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...