Sathima Bea Benjamin: Singer championed by Duke Ellington


The summer of 2013 saw the belated release of what was effectively Sathima Bea Benjamin's third "debut" recording. African Songbird came nearly a decade and a half after the first. In 1959 she had taped what would have been the first jazz LP made in South Africa, but My Songs For You was shelved.

Four years later, Benjamin collared Duke Ellington backstage at a concert in Zurich and persuaded him to come and listen to her husband-to-be Dollar Brand, the pianist later known as Abdullah Ibrahim, who was performing at the Club Africana. The couple had been in exile since the Sharpeville shootings in 1960, along with other South African jazz players who had taken refuge in Switzerland and formed a small but intense diasporic music scene there.

Learning that Benjamin was herself a singer, the courtly Ellington insisted on having her perform as well and invited the couple to meet him at the Barclay studios in Paris and record an album each for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, for which Ellington signed artists. Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio launched the pianist's career, but Benjamin's record was considered insufficiently commercial and her voice insufficiently individual and she was dropped for a second time.

Bea Benjamin was born in Johannesburg in October 1936. This was the year of the Representation of Natives Act No 16, which removed black voters from the common rolls and established the Native Representation Council, a key moment in the evolution of apartheid.

Of mixed St Helenan-Mauritian-Filipina heritage, Benjamin had begun singing in intermission talent contests at a local cinema, and began her professional career in nightclubs and dance halls with the pianists Henry February and Tony Schilder.

Her first break was prophetic. Touring with Arthur Klugman's Colored Jazz and Variety she found herself abandoned in Mozambique when the show went bust and was befriended by the legendary saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. On her return to Cape Town, she met Brand and made the abortive recording.

Benjamin's early dismissal is usually portrayed as racist and sexist, but the truth is that her work before African Songbird had been derivative and insufficiently inspired by her African background. The title My Songs For You was almost ironic, since the material was all American standards. Benjamin's "lost" 1963 date was finally issued only in 1996, as A Morning In Paris. It, too, finds her in relatively conventional mode.

Despite Reprise's reluctance, Ellington remained an admirer and at one point asked Benjamin to join his orchestra on a permanent basis. She only declined because of her marriage in 1965 to Brand. The couple spent the next decade working in Europe and the US, Brand winning a cult following as the authentic musical voice of South Africa but Benjamin struggling for independent recognition.

In 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising, they returned to South Africa where their daughter Tsidi (a hip-hop artist now known as Jean Grae) was born. They also had a son, Tsakwe, now a guitarist and pianist. Benjamin founded ekapa records to put out both Ibrahim's music and her own. She made a notable tribute to her sponsor on Sathima Sings Ellington but increasingly pursued the more individual line she had started on African Songbird, which powerfully enacts her self-determination. The session was made in association with Rashid Vally who ran the Kohinoor Record Store in Johannesburg and was released on his As-Shams label.

The album's structure saw her develop from singer-with-the-band to a highly individual solo voice. The epic "Africa" comes in with full group and with her husband accompanying, but the arrangements steadily shed horns and rhythm section over the course of the album and the closing "Music" is sung a capella, with just the natural sounds of South Africa for accompaniment.

Throughout the rest of her career she worked with American and South African groups, but remained based in Cape Town. In 2006, she marked her 70th birthday with the release of SongSpirit, but her career was effectively defined by records made and abandoned decades before. Recognition by the post-apartheid government came in the form of the Order of Ikhamanga silver award "for excellent achievement" made by President Thabo Mbeki in 2004.

In 2010 she was the subject of Daniel Yon's documentary portrait Sathima's Windsong. Benjamin is survived by Abdullah Ibrahim and their son and daughter.

Brian Morton

Beatrice Benjamin (Sathima Bea Benjamin), jazz singer: born Johannesburg 17 October 1936; married 1965 Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) (one son, one daughter); died Cape Town 20 August 2013.