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...
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...