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. SongSpirit, a compilation record spanning her entire career, was released in October 2006 in celebration of Sathima's birthday, while A Morning in Paris was reissued in January 2008.
A Morning in Paris (reissue) - 2008
SongSpirit - 2006
Musical Echoes - 2002 (South Africa)/2006 (US)
Cape Town Love - 1999
Southern Touch - 1989
Love Light - 1987
Windsong - 1985
Memories and Dreams - 1983
Dedications - 1982 (Reissued 2005)
Sathima Sings Ellington - 1977
Africa - 1976
A Morning in Paris - 1963
My Songs for You - 1959
The Echo Returns
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MARCH 2006 Opening Chorus by ROBIN D. G. KELLEY Sathima Bea Benjamin ought to share company wi...MARCH 2006
Opening Chorus by ROBIN D. G. KELLEY
Sathima Bea Benjamin ought to share company with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter. Duke Ellington gave her the ultimate compliment when he tried to hire her when she was just 25 years old. Now, at the wise-old age of 69, Benjamin can give any of the new jack jazz divas a clinic.
Along with the legend of Buddy Bolden, the invisibility of Sathima Bea Benjamin will go down in jazz history as one of the great mysteries of this music. Benjamin, the mother of indie hip-hopper Jean Grae, stands among the greatest musical storytellers to ever hold a mic. She delivers lyrics with such emotion and patient phrasing that she will keep you hanging on to every word, and those words will linger for days, even weeks. And she exudes a kind of romantic nnocence, not the kind of romance produced by pain, loss, and experience, but the "first love" variety, the dreaming love we associate with the young. She
doesn't sing the blues; she renders every love song like a first kiss.
Benjamin can create emotional truth and innocence in part because she
doesn't rely on vocal acrobatics or melisma--just pure, crystalline
sound. And like Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson, she has her own
unique tone. She has been performing and recording for the past four decades, always to enthusiastic reviews. In fact, she has been "rediscovered" at least three or four times in her career, and each rediscovery generates a furry of excitement until some gigantic commercial label finds a new, young, sexy thing who can give the people what market researchers say they want.
Perhaps the forthcoming U.S. release of her CD Musical Echoes (Ekapa) might change all that--though Benjamin is not holding her breath. Recorded in Cape Town, the land of her birth, it boasts a brilliant international rhythm section consisting of American pianist Stephen
Scott and two South Africans, bassist Basil Moses and drummer Lulu Gontsana. The result is a true synthesis of both worlds--and one of Benjamin's most brilliant records to date.
Benjamin's invisibility has much to do with the fact that she is a
South African working in a jazz world that favors Americans. She was born Beatrice ("Beattie") Benjamin in Johannesburg, October 17, 1936, her father, Edward Benjamin, a native of the island of St. Helena off the coast of West Africa. Her mother, Evelyn Henry, had roots in Mauritius (an island off the East African coast) as well as the Philippines. Benjamin's parents had been living in Cape Town, but job opportunities compelled Edward to relocate to Johannesburg just months before Beattie's birth. her parents divorced soon thereafter, and after a few years living with her father and his new wife, Beattie and her sister Joan moved in with their paternal grandmother in Cape Town.
"I grew up listening to phonograph records and radio," Benjamin says
from her New York City home. "And my grandmother used to hum some of the old popular songs from operettas and Tin Pan Alley. But it was through the radio that I discovered Nat King Cole, Billie Holidy, Ella Fitzgerald and others. I kept a pad nearby so I could write down the lyrics."
She first performed in public in talent contests held during
intermission at the local cinema. She continued to develop as a
singer, singing in the school choir and even taking a few voice lessons
to learn opera. At age 16 she graduated from high school and completed teacher training, but the lure of the music was too much. "I was teaching by day but performing in nightclubs and community dances at night," she says. "Once the principal discovered I was moonlighting, she issued an ultimatum: either stop singing or quit teaching. I chose music."
So in 1975, at the age of 21, Benjamin went on the road with Arthur Klugman's traveling show, Colored Jazz and Variety. While the show gave Sathima experience, the entire production was a commercial
failure. She returned to Cape Town around 1959, at a moment when the jazz scene flourished but the vice grip of apartheid tightened. There she met and fell in love with the young, innovative pianist/composer Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim). They began working together and in that same year, 1959, recorded what would have been the first jazz LP in South Africa's history. Titled My Songs for you, with accompaniment by Ibrahim, Joe Colussi on bass and Donald Staegemann on drums, the
recording of mostly standards was never released.
Benjamin and Abdullah's life together in South Africa was cut short by tragic events in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960, when police killed 69 Africans peacefully protesting against the pass laws. Whatever vestiges of democracy that existed South Africa were swiftly eliminated.
In the aftermath of the Sharpville Massacre, Benjamin and Ibrahim
decided to join the growing South African exile community in Europe.
The couple settled in Zurich, Switzerland, and worked throughout Germany and Scandinavia. And it was in Zurich, in February 1963, that the couple met Duke Ellington. Benjamin buttonholed Ellington after
one of his concerts and begged him to come to the Club Africana to hear
her husband's trio. Ellington obliged and liked what he heard, but he also insisted that Benjamin sing for him. He adored her voice and promptly arranged for the couple to fly to Paris and record separate albums on the Reprise label. (Ellington was then an A&R man for Reprise.) 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 U.S. Benjamin's recording, unfortunately, languished in the vault because Reprise executives did not think she was "commercial" enough. It was eventually released under the title A Morning in Paris, but not until 1996.
Throughout the 1960s 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 and Ibrahim returned to South Africa in 1976, and it was there that she recorded African Songbird, her first album to be released. The LP, made up entirely of Benjamin's original compositions, not only exposed her talent as a composer but it
revealed an abiding interest in politics. A few months later, that
interest became a full-blown engagement after the children of Soweto rose up to protest the state's decision to teach math and social studies in Afrikaans instead of English. Once again, the police
retaliated: at least 575 Africans were killed and 2,389 wounded. this was enough to convince Benjamin and Ibrahim to return to New York City and become politically active on behalf of the African National Congress.
Upon her return, Benjamin took greater control of her career. In
1979, she launched her own record label, Ekapa, and in the course of
the next two decades she released seven LPs: Sathima Sings Ellington;
Dedications; Memories and Dreams; Windsong, Lovelight; Southern Touch; and Cape Town Love. Each of these recordings received rave reviews, and Dedications was nominated for a Grammy in 1982. (Celeste recently reissued the album, with two bonus tracks, in Japan.) These recordings
reveal the full range of her talent as a singer, songwriter and
bandleader, mixing standards, old Tin Pan Alley songs and original
compositions. Original pieces such as "Music," "Lady Day," "Dreams,"
"Gift of Love" and the "Liberation Suite" were poems set to gorgeous,
uncluttered melodies. She also transformed standards by incorporating "Cape Town rhythms," the distinctive shuffle beat common in the popular dance music of her native land.
Her latest release, Musical Echoes, proves that Benjamin has lost
nothing over the past four decades. Just listen to her voice float
effortlessly over Cape Town rhythms on "Falling in Love With Love," or her funky rendering of Ellington and Juan Tizol's "Caravan," in which she holds fast to the song even as she changes its melody. Benjamin romances us with measured renderings of "Someone to Watch Over Me," and
"They Say Its Wonderful," sometimes turning a single syllable into its own miniature melody.
As with all of her recordings, Musical Echoes is full of stories, mostly of romantic love. The one exception here, of course, is the title track. Her deeply personal musings speak to a different sort of love--the love of music and its healing qualities. Despite decades of disappointment, missed and lost opportunities, it is this music, this "jazz-tinged style," that sustains Benjamin: "My musical echoes / Heal my broken heart," she croons on the title track to Musical Echoes. Benjamin sings not about pain and suffering but about perseverance. It speaks to why she continues, never compromising her own musical vision, refusing to either remake herself into an "American" jazz singer or into what the world imagines to be authentically "African." She is who she is, Sathima Bea Benjamin, South Africa's greatest jazz singer and
one of the best the world has ever known.
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“That voice is both throaty and ethereal, with just a hint of smokiness. Miss Benjamin glides into a...“That voice is both throaty and ethereal, with just a hint of smokiness. Miss Benjamin glides into a song, turning a melody into a series of smooth arcs and gracefully tapering off the ends of phrases.”
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This compilation of tracks by vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin draws from throughout her career, rangin...This compilation of tracks by vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin draws from throughout her career, ranging from her recording debut in 1963 up to 2002. Married to pianist Abdullah Ibrahim for most of her career, who joins her on a haunting duet of Rodgers & Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" (the only previously unissued track), she is beautifully accompanied by pianists such as Kenny Barron, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Larry Willis, Stephen Scott, and the lesser-known Henry February. But the most intriguing track is from her debut recording (which was thought lost and was unreleased until 1996), where Duke Ellington provides stunning accompaniment in a challenging key requested by the singer to her marvelous interpretation of "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," with pizzicato violin added by Svend Asmussen at the composer's suggestion. This is an incredible portrait of a gifted jazz vocalist whose voice has matured like a fine wine over the decades.
Sathima Bea Benjamin "Musical Echoes"
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Forty years after she and future husband Abdullah Ibrahim fled their native Cape Town for Zurich and...Forty years after she and future husband Abdullah Ibrahim fled their native Cape Town for Zurich and then New York, Sathima Bea Benjamin returned to post-apartheid South Africa to reconnect with the audiences of her homeland. One of the results of that trip was Musical Echoes, an engaging session that finds the singer in wonderful voice as she's joined by simpatico pianist Stephen Scott and the excellent South African rhythm team of bassist Basil Moses and drummer Lulu Gontsana.
While her voice is often achingly wistful, Benjamin never sinks into bathos as she elongates syllables, stretches time like taffy, and makes daring and surprising note choices. The singer discovers emotional nuances and dramatic richness in tunes such as the opening Ellington number "All Too Soon," delivered with a breezy bossa nova air as she floats she poignantly pleading lines as "You should know as well as I, our love deserves another try." Similarly, Benjamin puts her unique stamp on "They Say It's Wonderful," lingering over the lyrics as if she were gazing at them longingly in a shop window while Scott's sensitive accompaniment and Gontsana's delicate brush drumming underscore the dreamy reverie.
The Rodgers and Hart standard "Falling in Love with Love" receives a fresh and exuberant read as Benjamin carries the melody over Moses and Gontsana's brisk and exhilarating rhythmic motif, a hip and funky backbeat that seems uniquely Africa. Benjamin returns to the Ellington-Strayhorn canon, paying tribute to the musical icons who played such important roles in her and Ibrahim's lives and careers with a yearning but hopeful "Something to Live For."
Benjamin and Scott's own "Musical Echoes" is a stunner, the glacial and reflective title song satisfyingly resolving with the line, "Those musical echoes heal my broken heart." Obviously moved by her homecoming, Benjamin delivers a highly personal musical statement that showcases this mature artist at a creative peak.
Sathima Bea Benjamin (with Duke Ellington): Solitude
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This recording sat unreleased for 45 years -- and only came to light when writer David Hajdu secured...This recording sat unreleased for 45 years -- and only came to light when writer David Hajdu secured a tape while researching his Billy Strayhorn biography, Lush Life. Benjamin had introduced Ellington to the music of Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim), and Duke arranged for recording sessions for both artists, with hopes that they would be issued on Frank Sinatra's Reprise label. The Dollar Brand LP came out to acclaim and helped establish that musician as a preeminent pianist, but Sinatra reportedly nixed the Benjamin tracks because he doubted their commercial prospects.
89/100 - Review by Ted Gioia
Fans may come to this performance because of the novelty of Ellington serving as a sideman, but the real draw here is Benjamin. Ellington does not solo, and even his comping is obscured by the pizzicato violin of Asmussen. But Benjamin offers a beautiful, heartfelt version of this classic ballad that brings out all of its lovelorn ambiance. No frills here, just an intense reading of a great song -- and a version that must have pleased the composer enough to entice him to join in.
Sathima performs a mixture of jazz standards (in particular the music of Duke Ellington) and original compositions.
There are no upcoming dates at this time.