Last weekend I organised a press conference for the venerable Abdullah Ibrahim – a musician I’ve always loved. (When I was in my early teens my parents bought an album of his called Black Lightning whose loping riffs and rough-edged horn solos introduced me to a sound I’d never heard before – the sound of South African jazz.)
The press conference was mostly for the South African media contingent flying in to cover the EFG London Jazz Festival. They all wanted to talk to the great pianist but his schedule was tight – so we asked his people if he would meet them all at once. To our surprise they came back positively, with a polite request for the journalists to refrain from asking Mr Ibrahim at what age he started playing the piano.
The time for the press conference was set for 3pm. I met the journalists early to take them to the Green Room and made sure the film crews were set up in time and everyone was in place and waiting. We had 30 minutes, no more.
3 o’clock came and went. Ibrahim was still on stage soundchecking. Time was ticking. Had his tour manager reminded him? Had he decided he wasn’t going to do it?
I began to wonder if Ibrahim wasn't so keen on journalists and film crews after all. A TV producer I’d got talking to earlier in the day said one of the scariest experiences she had ever had was just after Ibrahim had watched a film she had produced about Mandela’s years as a guerrilla freedom fighter. For thirty minutes he didn’t say a single word to her.
Eventually Ibrahim’s soundcheck ended and his entrance was announced to us in the Green Room. We clapped awkwardly. Despite his 80 years and slight stoop he has an imperious presence. He greeted the room and everyone responded enthusiastically, like students greeting a beloved professor. He then took his seat in front of us silently.
That silence. It was a little daunting - somehow magnetic. Everyone remained quiet while a gaffer fiddled with Ibrahim’s collar, trying to clip on a mic. And the silence continued once the gaffer had finished and moved away. At last one of the journalists gingerly posed a question about the early days. Ibrahim smiled. Was that a disapproving smile? Or a nostalgic one? It was difficult to say.
As he began to answer the question I had to slip out and when I returned the door was closed and I didn’t want to disturb the proceedings inside. I loitered outside with Ibrahim’s tour manager, keeping an eye on the time. As 30 minutes approached we slipped back in, ready to pull the journalists out.
But to our surprise Ibrahim was in full flow, chatting thoughtfully and expansively, his face alive with expression. More questions came, with greater confidence, and he kept talking and telling anecdotes, keen to discuss the present music scene and how different it is for young musicians nowadays.
Eventually, after a fair while, an opportune moment presented itself and we called for the last questions. As the film crews packed up and the room cleared, Ibrahim continued chatting to two of the journalists by the buffet. And it was then that he mentioned watching a recently made film about Mandela’s years as a guerrilla freedom fighter. Had they seen it? What the film-makers had done, he said, was so incredible, so extraordinary, he hadn’t been able to speak for half an hour after watching it.