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Interview Sathima Bea Benjamin

Sathima Bea Benjamin met Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) at an audition for his band. She sang 'Prelude to a Kiss,' the Duke Ellington song. How glorious is fate, how wondrous is destiny. During that very audition, at that very moment, they would not have known it. Abdullah and Sathima were to marry and Duke Ellington was to support their efforts in performing, recording and relocating abroad.

I Interviewed Sathima Bea Benjamin in Cape Town 2000, she said:

Look at me, I am a combination of nations. I have many nations in me. I happened to come from St Helena - the island in the middle of the Atlantic owned by the British with Indian and African slaves - three races mixing for hundreds of years. It is diverse and wonderful. I find it very thrilling even though all your life you are told that you are nobody. That's changing on a world-wide level and this country can take the front lead. Jazz is a liberating music, it allows you to express yourself fully and be yourself. In jazz the number one ingredient is to be your own unique self. Who I am in a sense is that little girl from Cape Town but she has grown, she has worked and she has achieved.

The name Sathima was given to me by Johnny Dyani. I was born Beaty Benjamin, named after my aunt. My father after not looking at me for six weeks (because I wasn't born a boy) decided to call me this, because of the similarities in look. Johnny was always very lost and sometimes depressed because being a jazz musician, when he had days off, he was not feeling in good spirits. I would be like a mom or a big sister. And in 1969 on his return to London he sent me a letter, saying I never call you Bea anymore, I call you Sathima. It is a name from his home in East London meaning someone with a kind heart. I just loved the name. It sounds like music so I put it at the front of my name.

We left Cape Town in the early 60's for New York City. The energy, the flow, the excitement of its many diverse peoples swooped me up. It's a place that allows you ultimate freedom, for the creative urges to be yourself.

Europe in the 60's was hard, very hard, culture shock and yearning for home. It was a struggling time, a time of survival. All the struggle is what takes you to jazz music in the first place. It is the kinship you feel with the black American struggle, but in New York we were surrounded with jazz musicians and actors that have made it. This gave us hope. The psychology entered into me.

In the book 'Embracing Jazz by Carol Muller', Sathima tells the story of how her and Abdullah's lives changed abroad quite spontaneously through an introduction to Duke Ellington. Hordes of people bloated the area backstage trying to get to him. After a while of waiting and thinking that it was a fruitless task, Duke Ellington came backstage and their eyes met. She invited him to attend the gig that Abdullah was playing at, so, he asked Sathima to wait backstage till the end of the second set. Then they went together to the club Abdullah was playing at. Sathima says,

As we got there they were just locking up the club. The owner saw Duke Ellington and immediately put the key back in the door. So they played, and very beautifully and then he asked me to sing. This was a real surprise and I wasn't prepared for it. I think I sang “I'm glad there is you,” then we sat down. Duke really opened the door for us.

Whilst in exile (her husband) Abdullah Ibrahim named his trio Ekaya (in reference to home) and Sathima named hers Windsong in reference to the wind back in Cape Town.

A great friend of South African jazz music, Sathima Bea Benjamin, passed away 20/08/2013 in Cape Town leaving behind her son Tsakwe in Cape Town and daughter Tsidi aka Jean Grae in the United States. Tsakwe is also the name of the wonderful composition and jazz standard by Abdullah Ibrahim that has been recorded and performed by many artists, also under the name Royal Blue.

Sathima had a distinguished recording career making solo albums; albums with her husband Abdullah Ibrahim and featured with Duke Ellington on 'A Morning in Paris'. 

Sathima's exile was one of the longest. She left with her husband in the 60's. They stayed with Maxine and Chris Mcgregor at their flat in London before finding their feet and creating a home abroad. Both their children were born in exile.

Sathima's first return trip to Cape Town was for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (then North Sea Jazz festival) in 2002.

That was the first opportunity for many of the youngsters in SA jazz such as myself to meet her. This was a meeting that I will never forget and that developed into friendship.

Sathima was kind hearted. She was a friend and mother to so many musicians. Her contribution to South African music in exile has been remembered in a number of books including Lars Rasmussen's compiled biography Embracing Jazz and the 2010 documentary film Windsong.

Sathima returned to live in Cape Town in 2011. In July 2013 Sathima was launching the re-pressing of her seminal 1970's 'African Songbird' album in Cape Town and London. The strange thing is at the time she had what people thought was a common-cold. She was all blocked up with the flu, yet she performed in Cape Town and London.

Wow what a life we human beings live. Here today gone tomorrow. On ‘African Songbird', Sathima sings “I have gone far too long, but now I am here to stay.”

And now she has gone for good! Hindsight is a perfect science. And thus we see the great tragedy in SA jazz music and that is there is no medical aid coverage and support for our artists. Our SA jazz artists are truly incredible for their resilience. They go life-times without seeing a doctor, without having the benefits of great medical care. Sathima Bea Benjamin died at the age of 76.

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