It was a Tuesday night in late August when the news of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s death reached us. We (DJ collective Future Nostalgia) were hosting one of our regular music nights in Cape Town. As we grappled with the loss of this exceptional artist; the DJ playing at the time took out African Songbird and put the needle down on one of her most important compositions, Africa. The room fell silent as we listened to 20 long minutes of Sathima singing the words: “I've been gone much too long. And I'm glad to say that I'm home. I'm home to stay. Africa”. The words hit hard. The song was written in 1974, long before Sathima would eventually return back to the continent.
Just weeks before, Sathima had been in that space with us. It was a prodigious moment; a home-coming and in retrospect, a farewell. An effort made by an entire community gathering with the purpose of honouring the artist while still alive. Three successive events were held to celebrate her. First there was the performance, hosted at the much-loved but now long-gone music haunt, Tagores. The entrance was free and squeezed onto the stage was the accompanying trio of Hilton Schilder (piano), Carlo Fabe (drums) and Wesley Valentine (bass).
The famed red-lit venue was so packed that the line spilled out and onto the street. The next night saw the screening of the documentary made about her life, Sathima’s Windsong at the Labia Cinema, with director Daniel Yon present. The final night wrapped at our event, Future Nostalgia at jazz club The Mahogany Room, with the re-issue of the African Songbird album by Matsuli Music. Not only did Sathima come to the venue and hang out until midnight, but she spent time with anyone interested in talking to her. She wrote generous beautiful paragraphs on the album covers for those asking for autographs. It was a special time that not only thrilled fans but also ignited an interest in her sound for those newly won over.
"It’s like I took Africa within"
In interviews throughout her life, Sathima was constantly interrogated about Africa and how she could compose those words while living abroad. Her answer was always the same. The connection to Africa was a “spiritual embrace”, remaining with her wherever she went. “So I’m always home. It’s like I took Africa within, and that’s the coming home,” she says.
The narrative of the iconic singer, songwriter, bandleader, label owner, artist, mother, wife and political activist and her life-long dedication to music has always been side-stepped. It is important that she is remembered through an accurate lens, as we continue to uncover the rich history of South Africa’s music. And that we recognise the sacrifices made, the inherent feminism of her work, the political activism in her music and also her role as a global ambassador for the struggle for freedom.
How Beatrice Bertha Benjamin became Sathima
Born Beatrice Bertha Benjamin in 1936, Sathima’s was of St. Helenian descent from her fathers side and Filipino - Mauritian on her mothers side. She was separated from her mother at age 4 when her parents divorced. After experiencing cruel living conditions with her step-mother, she was sent along with her sister Joan, to live with her grandmother affectionately known as Ma Benjamin, in the suburb of Claremont. Amidst this time of the early 50s, harsh Apartheid laws fell into place that re-classified the family as Coloured and no longer as St. Helenian and later forced Ma Benjamin to move from Claremont due to the Group Areas Act.
She began singing as a young girl. “Grandma Benjamin would have me in the kitchen and teach me how to cook and we had a big old radio and I would hear the BBC. So I would hear all these singers. I used to keep a pencil and paper underneath the big gramophone and when I would hear songs, I would run and write a couple of words down.” she says. The radio brought the sounds of singers like Vera Lyne, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald to her. American films had a massive impression on the community she grew up in, and local bioscopes became home to talent contests in between screenings.
Reunited with her mother around the age of 18 after relocating to Athlone, Sathima would often sing at home accompanied by her mother on piano. She learnt by ear and memory, acquiring musical knowledge and phrasing from the artists she heard. She often cites Nat King Cole as a great role model for learning diction. It was at the Gaiety Bioscope in Wynberg, where Sathima sang for the first time in public at a talent contest and took the first prize winning the competition.
Soon she was singing regularly on the Cape Town music scene, mostly with covers of popular American tunes. She started mixing with jazz musicians who opened up new worlds to her. The jazz movement in Cape Town transcended racial divisions, even under the strictest laws of Apartheid. Sathima was able to permeate borders that many from her own background could not. After high school she pursued work as a teacher. She remembers visiting her local library run by pianist and community librarian Vincent Kolbe, who would pass on important books to her by black writers like Langston Hughes. However working as a teacher by day and being a jazz singer by night was not seen as desirable for a woman and she was forced to make a choice. Sathima chose music.
A glowing review in 1959 from The Golden City Post said, “There is no doubt about it, Beatrice Benjamin is the mostest, the greatest and the most appealing girl singer in the Cape.” During this time, she met pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) and the pair decided to leave South Africa in 1962 for Europe to explore further music possibilities. Not even a year later, Sathima encountered a life-changing experience.
While living in Zurich, she went to watch Duke Ellington perform and insisted on meeting the artist backstage. Using her often cited magnetic charm, she convinced Ellington to accompany her to see Ibrahim’s trio, who had a regular gig at the Club Africana. This meeting led to Ellington extending an invitation to Sathima to record with him in Paris, as he was a representative of Reprise Records, owned by Frank Sinatra. The album was made but was deemed not commercial enough for the label. The project was shelved. Through a series of serendipitous events involving an awe-struck sound engineer who kept a personal copy, it was unearthed nearly 34 years later, released as A Morning in Paris in 1997.
The now-married couple performed in Europe for some time and moved through London before finally settling in New York where Sathima would live for nearly forty years, mostly at the Chelsea Hotel. The name “Sathima” was given to her by bassist Johnny Dyani during this time in the 70’s, meaning “one with a kind heart”
Her sister Edith Green recalls that Sathima’s home was like an embassy with all kind of South African exiles welcomed. She returned to South Africa intermittently and played gigs on home soil, but this became harder with harsh Apartheid laws. New York became home for Sathima and she grew close to her community. One of her long running regular gigs was at a venue called Sweet Rhythm (formerly known as Sweet Basil).
A generous spirit
Due to Ibrahim’s intense touring schedule, Sathima put her own music career on hold, as she wanted to commit to being a full-time mother to the couples two children, Tsakwe and Tsidi (rapper Jean Grae). She intermittently did gigs where she could, but mostly worked in New York as a teacher. Accounts from friends and family remember Sathima as being incredibly humble, kind and generous. Green remembers how loving her oldest sister was, “She was a good cook and she liked cooking Cape Town food, but she made a mean chilli. It was my favourite. Whenever she knew I was coming, that would be my first meal.”
Jean Grae recalls:
Sathima was raised and inspired by a lineage of strong women, whose lives were deeply shifted by colonisation. In the documentary, she says, “Nobody broke my heart. You know why? Because they can’t. It’s already broken...It’s from where I come. It’s from SO far back. From my mother, from my Ma. They all had broken hearts. It’s the pattern of brokenness and lives that have to heal and finding ways to heal it.” For African women this inter-generational trauma is a familiar one. In her verse Black Girl Pain by Talib Kweli, Jean Grae recites the following dedication :
This is for Beatrice Bertha Benjamin
who gave birth to Tsidi Azeeda
For Lavender Hill, for Khayelitsha, Athlone, Mitchells Plain, Swazi girls I'm reppin’ for thee
Mannenberg, Gugulethu; where you'd just be blessed to get through.
"My sister Joan and I loved ballroom dancing. We had some great bands in Cape Town. We would follow the bands around on weekends. We did waltzes and foxtrots and sambas and quicksteps. I think from the ballroom dancing, is where I get my sense of timing with singing. I don't really start on the one. Somewhere between the one and the two, I would slide in there... It’s just a little bit like ballroom dancing you know”, she says.
Sathima had a unique sound with a naturally emotive sensitivity. Many of her albums include interpretations of popular jazz standards, but her original compositions were exquisite. Close musicians who worked with her include bassist Buster Williams, drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, drummer Ben Riley, pianist Larry Willis and pianist Kenny Barron. Her style was one of emoting, connecting deeply to the material that she sang and telling a story through it. Music came to her in dreams and visions. Compositionally, she gave preference to the bass, often receiving the basslines first before even writing the words. In his book Africa Speaks, America Answers, Robin D.G.Kelley says:
Finding herself far from home, virtually unknown and without a community to support her, Sathima made the groundbreaking move to create her own independent record label (with the help of Ibrahim) in 1979. She called it Ekapa and decided to release all her music via the label, doing all the work herself. She did the recording and then wrote to every reviewer she knew sending copies to them, taking her career into her own hands. The albums released under Ekapa include Sathima Sings Ellington (1979), Dedications (1982), WindSong (1985), Memories and Dreams (1983), LoveLight (1987), Southern Touch (1989), Musical Echoes (2002), Cape Town Love (1999) and Song Spirit (2006). African Songbird was released on the celebrated As-Shams label in 1976 and A Morning In Paris released via Enja in 1997.
A political sound
“Due to the Group Areas Act and living separately under Apartheid, I always wondered, ‘What is over there with the white people that I can’t have?’ I really wanted to know so bad! It was a big mystery to me. And I had to wait until I went to Europe and I found out that here was nothing that I really wanted. It was still that they wanted something from us,” she says.
Leaving South Africa during the peak of Apartheid and racial segregation made Sathima outspoken about the injustices back home. In response, the apartheid government revoked her citizenship. The couple lived in exile. Her Liberation Suite (1983) included three compositions Nations in Me - New Nations A’Coming, Children of Soweto and Africa which echo messages of resistance. About her mini-suite composition for Winnie Mandela: Beloved Heroine she said, “I wanted to write this song for Winnie because I absolutely identified with her. I could feel her pain. I wanted to write this song, but it was the most difficult song I have written.”
Jean Grae says that her mother was more than just a singer, “She wrote all of these things from her heart. These dreams, political statements, her love for her heritage and ancestors and home.”
For some time in the 80s, Sathima worked in the offices of the ANC in New York, doing everything from sending letters to performing at benefit concerts. After the assassination of activist Dulcie September in Paris in 1988, she was sent to perform at the funeral. She recalls being chased at high-speed from the airport to the funeral and back, with her life put in danger. However throughout all of this, she received minimal recognition for her political activism. In 2004 however, then president Thabo Mbeki awarded her with the Order of Ikhamanga Silver for contributions to jazz and the struggle against apartheid.
Sathima returned to settle back in South Africa in 2011, only to find out that despite her life-long commitment to music, it was difficult to gain recognition for her work back home. The couple had divorced and she had to leave her old life behind. Sad to leave New York but happy to be reunited with her family, she came home and stayed once more in Claremont. For two years, she struggled to find the support she needed to perform. Many helped out, but largely she was not welcomed by music institutions, radio and venues - the way she should have.
In this light, the series of events in July 2013 could be viewed as Sathima’s swansong. Of her performance that night, Temple recalls, “The electric atmosphere and crowded space only enhanced the palpable sense of being in the presence of greatness.”
Those final events stand as an important remembrance of her achievements, but more so the community embrace that she had longed for. Musician Hilton Schilder recalls her excitement upon connecting with him, “She said to me, ‘Oh! I’ve found my perfect trio!’”
The trio performed only a handful of gigs together, but had plans for more. On August 10th, Sathima travelled to Johannesburg to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival alongside artists Thandi Klaassen, Dorothy Masuka, Abigail Kubeka and Sylvia Mdunyelwa. On receiving the award, Green recalls her favourite memory of her sister, “On stage she so timidly asked the host, ‘Can I sing a song?’ And she sang beautifully Someone To Watch Over Me.” This would be Sathima’s last performance. Ten days later, she passed away, unaware that she had contracted pneumonia.
We have to remember Sathima differently. She was ahead of her time in so many ways and pioneered so many firsts. Choosing an unpopular career path for a woman and relocating abroad without any support system. Touring while raising her children. Her work as an independent label owner, before the advent of the internet, should be given the recognition it deserves. Her notion of pan-africanism in Africa, preceded the fashion of it. Her composition, Nations in Me, New Nation A Coming, is visionary in its imagining of a non-racial society.
Jean Grae mentions that one of the biggest lessons she carries from her mother is to “follow your bliss”. She says, “To trust my dreams. Most of her life was manifesting what her actual dreams presented. In song, in action. Windsong, for example. A whole dream that she revisited many times. The sounds, the visuals. She drew them as well as composed and performed them. Following your heart, a lot of times I think to her detriment. She was sensitive and kind and innocent and definitely too much for this world.”
Jean Grae, herself an accomplished musician, performed with Sathima several times before her death. “I wish we had done more. It's the most nervous I've ever been on stage. I know nothing I ever did would disappoint her. She never, EVER said she was disappointed in me. That's SO BIG for a child. So big. We talked a lot, for years about doing a duet Stevie Wonder cover album. I'm sad we didn't get to do that. The last thing we did together was that she opened my non-released "Cake or Death" album by singing Come Sunday. That was amazing. Being in the studio and being able to direct my mom. I think I pushed that memory away until right now. "
She comments on how she would like her mother to be remembered:
Sathima’s humility and openness as a person often meant her importance as an artist was downplayed. As we continue to unearth these unsung histories, there is still much more about her to come. The spirit that fuelled her to survive is inspiring for a new generation of women.We imagine a future where the lifetime and legacy of this incredible artist is written into history books as it deserves to be. “Jazz is a cry. It is a survival skill for the spirit. I think it must have started with a woman who just let out a wail. Then came the accompaniment,” - Sathima Bea Benjamin.
Interviews conducted by Atiyyah Khan: Calum MacNaughton, Edith Green, Jean Grae, Matthew Temple, Chris Albertyn, Hilton Schilder, Seton Hawkins.
Books/Articles: Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz, Carol Miller, 2011- Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times, Robin D. G. Kelley- Remembering Sathima Bea Benjamin by Matt Temple, Africa is a Country
Video: Sathima's Windsong by Daniel Yon, Columbia University Panel Interview with Gwen Ansell, 2008)