Last year, Sean and I happened to be at a conference in Toronto where Dan Yon was showing his film on Sathima “Bea” Benjamin, the Cape Town-born jazz singer. Although she is one of the formative figures of South African jazz music, it is her estranged husband, jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who is far better known. The film, “Sathima’s Windsong” (2010) moves back and forth between New York City, where Benjamin was a long-term resident, and Cape Town, where she began singing as a young girl during the forced removals instituted by the Group Areas Acts. The narration bridging the two cities, and Benjamin’s multitude of losses (and gains) is interspersed with the melodic imaginative leaps that only a voice such as hers can bridge. Only her voice lies between two cities, and immeasurable, oceanic longing: her song making tentative vocal incursion and excursions, in and out with the tide and forces beyond her control.

Here’s the trailer:

Although Benjamin was born in 1936 in Johannesburg, she was raised in Claremont in Cape Town. After the Afrikaner nationalist National Party came into power in 1948, her grandmother, who was from St Helena, received notification that she was now classified as ‘Coloured,’ and must, therefore, move out of her home. Claremont was henceforth a white “group area.” (Later in the film, Yon provides footage of Sathima’s sister poking about by the fence outside the home the family lost in Claremont. At the end, unable to really see in to the property, Sathima’s sister poses by an old, culled tree trunk, bare and bleached by the sun that she remembered: apartheid may be dead in the books, but still standing stolid, guarding the havoc it created.)

When we meet Sathima, she has been a thirty-two year resident of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan’s West Village, the slightly-dodgy looking landmark famous for being home to a slew of writers, artists, and musicians. Her rooms there speak to a certain embodied liminality that almost caricatures Benjamin; the passageways are filled to the brim with the boxes and photographs bearing the evidence of an in-between existence. Her imaginative life seems to reside in the city of her youth, whilst her body exists within the confines of the Chelsea, in the city that has supported her adult life. That same in-between quality comes through in her voice — an oceanic movement between notes — characterizing her as something out-of-place and extraordinary in jazz circles. When she speaks about hearing Billy Holliday’s voice for the first time, and of understanding, immediately, that this was her jazz soul sister, the resonance between the two voices — both wavering at the point of breaking from estrangement and exile, but always finding a way back to a tethering note — is immediate.

In Yon’s film, there is an accessibility about Benjamin, although one feels that she senses that it is to Yon that she provides that access, out of an abiding respect from one artist to another. Benjamin tells about her legendary meeting with Duke Ellington, whilst she was on tour with Abdullah Ibrahim in Europe. As she tells it, Ellington arrives late into the night, during their last set. She charms him, and the rest is history: although her song is cut out of the record (the decision is not Ellington’s, but the label’s), Ibrahim (and his trio) is included, and he goes on to become world-famous. She and Ibrahim stopped performing together in the late ’70s, after Ibrahim made a decision not to perform with her any longer. Although we only get a hint of the enormous difficulty she faced in having to create a solo career in a strange country, she survived Ibrahim’s decision. She went on to have a long career as a singer, composer, and producer.

In an incredible twist of fate, in the early 1990s, the mysteriously missing Paris recordings of Benjamin singing the standards, way back in 1963, were rediscovered: they were released as “Morning in Paris” in 1997 in New York City to critical acclaim. It was her return to Cape Town, to perform at the North Sea Jazz Festival (now known as the Cape Town Jazz Festival) in 2001 that helped remind a whole new generation in that country of her voice. (Sean reminds me he was at that concert.)

When Yon’s film leaves Benjamin, she is standing windblown on a pier, reminding us of the winds in Cape Town that she adamantly claims she hates. In 2011, the year after Yon’s film was released, she moved back to Cape Town. We know that her ‘returns’ — like her voice — are never on a firm footing. But that very quavering thing that drives your ear crazy is at the centre of Benjamin’s appeal.

Listen to Dan Yon speak about “Tidalectics, Cosmopolitanisms, and the Making of Sathima’s Windsong.”

* Benjamin is also the subject of a full-length study of her life and work that she co-authored with University of Pennsylvania musicologist Carol Muller. (Sean reviewed it for an upcoming issue of the academic journal, The International Journal of African Historical Studies.)