Sathima Bea Benjamin's amazing life reads like the plot to movie. She took time out of her busy schedule to recollect her life's journey from her childhood in pre-apartheid South Africa singing during movie house intermissions to self-imposed exile in Europe where she and pianist composer husband Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) were discovered by Duke Ellington. Despite witnessing and being part of not just her country's history, but her chosen art's as well, this singer remains, to the casual listener an as yet undiscovered treasure. Chapter Index
- The Early Years
- Duke Ellington
- Recording Albums
- Between South Africa and New York
- On Creating and Performing
- World Music
- Reflecting Back
The Early Years
All About Jazz: You started at an early age, singing in church and during intermissions at movies. Had you professional ambitions at this stage or did that come later?
Sathima Bea Benjamin: I had no ambitions at all. I just knew that when I sang, I forgot everything else that was going on in my life. I'm not going to go into that, but I did have a very traumatic childhood. I mean...my parents were divorced, I really had a wicked stepmother and then finally my grandmother adopted my sister and I; there were two of us, my sister Joan she's a year and half younger than me. Then I went to live with, I will always call her Ma Benjamin, because she raised me. She was like sixty-eight at that time, when we went to live with her.
... she had one of those old wind up gramophones and she had these old records and I used to put them on and turn them up and that's where I heard these old songs like "Sweet Mystery of Life" and "Love's Old Sweet Song" and that's why I sing them. They're actually like a hundred-year-old songs. I decided that I can't sing them like the way they were, a light operetta style, but these songs were playing in my mind. I have to redo them, but I have to do something else with them so I decided I will swing "Sweet Mystery of Life." I don't think Victor Herbert would mind.
AAJ: What were you initially listening to which influenced you?
SBB:...When I was nine or ten years old it was the Union of South Africa, it was not what it is today. So there was a lot of, being the union part of the British Commonwealth, like India, I would turn to the BBC and I would hear Nat King Cole. I would hear Ella Fitzgerald a lot. I didn't hear Sarah Vaughan that much and I practically never heard Billie Holliday, I could mention Perry Como, Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields... It was a lot of Nat King Cole. I always tell people that he was my role model for diction. You can hear every word that he sings. So I learned that from Nat King Cole.
I was not aware of where this was going to lead me. I just loved singing, and did a lot of singing in secret. My grandmother was very strict and I think she would not have approved of any of us going on the stage to sing. I didn't know that I wanted to be a singer out there in the world. I had no idea. It was completely intuitive.
I was hanging out with jazz musicians and we would go to somebody's place after hours after we did these sort of nightclubs jobs. These jobs were in the so-called "White Areas" but they had colored musicians to play. It wasn't a sit down thing at all. They were dancing and dining, the white folk. We would sit up on the stage. But some of these wonderful musicians, like Henry February, we kind of used it like a platform... to advance ourselves musically.
You hear that story about you had to go to the kitchen to eat something? Well, we had to go to the kitchen...pretty much like what was happening in the South here... when I found out what was going on in the South, I felt this kinship. I was also "Oh my goodness there are colored people somewhere else in the world!" It may sound strange for you to hear me talking about this but it is really important to me.
AAJ: It was a drastically different time; you didn't have the multi media that allowed you to really glimpse what else was going on in the world.
SBB: No because South Africa didn't allow that. I think they only allowed television pretty recently maybe tenfifteen years ago. They said television would make us colored people see what was going on in the rest of the world and they didn't want us to know that. That was before freedom came.
You have to remember all these things I went through many of the different stages in the development of that country. In a sense that was why we had to leave. Because at a certain point I think it was after the Sharpeville Massacre (in 1960), when that happened then three was a crowd and that's when my husband [Abdullah Ibrahim] and I said we had to go.
AAJ: In 1960 after South Africa's Sharpeville Massacre you and Ibrahim went into exile in Europe. You were initially in Switzerland, what had dictated the choice of where you went?
SBB: We happened to know a friend who lived in Zurich Switzerland who said you know if you ever have to get out of there, come over here and I will try to help you. That's how we ended up in Zurich. That was not as easy as we thought. We ended up playing in all kinds of funny clubs and things and then I met Duke Ellington in 1963. He was in Zurich playing a concert and the guy at this club where the trio: Abdullah Ibrahim, Makhay Ntshoko (the drummer from Cape Town) and Johnny Getze (the bassist from Cape Town); the club was called Club Africana.
The club paid for and allowed the drummer and bassist to join Abdullah, so there was the trio and then there was me. You know what, I sang but it didn't really matter whether or not I sang at that club or not, the club owner just tolerated it. I would sing... because that way I stay in touch with myself...
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AAJ: In 1963 while Duke Ellington was playing Zurich. You caught his eye and managed to meet him. You were able to persuade him to see Abdullah Ibrahim who was by now your husband, perform with his trio at Club Africana. Duke Ellington insisted on also hearing you sing. So impressed was he by what he had heard, he flew you both to Paris to record separate albums. This all must have seemed as if something out of a storybook, do you recall how you felt?
SBB: Duke Ellington came in to town so I said "OK I am going to try to go to this concert because I wanted to tell him about how much we in South Africa love him and to see if he would come back to the club before they closed (everything closed at ten minutes to twelve in Zurich).
I got myself to the Duke Ellington concert, I don't quite remember how I got backstage and there were so many people standing outside Duke Ellington's dressing room door. Every time the door would open he would say "Let so and so in," and at one point he caught my eye and said "let her in." And then I was standing there and he said "So who are you?" I said "Sir, well I am here I am just trying to see if after the show, if you could come with me to this club and listen to my boyfriend..." (we weren't married yet). I had heard that Duke Ellington could record people for Reprise records, Frank Sinatra's label. He was their A&R man at that time and he could record six projects...
After the show he came out he said "Oh my goodness you are still here" and I said "Sir, but you said you would come with me," and he said "Do you mind if I bring my barber?" because he didn't know me from anywhere... And as we got to the club, the owner was turning the key in the door. It was like ten minutes before midnight. But then he saw me get out of the cab with Duke Ellington and he of course, he put the key back in.
We went in and Abdullah didn't know what to think. I introduced them and the owner reopened the club. I explained that I wanted just a few minutes for him to hear Abdullah. And while listening to Abdullah he asked "how old are you?" and I was twenty-three and I said so. He said "What do you do? You cannot be a manager you are too young. Just a little girl." And I said "Well sir, sometimes I sing." And he said, "Oh OK, so go up there." I don't know what I sang, it was not a Duke Ellington song maybe it was "I'm Glad There Was You" or something. He said "My goodness, listen. I have to leave tomorrow because I am doing a European tour. If you two guys will be at the Baur Au Lac Hotel (which was the grandest hotel in Zurich) at 10:30 in the morning we will talk." I'm telling you it was February, it was freezing cold, it was snowing ...Abdullah and I, we did not sleep that night. We could not wait for 10:30 the next morning.
We went to that hotel and Duke Ellington had us sit down in his room. He said, "Look, I will be in Paris in 4 days time at the Barclay studios. When you leave my room now I am going to put you in touch with my accountant, he will give you some money to take a train and I will see you at the Barclay studios in Paris, in four days time." And that was how it happened.
When we got to Paris and got to the Barclay studios... he also put us up in... I have never... been treated so royally in my life. We were not used to this. We were really poor. We were struggling with the music, we were struggling financially...
So we got ourselves to the studio and then Duke walked in with a very beautiful lady whom he called the Countess, and she really looked like a countess. She didn't stay but he introduced her to us and he also had Billy Strayhorn with him. He said to Billy Strayhorn, "Billy this is Bea and Bea this is Billy. Now I want you to go over to this piano. I know you can do wonderful things together." Well I had never met Billy and he had never met me, but I know why they called him Sweetpea...
He had his highball and he had his cigar. We went over to the piano and he said, "What are we going to do?" Stupid me, of course not thinking, to talk about an Ellington song or something, I said "Well, I think I'd like to sing "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square." He said "What's that? I don't know that but sing it for me." So I started singing, he said "My goodness this is a beautiful song." Duke came running into the studio and said "Who wrote that song? Did you write it?" I said "No sir! I don't write songs...." It has the most gorgeous verse. I had gotten all these things together, with Abdullah while we were living in Zurich...
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AAJ: Your album A Morning In Paris (Ekapa Records, 2008) was produced by Duke Ellington and featured both he and Billy Strayhorn on several tracks. Did Duke have any advice or directions in regards to your singing?
SBB: When we got into that studio he said OK... and went into the booth. I said I want to sing "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square..." Abdullah had charted all these things so when Strayhorn was struggling Ellington said "Dollar Brand you know this song? Then you go show Billy the changes." And he did. Billy Strayhorn then insisted on playing it.
AAJ: On your album Svend Asmussen can be heard playing pizzicato violin, a unique choice of instrumentation. How had that come about and how involved with the non-singing aspects of the album had you been?
SBB: So while we were doing this Nightingale In Berkeley Square he said now you are going to work with a trio. And then I did "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year" and other things, "Darn That Dream..." And while we were into that the door opened and in walked... Svend Asmussen. And Ellington said "Oh, heyyou are just what we need... I want you to play with her but listen and this is important...Please do not play the melody. She is the melody." So is that not beautiful. Ellington said "You can play anything else but you don't play the melody." So that's why he played all the pizzicato, which I found sometimes like really annoying me. But what could I do? I wasn't in control of this. I wasn't going to tell him.
When that was finished Duke said "Now you are going to work with the Trio. " And Abdullah sat down and started to do "I've Got It Bad" with me. Ellington came running out of the studio and he said "Wait a minute. That is my song. Get off of the piano stool." I am in this little booth... it was like one big room but they had like glass partitions set up so we could all see each other. I thought "Oh my God here is Ellington sitting down at the piano."
Then he said "So what key do you do this in?" If you talk to any of the musicians I work with to this day they will tell you "We love working with Sathima but she works in the most difficult keys." So I am never singing in key C or F or G. This is not because I don't want to. We have tried that, but it doesn't suit where my voice lies, I am singing on the black notes. Someone joked that I am a musical racist. It is not intentional its just where my voice lies.
So then Ellington sat down and we were going to do "I've Got It Bad" and he asked "So what key do you do this in?" and I sad D flat. He said "Oh" and he took a moment. If you will listen to that CD you will hear how tentatively for the first two chords he's trying to find the place because nobody had ever done "I've Got It Bad" in D flat...
AAJ: While Abdullah Ibrahim's album was released a year later as Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio (Warner Bros., 1964)...
SBB: Frank Sinatra, the Reprise people they decided "Yeah, OK, we'll put this out." It was a great thing because it opened doors for Abdullah...Dollar Brand...that would have remained closed to this day because it said "Duke Ellington Presents."
AAJ: Unfortunately then your album disappeared for thirty years. When this initially happened had you been given any explanation?
SBB: Because Frank Sinatra said, "Ah! look this Sathima..." him being a singer... look I don't know. I have no idea but they just said that he's not interested in that. That it's not commercial.
AAJ: When this initially happened had you been given any explanation?
SBB: It just never came out. At that time Duke Ellington's sister was still alive and I used to go and ask her. She would say, "I really don't know we have to talk to Duke." Then we would bump into Duke in Europe and he would say "You know what. I really don't know, but when they tell you that it's not commercial enough; can I just say something to you so that you'll feel good... You are really doing something that they are not prepared to let out of the bag." So it just languished like that until much later, when I did get Enja records to put it out.
AAJ: Although your album had not been released, Duke Ellington remained firmly in your corner, did this help open any doors for you?
SBB: I didn't have the money on my own so I went to Enja because I was desperate to get this out. And then I took it away from Enja because one time when I talked to him I was asking for some copies the head of Enja said to me "Well, I did it because Duke Ellington and Strayhorn's on there. I don't really like your singing." So I said "You send my stuff right back." You know, people have a right to like what they like but then he told me that so I took it back and said "You don't have the rights to that any more. Give it back to me and when I have the funds somehow I am gonna put this out again." And that's what I did.
Did you know that my daughter is Jean Grey? We did a little thing together at the Sweetwater club. We will be doing more things but all of this takes funding. It's always about where do we get the money for this? We need to do something together period. Put out a CD. I am just amazed at how really young people (in their twenties) just adore what I am doing. I have talked with some of them and they say "It is because you are singing about love. And it is so real when you sing it." I guess I am just one of those old stalwarts, you know. This is what I do. I can't pretend to other stuff. I don't know if anyone really listens. Jazz musicians are in. Jazz singers, except for the young ones who are out there.... I don't have a terrific voice, I don't have a great range what I do have is an emotive power. These young singers have gorgeous voices but I can't detect or feel a spirit or some soul in it, and that's so sad.
My husband says "You never make any money because you always have to have Buster Williams and Steven Scott." And I say "Yeah well if you come from the best..." He says "Well, Abbey Lincoln, she works with the kids" I say "Maybe she plays piano and maybe she knows what to tell the kids what to play." I do not know what to tell them but I am able in rehearsal to say "Can you play some other chords with that note? Because that one doesn't sound right." And you know there are many chords for one note and the musicians have to work very hard with me. With all my recordings I have always used someone like Buster Williams who knows how to ...he just knows how to dance with me. The way you turn a corner, it's like ballroom dancing. I did a lot of ballroom dancing when I was young. I think that's got a lot to do with my sense of timing. Somewhere between one and two, before we get to that two I am going to be sliding in there.
It's a story being told with the lyrics and the sound. It's a story you are telling. Everything has to make sense. I don't suddenly just sing a song. I will figure out what's the story here. That impacts on where I am going to put the accents. Which word is more important in the line? I wouldn't say I intensely work at it, but I do think about it. I do think that this is a story that needs to be told and. This is how you tell it. This will be the most effective.
Every song is a story. I think what a blessing it is. It's a very sacred gift from God. I believe in God, OK? How else do you get your talent? How on earth did you get this gift? It was given to you by Angels. They just work things out and when a song has to be written by somebody to come onto the planet and they angels decide, "I think she's ready for that song." I don't really know how to write songs down. It can come at any time. It can come when I'mI call itmeditating in motion. I think about songs when I am walking in streets here amidst all kinds of people. I do not retire to some place and say, "OK I am gonna write a song." It's not about that. It is very divine and very inspirational.
My husband suggested once, "So why don't you go to the new school and then you could learn to write down music." I was tempted to do that and then I changed my mind because I thought that once I do that I will no longer get inspiration. I am just supposed to be the way I am. That's why you will notice on the back of my CDs you will see "Sathima Bea Benjamin/Onaje Allan Gumbs" or "Sathima Bea Benjamin/Steven Scott." They actually didn't write any of that music, what they did was they wrote it down. When I go to them, they'll say to me "OK, Sathima we'll write this down for you but we want half the credit." And I say "You know what, you can have it." It doesn't matter to me. So you will notice that it says "Written by Sathima Bea Benjamin and Onaje Allan Gumbs" or "Written by Sathima Bea Benjamin and Steven Scott." I wanted it written down so that when I wanted to do it I could hand the chart to somebody and they could play it. This is how it goes.
I think I made the right decision not to go and study. I think it leaves my music more true to its code. I don't know about all of these things. It scares me to death so I didn't go to school and I am never going to go to school. I just always need the musicians that my heart desires to work with me and I am always blessed to have that. And they all love to work with me. They just love it. If you were ever to come to a performance you will see like some people will say that "I heard Steven Scott here there and there but they don't play the way they play when they play with you." I'll go up there and think I know that I am supposed to be the singer standing out front here. I don't really like that idea although I do have to stand out front. But you know, this is a democratic unit, I will take this song out and then I'll go and sit down.
This is what I like to do. I like to take the song out and then I go and sit down. Then Steven improvises, Buster improvises and then the drummer and that is gorgeous. Because by the time I go back on the stage to take it out again, I have grown just from listening to that.
AAJ: Often you have used US musicians for your American recordings and Cape Town musicians when you are working there. Is this due to the practicality of bringing musicians from one country to another or artistic considerations?
SBB: This is for financial reasons. At one point I was happy to put Steven together with the South African musicians, to have a blend of both countries and I thought this was so wonderful.
Abdullah was putting on some kind of a show and I said I wanted to bring Steven down there with me. There's a gorgeous bassist there, Basil Moses. He is gorgeous! I did a recording, it was before Musical Echoes (Ekapa Records, 2006), with Henry February (who has since died); he was my teacher in the early years in the nightclubs. My husband called me from there one time and he said "You know Henry February? He's still playing in the clubs here." I said "Oh, please Abdullah could you send me money to get there? I need to go there and go in the studio and do some stuff with him." And I did but you know...it costs so much money to reissue anything and I won't get any return for months. You send out all the CDs and you send it to all the distributors but it takes months before you start to get some money back. I don't want to keep doing this. The joy actually when I think about it, is, "You know what ....never mind Sathima," everything is Ekapa Records, everything belongs to me, belongs to Abdullah, belongs to my children. It's a legacy. I have recorded nine times under my own label because no one has ever been interested even to this day.
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Between South Africa and New York
AAJ: 1976 saw you and Abdullah Ibrahim returning to South Africa, what was the impetus behind your return?
SBB: I think it was just a longing to touch base with home; because I look at these as two homes. These two homes they dwell within me. They're two beautiful homes. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a part of Cape Town and to be a part of New York. I can't think of two other more exciting places to be connected with. AAJ: Did you encounter any opposition to your going home?
SBB: I really can't remember.
AAJ: This year also saw you record and release your first album African Songbird. Your debut album was all originals, how was it received. Had there been any expectation of you doing any cover material?
SBB: No. I think I was always forcing to do these things and no one was really interested. My husband was doing things for EMI or whatever and then he would say, 'Sathima wants to do something' and they would tolerate me. I am trying to remember who I did African Songbird with and I can't.
The thing is when I came here I did an album called Dedications (Vivid Sound, 2005). I chose... a place called Blank Tapes, somewhere around this area where I live. I had Onaje. That was my first recording here in New York City. I had Buster Williams and Ben Riley and Billy Higgins, two drummers. My husband said, "You can't do that" and I said, "Well, I spoke to both of them and they love each other so they don't mind." Cause my husband said "What? You can't have two drummers!" and I said "Yes, you can if they love each other." Ben Riley and Billy Higgins...Oh my God what a musician... What a divine human being. So you know, he is on all the recordings I did. He just was and will always be my most favorite drummer in the whole world. He's not with us anymore but we also loved each other as human beings. He was just a divine human being. So is Ben Riley.
So I know I am respected and thank God for that. I know the musicians in this country. I can ask [anyone] if they want to work with me and if they're free and they are not in Europe or whatever, they're gonna say, "Of course we'll do it." But that means also for me that I should not get complacent. I have to keep working at bettering myself with new ideas, coming up with new things. I think it is precious that I have musicians like Buster Williams, Kenny Barron, Onaje or Steven Scott, all these people are in my corner and they love to work with me and I love to work with them. If you don't have love...you see, it goes back to that one word, you know? I wrote a poem many, many years ago. My husband always says "That's the shortest poem!"
I love to live
I live to love
I love to sing
And I sing of love.
That's it. That explains me. You don't have to go any further than that. I think that it is this dedication and the truthfulness about my approach and my intent for the music that has led me from that little nine year old girl listening to the radio to where I am today. It has been a wondrous journey and I don't know where it is going to take me in the end. It doesn't matter as long as I can express myself the way I want to express myself, which is honestly and truthfully with the musicians that I choose... that would be a given for me. I am not really asking for anything else.
The other thing is this, I don't know anyone from, well now they are telling me that there are other singers coming out of South Africa, but they don't have my background. I still think that from that whole continent, and that is a big continent; it is a continent that stands on its own. And you have Cape Town which is on this little peninsula which is jutting over the end of Africa and Cape Town is at the tip and you can't go any further because if you do, at the tip of Cape Town is where the two oceans (Indian and the Atlantic) meet. It is a magical place. I still think Cape Town is a magical place. It has a natural mysticism. Magical and Mystical.
My ancestors come from the island of Saint Helena, its southernbetween South America and South Africa. It's a little dot of an island. Of course the Benjamin's and my grandmother's family immigrated to Cape Town in late 1890's. My mother's people immigrated there when they discovered diamonds in Kimberley in South Africa. So my mother's people came from the Philippines... What a mixture I am, I am a whole United Nations, and that is only what I know.
Imagine all those voices within me. They come from Africa; they come from India, from all over the place. I am the result, totally of all of these sounds within me because of the racial mixing. This is what I think, so I think I am very rich, so endowed. It's hard for me to even explain to members of my own family even to this day. "Hey come on. You've got to think like me! Forget this! You're gorgeous. You're beautiful." Yet they still don't think so because it is ingrained and has been for like five hundred years. And how do you undo all of that.
Like Nelson [Mandela] is saying, you need to go beyond now that South Africa is free. We went through so much shit, you know. I have just gone through so many different revolutions and the history of that country, racially and so on. We have at least come to the point with Nelson Mandela who says "From now on we don't want to hear that so and so is a 'this' or so and so is Bantu. We don't want to know any of this anymore. We are all South Africans." And that is gorgeous!
AAJ: Was leaving your country the initial catalyst for your first foray into organized political activism?
SBB: I think that from the time I was about fifteen I started rebelling and I think jazz was a music of rebellion for me; freedom and rebellion. I gravitated towards it. I had to leave my grandmother's house because that meant I was doing all kinds of things: singing jazz and I was a schoolteacher.
I lost my job as a school teacher because there was a big story in the newspaper that said "The schoolteacher who is a jazz singer." My principal called me into the office and said, "You have to choose you can't do this." I said "OK So I choose. I am going to do Jazz." But you know what that meant I didn't have a paycheck. I had to choose. And I am actually glad, he's long dead, but he doesn't know what he did when he told me to choose. That made me just say "OK this is it." I sort of [deep down inside] knew that this is what I wanted to do, but that was pretty awful because I had no money. Then I had to move from my grandmother's. Then I found out where my mother lived and my mother took me in. It was just like a constant... never having anything but you know what... it was different from what I had known. It took all the safety measures away. I put myself on the line and I said "This is what I want to do."
AAJ: At the age of 21 you toured with Arthur Klugman's show for a South African tour. Had you the support of your family?
SBB: Oh no! I was already thrown out. And my sister Joan was also thrown out and the two of us, we were just finding places to live... Sometimes with friends. They didn't even have places such as hotels for colored people. I can't even remember all of it but when the Arthur Klugman thing came around I thought "Oh, OK! So I can go on the road now. I don't have a job or anything. I'll just get in this bus with these people." It didn't work out very well. It was all such a learning experience and people always loved my singing. That's the point. I was accepted. I just was like a star.
AAJ: The apartheid government of South Africa revoked your citizenship because of your work with the ANC. Aside from then becoming US citizens how did this affect you [both]?
SBB: When that happened we first had Senegalese passports for a while, because we had to have something. Then, you have to have lived here (in all) five years...so when that happened, and I could add it all up, I went down...I remember it was the ninth of October, I don't know what year... it was 1980 something, I went down and I became an American Citizen. And I always tell my kids "You wouldn't even be here if I hadn't gone down that evening and talked to Duke Ellington." At a certain point when he came to Europe he said, "You know what you guys, this hanging out in Europe... you know you can work here and that is fine... but I am going to find a way to bring you to New York City." I think it was '65... he got us here. He paid for air tickets and his sister Ruth helped find us an apartment. We were sort of in touch with him when he wasn't on the road. And then he said "OK Sathima, I am playing at Newport so you are going to sing with me and my band." You know, this is what Ellington did. He just said things, and if anyone else had said to youyou're gonna do this you would say "What? WaitI have to rehearse, I have to..." When Ellington said you could do it....you could do it.
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On Creating and Performing
AAJ: In 1965 Duke Ellington facilitated your playing the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival. Did you have any preconceived ideas at this time of how you may be received by an American audience?
SBB: No, and I was so nervous. I was so terrified and then Duke came in and he always gave you kisses on your cheeks (he never kissed you on the mouth) and he said, "Look, don't worry. I want you to stand behind that curtain on the stage and when I call your name then you walk towards me and I will come towards you." I said, "Sir, what am I going to sing?" He said "Ah, don't worry about that." So I didn't know what I was going to sing. And then I did what he said. Then he called my name and he said (and I am so thrilled he said this) "This is my singer from Africa." That was how he introduced me.
AAJ: It was also around this time that Duke Ellington asked you to join his band, how great a temptation had that been?
SBB: He did but that was when we were in Zurich. The next morning when we met him he said "Would you like to come and sing with me in my band?" And Abdullah was sitting right opposite me and then he looked and he said "Oh, oh. Wait a minute." He said "Forget I asked that" because he could see that we were in love with each other. I wanted to say, "Yes Sir. I would." But then on the other hand I was only twenty-three. I had just met Ellington. I trusted him with my whole life, but I didn't know the band. I didn't know these people. I was terrified. I didn't really answer "yes." I wanted to, but at the same time he didn't say to Abdullah, "And you can come along too." He didn't say that.
So when he realized he did say, "Forget I asked that question." And then he did say to Abdullah, "Is she your girlfriend? Do you have intentions for her? Do you realize I just asked her to come away with me; and I really mean that!? If you intend to marry her you should really do this." And a few months later in London Abdullah did. We just got married. He just came and said "Give me your passport" and the next thing I know he came back and he said, "Tomorrow morning we have to be here," and we got married in London. He took Duke's advice seriously.
AAJ: Based out of the Chelsea Hotel... famed as a haven for artists... do you interact with any of its other famous residents during your stay?
SBB: No, just other than to say, "Hi." They kind of know what I do but I don't really know what all of them do. There's a lot of writers and people come and go. There are few, like me, who have been here for thirty years. I can't explain this place. In the next year and a half they are going to turn it into a real hotel. I've spoken with a lawyer who says I have nothing to worry about. They will have to buy me out because I have been here too long. Plus I'm a senior so I will just hang in there and see what happens. But I think it can only be good things happening.
I want to live in New York City because it is the right place to be if you consider yourself a jazz musician. Because you've got to put yourself up against the best of the best. It leaves you open to yourself and that you don't get complacent and start thinking that you're a somebody. It keeps you on your toes with your music, and it keeps you working. Just a vibe... all the creativity. You can just step out of the Chelsea, into the streets and it is almost as if you can catch the creativity in the air in New York City.
Some people say this is not going to last, it's not going to be like this forever. Some people have even said that (I think I read in Time Magazine) in another eighteen years it is going to be Cape Town that's gonna be like that. Well, that will be nice but I might be dead by that time so I can't wait 'til that time. It depends on how long I live.
AAJ: Your "The Liberation Suite" (1982) is a suite divided into three sections which combines Cape Town rhythms with other musical components and a message of peace. Did you find you had to work in a different way when writing an extended piece?
SBB: We were invited to Mozambique (Abdullah, the two kids and I) to celebrate the Mozambique liberation. While we were there, there are a lot of nationalities that live there and they were all integrated and they got their freedom. I sat at that table and I thought, "Oh my God! Look at all these people." And I got the feeling that they also had all these different nationalities within them; and look how they are sitting around here and now they are liberated and free. That was the start of something burgeoning inside of me. On the way home, on the plane, that song came to me: "Nations in me, New Nations are coming." It came from that experience and me just wishing that we in South Africa could go through the same thing.
AAJ: Do you have a preference for writing or performing a song as opposed to a longer suite?
SBB: I don't think I have anything else like the longer suite pieces, since that. But then I say that the "Children of Soweto" kind of goes with it because of the liberation ideas was in it. That's what made me put out that. It was a record I put out called Memories and Dreams (Ekapa, 1983). But no, I don't think about anything... it's very intuitive and very instinctual. In my case since I can't write any music down, I really have to rely on the fact that I get given presents from the angels. I am always open to receiving the presents. And sometimes it is a little frustrating because like, the shortest song I ever wrote, it is called "Color Me Blue;" it goes like this:
Color me blue
African violet blue
The key to my sound
And it rings
It ringsso true
So color me
Color me blue.
Now I have been stuck with these words for like two years now. And I am not getting any melody. I can try to think about it but I know it will come. And it will come when it comes. Obviously I don't know if I am being made to learn patience because I can't get it any other way. I can't sit down at a piano and say, "Oh I am going to write this." I can't do that. If I went to somebody else, I would have to credit them for writing it with me and I actually don't feel like doing that anymore. Because actually they're not really writing it with me, they're just writing it down, transcribing it for me and then they want half of the credit. I just think that because this is so short and so deep, it is so deep. It so expresses, just like the song "Musical Echoes," It is very short but it explains who I am.
AAJ: In your mind, do you make distinctions between your songs and music which contains a message and the ones which does not, a cover of a standard for instance?
SBB: No, because I don't think I have anymore political messages. I don't think there is anymore need for that. In the past I did, I felt the need to incorporate that into my music because it was so much a part of my life but I don't think I have any political messages now.
Now what I am enjoying very much is researching very, very old songs; that nobody is singing any more. And trying to think: How can I present this (to the young ones or the folks who come to hear me)? How can I do it differently without offending the composer? There is a very old song called "Prisoner of Love" I don't even know who sang it; it must have been some vocal group from long, long ago.
I don't even know all the words, I have to go and look for the sheet music. That's nice about New York, you can do research, you know? There's a place called The Colony and if they don't have it, they will get it for you. I have a funny feeling that this song will suit me and I do remember it from so long ago. It has a beautiful melody but I don't know all the words. I have to go to this music place on West 49th [New York] and they will order it for me.
I am doing a lot of old songs. These are songs from like 1945; I do these things because I actually heard these things. I was probably like nine years old and they were being played on BBC radio. I heard a lot of English singers doing them and they had influence on me. They always had very good diction. Do you know of Vera Lynn? Some people say I remind them of her and I am not surprised because this is the stuff I heard on the radio. I think I've got a lot of influences there, English singers, American singers; again I am going to emphasize that I got my sense of diction from Nat King Cole because he you could hear every word that he sang.
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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.
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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