Sathima Bea Benjamin: Song Without End
AAJ: In recent years the umbrella termed "world music" has gained a wider visibility to the more casual music listeners. Has this helped your art reach a wider audience?
SBB: I think in my case since I am talking about that time, that time slot... it definitely was about world music.
AAJ: Is the world music label itself too confining or esoteric way to describe your art?
SBB: No, I don't have anything against it. I think that's exactly what happened. That I was so directly exposed to world music. Just Cape Town being where it is: world music, world people; just a wonderful cultural mix; a wonderful ethnic and cultural mix of people. I don't know...you know what I do believe? I do believe that the powers that be, the power that is (Angels, God... whatever you want to call it), somehow or other if there is a role in the world that you have to play (and everyone does have a role) then you will get chosen for that. So I think I have been given this. That is very sacred and very divine and if I abuse it this is not going to be good for me. I am very aware of that. You know what? That is all I should have really said to you about everything. I am just very aware of the gift that I have and after all, people think it is just your vocal chords that make you sin but it's not.
When you come to realize this you realize that it is a very lonely place that you are in. In my case it may not be just a little not so lonely because I have Abdullah who is into the music. I have that togetherness with him. Even though we are not together it was the music that brought us together. It was the music that led us to Zurich. It was the music that led us to Duke Ellington. It was Duke Ellington who said that, "You guys don't need to hang out here in Europe anymore; I am going to take you to New York." It is the ongoing line of the music. Now my daughter she does hip hop, my son plays guitar and key board. It's a musical family.
AAJ: After a thirty some year wait, if you could go back in time and give yourself as you were then any advice what would it be?
SBB: If I had to live my life over again I would leave it just the way it is because I think it has been highly rewarding and a lot of lessons to be learned. All of it is really just a song; the song that is singing within me. This is a song without a beginning and without an end. I don't know where it is going to end. I don't worry about that.
I am constantly thinking about [it]... If it is not my own song; if I am not getting inspiration to write a new song; or if I write the lyrics and the melody doesn't come... it doesn't bother me because I am patient. I think all of us have to learn that lesson of being patient. You can't make something happen... well you can, but then it wouldn't be the real thing. It wouldn't be honest. It wouldn't be truthful. So just learn the patience and just wait. You can ask the powers that be to give you something but you can not demand and you can not command. Not if you're like me. In my case it is also about... some people will go up on a hill to meditate and sit still. I can't sit still. I meditate in motion. That is where I get most inspired. I like to walk the streets of New York and there are always people in the streets. I am walking with in the streets and it is from that that you get your sense of love and you get your sense of direction and you get your inspiration because they are all survivors.
In this day and time, what does it take to survive? Why would you even be so silly as to dare to be a jazz musician? I think a jazz singer...OK you have to be a bit crazy. Then I have to admit that I am but that's OK I think you have to be. My message here is to be true to yourself. It's very difficult to just be true to yourself; if you have been blessed with a voice and sing jazz. I am going to quote my husband, Abdullah Ibrahim: "Jazz is most advanced music on the planet." He didn't say unique but he said advanced. It will challenge the person who says, "I'm into jazz." It will challenge that person to advance themselves; to change their thinking: be in the moment, you have to remember the past, you can never/must never do away with the past (what would I be without my past history?).
Jazz is a forward looking music. It is an all-encompassing music. It gives you the freedom to do that. Whatever... it's just about what are you going to do with that. I am just being as honest and as truthful and I can tell you that it is my joy; my absolute joy in life. If I didn't have this in my live, because there are so many trials and tribulations all the time, I don't know how I would get through the day sometimes. I can be in the kitchen cooking and I can thing of a song. I can do it at anytime, anywhere. I can be thinking about it. I can be thinking about a song.
You know how all these musicians have this "fake" book, and then they go through it and they choose a song. I don't have a fake book. I don't even own one. Whatever I'm singing is because I have heard it before and then it comes to mind again. There's a reason it comes to mind and then you have to sing it! And maybe you have to do something else with it but you have to give it some thought because you have to respect the composer. This is a lot of fun. It is a lot of fun in the end. Ellington said when he brought me here, "You have the greatest gift of all that God can give anybody. That's the gift of imagination; because if you can imagine things, the sky is the limit." You can make all your imaginings a reality.
I don't even see these musicians. I don't socialize with them. They all live their lives, they are all very busy; most of the time they're traveling. I see them the day before if there's a rehearsal (if I can afford it), if not I just see them at the show and I run over the beginnings and the endings. It's all left to chance but I know that they love me and I love them and we love the music. And maybe there are only 30 people in the room (that holds 100) but I know that those thirty people came because they love the music too. It doesn't matter if there's ten people; you still gotta do a performance as if there were a hundred. You owe it to your audience. I always go on and I sing something solo. I just go up and I sing by myself. The guys say, "You don't have to do that you know, Sathima. We know that song." And I say, "Yes, but I need to do that. Because If can not hold this audience in my hands now. If they don't give me their hearts like I am giving them my heart, then I am not going to feel good about bringing you three guys on." By the time I am finished with that solo piece we have set some love going in this club and when I bring them on it is just going to get better. That is just my approach. Everything I do is about love...
And I would have it no other way. I have yet, ever, to make any money out of this music but what I do get out of it is so precious, I have no words. It's a giving thing. I am being given and then I am giving away. If you don't give it away and it goes around in a circle... everything goes around in a circle. I don't know why people talk about squares... I don't know I think everything is a circle. Even the Earth is round; the moon is round; the sun is round. Everything is about a circle... I don't know where the square came in; that's a man made thing. It's all about going around in a circle.
You start at one point and you go all around to the end point, where you end at the point you began. Then maybe you breathe a sigh and then you go on again. You just keep repeating that circle. All you need honey is courage to take the leap. Personally I think doing jazz singing is like jumping off a cliff. You don't even know where you are going to land, you just jump off the cliff. You really have to take that risk. You have to take a leap of faith... The music is a gift. It is divine. I hope and I pray that I never misuse or abuse it in any way. It's something that just takes me out of myself every day, just thinking about it...getting inspiration to write a new piece or getting inspiration to complete a piece or taking something from yesterday and making it new while having respect for the composer. And who knows, because I am sure like Victor Herbert, because there is another place that we go... Duke Ellington, my Mom, my Dad... they are all hanging out you know. Victor Herbert, when he hears me do "Sweet Mystery of Life" maybe he's happy about it because his song is coming back after 106 years, even though I am swinging it (I am not doing it as he wrote itlight operetta).
I am bringing the music back. I bring old songs back, I love doing that. But I wouldn't do it if it was coming from a fake book. I wouldn't do it unless it came from my heart. I wouldn't. Everything I do is heartfelt and done from there. That's how I live. It's a dangerous way to live because there are no assurances. I think it frustrates my husband because he'll say "Why? It would be better...Why don't you come back and live in Cape Town? Why do you have to be in New York?" I don't have an answer. I cannot tell you why I haven't moved yet. I know I want to live here but I don't want to die here. You know we are all going to die but people will say, "Oh why are you saying that?" Why are Americans so afraid to talk about death? Like you're not going to die? I am concerned with the fact that as a musician I have a legacy. That is why I am so careful about that I do and how I do it. That is what you ultimately leave behind. Some of the people who don't know about me know, or don't want to know about me know, or just totally ignore me completely; they will eventually one day say, "She was here and we didn't know that." That happens. That happens with great and grand people like Thelonious [Monk].
I am not saying I am great, I am not saying I am daring. Oh no, I think I am daring... I would dare to do what others would choose not to. But someone like Thelonious Monk, I utterly adore Thelonious Monk... I don't listen to other singers, I did when I was young but I don't listen to other singers for fear that I might take in something that I don't need to take in. I have plenty that I didn't even attack yet. I don't have enough time to express it all so I don't really listen to singers for feat that I might take in something that they are doing. I think I need to learn from other things. I do like listening to Rollins, I love Rollins. I love Thelonious Monk. I love Coltrane. My favorite piece is "Dear Lord." If ever I want to just lie down on the floor, close my eyes. I will put that CD in and I put it on and I listen to "Dear Lord." I find that piece so inspiring. It is just awesome. It just makes my cells tingle.
There is another piece called "All Alone." Monk plays it solo, he plays it just solo piano. It is so...then I figured out Monk I think he must have listened to the lyrics to play the song. He is playing it with the lyrics...I wanted to sing that song but I am not going to sing it because Monk is the ultimate version of "All Alone."
The music has never let me down. I think I might have let it down sometimes, but the music has never let me down. What I get out of this is I get love back.
Sathima Bea Benjamin, A Morning In Pari (Ekapa Records, 2008)
Sathima Bea Benjamin, SongSpirit (Ekapa Records, 2006)
Sathima Bea Benjamin, Musical Echoes (Ekapa Records, 2006)
Sathima Bea Benjamin, Southern Touch (Enja, 1989)
Sathima Bea Benjamin, Love Light (Enja, 1987)
Courtesy of Sathima Bea Benjamin