The opening night of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell on Mandela Day – celebrated on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth – and EJF joined in by lining up three South African act.
The evening opened with, for me, the main draw: legendary pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. I have seen Ibrahim many times over the years in many different settings (he will be playing with his small group, Ekaya, in London Jazz Festival in November); this was Ibrahim in solo, meditative mood. He played snippets of his many compositions straight through, with no gap between tunes and no space for applause. But he didn’t give himself scope to develop the themes, either – the moment he settled into one familiar tune, he moved on to the next. The audience was continually playing catch up.
The music was lovely, but Ibrahim didn’t bring anything new to the keyboard. His set felt like a greatest hits compilation – good to hear, but ultimately unsatisfying. I would have loved to hear him explore his back catalogue in more depth, getting lost in the tunes. And at little more than thirty minutes, this festival opener left me disappointed and feeling a bit short changed.
My mood wasn’t lifted by the next act, either. Freshlyground’s up tempo South African fusion should have moved me – it had all right ingredients – but their exuberance felt forced in the large hall of the Festival Theatre.
So I probably shouldn’t have been in the mood for the Mahotella Queens. Maybe Freshlyground had warmed me up more than I realised; maybe the Queens’ authenticity won me over. Whatever it was, they plucked the right strings and even got me moving in my seat. Many people went further – there was dancing in the aisles (including Freshlyground’s singer, Zolani Mahola, who joined the audience out front).
Dating back fifty years and with two of the original members – the third couldn’t travel on health grounds, her vocal and dancing duties being taking by a youngster – the Mahotella Queens’ blend of township music and dancing was infectious.