Sathima Bea Benjamin: Song Without End

Maxwell Chandler By

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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.

Sathima Bea Benjamin

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 southern—between 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!

Sathima Bea BenjaminAAJ: 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 you—you're gonna do this you would say "What? Wait—I have to rehearse, I have to..." When Ellington said you could do it....you could do it.


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.

Sathima Bea BenjaminAAJ: 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

I found

And it rings

It rings—so 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?

Sathima Bea BenjaminSBB: 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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