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.