RIP: Sathima Bea Benjamin, the African songbird

Sathima Bea Benjamin, jazz singer, composer and record-label owner, passed away peacefully in her sleep on Tuesday 20 August at her home Claremont in Cape Town. She was, of course, far more:  exile, home-comer and globe-trotter; mother, wife and eternally free spirit; recipient of South Africa’s highest cultural award, the Order of Ikhamanga in 2004 and of one of music’s highest accolades – being asked by jazz legend Duke Ellington to join his band, when she was just 25.

Sathima Bea Benjamin (17 October 1936 - 20 August 2013)

Sathima Bea Benjamin (17 October 1936 – 20 August 2013)

This obituary by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” section of 2013/08/25.

Beatrice Benjamin was born in Johannesburg on 17 October 1936, but raised in Claremont by her paternal grandmother before the group areas act segregated that suburb. She got her taste for performance in talent shows and, at the age of 21, joined Arthur Klugman’s Coloured Jazz and Variety” show, to tour Southern Africa. It was a commercial failure, and Benjamin was stranded in Mafikeng (Mahikeng) where she had to perform to earn enough money to travel to Johannesburg where she met South African saxophone and jazz composition legend Kippie Morolong Moeketsi, who helped her join an African band that toured to Mozambique. In 1959, she returned to Cape Town and performances with previous bandmates Tony Schilder and Henry February. She also met Abdullah Ibrahim (then playing piano as Dollar Brand) at a fundraiser show about which The Golden City Post crowed that she was “the most promising singer for 1959” writing, “Beatrice Benjamin is the mostest, the greatest and the most appealing girl singer in the Cape.” She also recorded an album with Ibrahim, “My Songs For You“, that was never released

In true jazz style, both Ms Benjamin and Mr Ibrahim had been working separately on a version of Duke Ellington’sI Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and later immortalised the tune by performing with Ellington and his musical partner, Billy Strayhorn in Switzerland. Benjamin and Ibrahim were married in 1965 and she is survived by him and their two children, musician Tsakwe Ibrahim and urban poet and rapper Jean Grae. She was celebrated worldwide as not only a singer, but also a composer, and works like “Nations In Me” reference her early understanding and experience of a multi-cultural and international self, with her father, Edward Benjamin, descended from St. Helena and her mother, Evelyn Henry, descended from Mauritian and Filipino ancestry.

Sathima Bea Benjamin and Duke Ellington "A Morning In Paris"

Sathima Bea Benjamin and Duke Ellington “A Morning In Paris”

“If they weren’t going to release my music, then I had to do it myself.”
– Sathima Bea Benjamin (17 October 1936 – 20 August 2013)

After the Sharpeville and Langa Massacres of 21 March 1960 prompted artists and activists to exile themselves, Benjamin left South Africa for Europe with Ibrahim and his jazz trio, Johnny Gertze and drummer Makhaya Ntshoko, to settle in Zurich and tour Germany and Scandinavia, and also dropped “Beatrice” or “Beattie” to become Sathima Bea Benjamin. The South African jazz couple met and worked with jazz luminaries like John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell. Famously, Benjamin met Ellington in Zurich in 1963 and would not rest until she had convinced him to hear Ibrahim’s trio. She also sang to Ellington, following which he flew them to Paris to record separate albums for Frank Sinatra’s record label, Reprise. The “Dollar Brand Trio” album helped launch Ibrahim’s career, but the Benjamin record was unreleased and feared lost until it was finally release in 1996 as “A Morning In Paris” on Benjamin’s own label, Ekapa).

In 2006 and 2007, 70th birthday celebration concerts were held at venues in New York and, in July 2013, Cape Town played host a re-issue her celebrated 1976 masterpiece, “African Songbird”. “Cape Town celebrates Sathima Bea Benjamin”, saw performances at Tagore’s in Observatory, with a screening of “Sathima’s Windsong” at the Labia Theatre. The documentary, shot in New York in the flat at the Chelsea Hotel in New York where she lived for thirty two years, and in Cape Town was directed by Daniel Yon (York University,  University of Cape Town). It has been described as “a meditation on jazz and diaspora”, exploring “the pattern of brokenness” of apartheid-era South Africa.

African Songbird” was originally recorded after she and Ibrahim had returned to South Africa in 1976. Comprised entirely of original composition, it showcased her skill as a writer. That year also saw the birth of her daughter, Tsidi (now Jean Grae). After the Soweto uprisings saw brutal retaliation by South African security forces, the family went back into exile and settled in New York, and both become politically active supporters of the then-banned ANC, and the apartheid government revoked their citizenship. In 1979, Ms Benjamin formed her own record label, Ekapa, about which she later said, with characteristic matter-of-fact determination, “Of course I had to. If they weren’t going to release my music, then I had to do it myself. So I did.” Eleven albums followed, and her 1982 album, “Dedications” was nominated for a Grammy Award. She was widely praised by audiences for her emotionally and spiritually powerful delivery, and by critics for her compositional style in mixing the jazz styles of the Western Cape with those of the western jazz.

Although the last half-decade in South Africa saw her struggling to find stages upon which to present her music, she was not unrecognised. In 2004, she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga for “excellent contribution as a jazz artist in the development of music.. and contributing to the struggle against apartheid” joining musical notables such as Princess Magogo Ka Dinizulu, Busi Mhlongo, Dorothy Masuka, Abigail  Kubeka and Hugh Masekela. In 2005, the American art group, Pen and Brush, awarded her a Certificate of Achievement as a musician and human-rights activist and just last month she received a lifetime achievement award at the Standard Bank Jazz Honours “for her contribution to the heritage of music in South Africa”.

   Hear more:
There is a Memorial concert in Cape Town for Sathima Bea Benjamin on Saturday 31 August at St James Church (2pm ’til 4.30pm, 114 3rd Avenue, Kenilworth, Cape Town).
This obituary by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” section of 2013/08/25.

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