50-odd minute, three track solo piano album out there issued by October Records and some bootleg CDs recorded in home studios). I decided to add some Pacific Express classics to make the connection to his new name. Ibrahim has always loved playing solo… so we included a medley of jazz standards on solo piano. There is also a trio version of him playing Rogers and Hart’s well known My Funny Valentine. Of course we cannot leave out a Goema tune (Bo-Kaap; loosely translates to ‘Upper Cape Town’ in Afrikaans). “Give a Little Love,” one of the vocal tunes (Pacific Express’ major hit), also features on the album. By this song alone Ibrahim should have been a millionaire!  

Talk about the inventiveness of the songs on this new album.

Ramon: Recruiting young, fresh and relevant jazz musicians from the Cape Town scene contributed to a sound that has a more contemporary edge. 

How was he chosen to participate in March’s Cape Town Jazz festival?

Ramon: Having made such a buzz on social media of the arrival of Shihab’s new album attracted the festival’s attention. I suppose every festival in the world would like to showcase their own legends, our own Herbie Hancocks or Keith Jarretts. Unfortunately Ibrahim never produced new material on an album and would have never been considered on a regular basis. He was however invited to play at this same festival in 2013. 

What kind of sound do you and Ibrahim get when you collaborate?

Ramon: I am just there to communicate his music, his heart and soul to the musicians. I act as musical director, so to speak. I transcribe his tunes and arrange it for his ensemble. Ibrahim values my knowledge of what is current in the developing Cape Town music scene. 

What was the biggest challenge in producing “Echoes from Louwskloof”?

“Echoes from Louwskloof” was recorded in one day (Sunday, 6 September 2015)… from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. This was a first for i-Studios. It was a live in-studio recording.

At the moment what is your favorite track?

Ramon: “Sons and Captains.”  The in-studio version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpRpqIg9v74

Leonardo: “Reflections.” This is off the “Picnic at Kontiki” album. I absolutely love the baseline on the track. The new re-arranged version with guitar has become another favorite.  

What do you like most about working with jazz musicians?

Leonardo: Their discipline when it comes to the music, and how different each and every one of them sound on the same instrument. I think that is why I love the Cape Jazz piano album so much; it’s the same piano with the exact same microphone setup played by five respected pianists. 

Besides the annual jazz festival there, are there a lot of opportunities for exposure for these artists in Cape Town?

Leonardo: Definitely not enough platforms to allows jazz artists the freedom to put their art on display. This is one of the challenges we have, which i-Studios has been trying to address. When we opened our own venue in 2016 we were able to address some of the challenges.  

What could be done to improve the scene or to encourage more musicians to perform there?

Leonardo: It will take time to change the scene. Audience development is a major factor throughout the industry, specifically in schools. If we create an appreciation and understanding for jazz, I have no doubt that we will have a visible change in the next few years. But this does not come without funding. With regards to encouraging musicians to perform here, collaboration is key. Traveling and touring with a full band is costly and those costs could be reduced tremendously by collaborating with local artists, planning and reliable recommendations would be key. 

Other comments?

Leonardo: The generation before us paved the road for the current musicians. It is important that those musicians get recognized for their contribution. 

My concern is that the music will die with those legends if it is not transcribed. This was almost the case with Ibrahim.

For more information, visit https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/essence-spring-leonardo-fortuin-1c/.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Leonardo Fortuin.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019

nitenday