Born: October 17, 1936 | Died: August 20, 2013 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
South African vocalist, composer, and lyricist Sathima Bea Benjamin was born October 17, 1936 in Johannesburg and raised in Cape Town, where she began singing in church. As a youth, she first performed popular music in talent contests held during intermission at the local cinema and by the late 1950s she was singing at various nightclubs, community dances and social events. She built her repertoire watching British and American movies and listening to the radio, where she discovered Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz and pop singers who would influence her early singing style.
At the age of 21, she joined Arthur Klugman's traveling show, Coloured Jazz and Variety, on a tour of South Africa. When the production failed, she found herself stranded on the road where she was fortunate enough to meet legendary South African saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. In 1959, she returned to Capetown where she took her place on the city’s by-then flourishing jazz scene. There she would meet pianist Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim), whom she would later marry. They began working together and in that same year she recorded what would have been the first jazz LP in South Africa's history. Titled My Songs for You, with accompaniment by Ibrahim’s trio, the recording of mostly standards was sadly never released.
In the aftermath of South Africa’s Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, Benjamin and Ibrahim decided to join the growing South African exile community in Europe. The couple, along with bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makhaya Ntshoko, settled in Zurich, Switzerland and worked throughout Germany and Scandinavia, meeting some of the greatest American jazz players, including Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Ben Webster, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. The artist who would have the greatest impact on Benjamin’s life, however, was the inimitable Duke Ellington.
Benjamin met Duke while he was in Zurich in 1963. Standing in the wings during most of his band’s performance, once the concert ended she insisted that Duke hear her husband’s trio at the Club Africana, a local jazz spot where the couple worked fairly regularly. Duke obliged, but insisted that Benjamin sing for him. He adored her voice and promptly arranged for the couple to fly to Paris and record separate albums for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. Ibrahim’s record, Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio, was released the following year and subsequently helped him build a following in Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, Benjamin’s recording, despite its excellence and guest appearances by both Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, inexplicably remained unreleased. (The lost date was finally put out in 1996 by Enja Records, under the title A Morning in Paris.)
Benjamin maintained a friendly relationship with Ellington, who remained an enthusiastic supporter of her singing. In 1965, Duke arranged to have her perform with his band in the U.S. at the Newport Jazz Festival. At one point, he asked her to join his band permanently, but she declined because it would have taken her away from Ibrahim, whom she had married in February of 1965. Throughout the 1960’s Benjamin and Ibrahim moved back and forth between Europe and New York City, where they struggled to make it in the jazz world. For Benjamin, who had yet to release a recording of her own, gigs were few and far between. She spent much of the period as a staunch supporter of her husband and raising their son, Tsakwe.
The year 1976 marked a turning point for Benjamin. She and Ibrahim returned to South Africa to live; she gave birth to her daughter, Tsidi; and went into the studio and recorded African Songbird, the first album under her own name to be released. The LP, made up entirely of original compositions, not only unveiled her considerable talent as a composer, but revealed her interest in South Africa’s freedom struggle. In 1979, she launched her own record label, Ekapa, to produce and distribute her and Ibrahim’s music. Between 1979 and 2002, she released eight of her own albums: Sathima Sings Ellington, Dedications, Memories and Dreams, Windsong, Lovelight, Southern Touch, Cape Town Love, and Musical Echoes.
Each of these recordings received critical acclaim hailing Benjamin’s individuality and vocal talents. Dedications was nominated for a Grammy in 1982. A mix of original compositions and standards, the records reveal the full range of her talents as a singer, songwriter and bandleader. Indeed, she had brought together some of the most talented musicians in America to accompany her, including saxophonist Carlos Ward, pianists Kenny Barron, Larry Willis and Onaje Allan Gumbs, bassist Buster Williams and drummers Billy Higgins and Ben Riley.
Bringing together her two worlds - Cape Town and New York City - has been an essential element of Benjamin’s music. She’s recorded in both places. For the most part, she has used American musicians for her U.S. recordings and South African musicians when in her native land. However, for her most recent CD, Musical Echoes, she decided to bring the American pianist and collaborator, Stephen Scott, to Cape Town to record with two South Africans, bassist Basil Moses and drummer Lulu Gontsana. The result is a true synthesis of both worlds, incorporating American jazz styles with trademark Cape Town rhythms.
Recently, Sathima has begun to receive the kinds of accolades befitting an artist of her stature. In October of 2004, South African president Thabo Mbeki bestowed upon her the Order of Ikhamanga Silver Award in recognition for her “excellent contribution as a jazz artist” in South Africa and internationally, as well as for her contribution “to the struggle against apartheid.” And in March of 2005, the prestigious art group, Pen and Brush, Inc., presented her with a Certificate of Achievement for her work as a performer, musician, composer, and “activist in the struggle for human rights in South Africa.” Sathima is featured in the March 2006 issue of Jazztimes.
Sathima’s next album, SongSpirit, was released on October 17th in celebration of her 70th birthday. A compilation record, it includes tracks from her earlier albums, starting with A Morning In Paris and going through Musical Echoes, plus a previously unreleased duet with Abdullah Ibrahim from 1973.
In June 2007, Sathima began re-issuing for download her out-of-print back catalogue, beginning with Cape Town Love. In October, she reissued A Morning in Paris for download, followed by a CD release of the album in January 2008.
-Bio written by Russ Musto