A voice that is incessantly in exile

South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin's life complicates jazz history and shows how Africans reshaped American jazz in the 20th century.

Sathima Bea Benjamin on stage with the Dollar Brand Trio.

In the last two years alone, Sathima Bea Benjamin has been the subject of an excellent documentary film (“Sathima’s Windsong,” by anthropologist Daniel Yon) and was one of four jazz musicians profiled in “Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times,” a new book by American historian Robin D. G. Kelley that interrogates the links and influences between American jazz and postwar “modern” Africa. (The other artists featured in Kelley’s book are Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren and the African-Americans Randy Weston and Ahmed Abdul Malik.)Separately, Benjamin has collaborated with University of Pennsylvania music professor Carol Muller, who was also born in South Africa, to produce a book-length study of her (Benjamin’s) life and career: “Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz.”

Together Muller and Benjamin wanted to ensure that “both the biographical and the geographical coexist[ed]” in the book. The book is structured like a “musical echo”; it uses “a kind of call and response method.” So each chapter consists of a recounting of Sathima’s life (“the call”), followed by Muller’s reflection (“the response”). Muller, though, takes responsibility as the primary author. (The book is the result of 20 years worth of interviews and archival research.)

Benjamin, born in 1936 in Johannesburg and raised in Cape Town, left South Africa in 1963 to forge a music career in Europe and then in the United States alongside her husband, the great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. Muller credits Benjamin with “discovering” Ibrahim; while in Switzerland, Benjamin introduced Ibrahim (still known as Dollar Brand at the time) to Duke Ellington, who recorded Ibrahim’s trio of South African musicians (minus Benjamin) in Paris, thus launching Ibrahim’s international career.

Ellington also recorded Benjamin, but the recording was never publicly released. For long periods the recordings were feared lost, but were found in 1997 and released to critical acclaim as “Morning in Paris.” This album, and a 2000 recording “Cape Town Love”, recorded with a group of older Cape Town musicians, serve as bookends to Musical Echoes.

In-between we get frank and rich recollections by Benjamin of her early life—she was at times physically and sexually abused as a child and had a nervous breakdown; and her family did not warm to Ibrahim, whose father was Sotho. We also read about Benjamin’s marriage to the talented and at times dominating Ibrahim; what it was like to be a woman in the jazz world (Benjamin raised two children—her daughter is the rapper Jean Grae and her son is an artist—while running her own label and recording her own music). Her self-imposed exile, the anti-apartheid struggle, and censorship (her most productive period coincided with Apartheid in South Africa) are all covered in stages.

The sections on Benjamin’s childhood and early adulthood double as something of a social history of coloured cultural and social life in Cape Town before the National Party came to power in 1948. The book contains a rich description of talent concerts, dance bands, jazz clubs, and the impact of radio, records and cinema on Benjamin’s imagination and musical education.

While Benjamin was classified as coloured, she rejected that label; instead emphasizing her cosmopolitanism, including her family roots in St Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic as well her connection to New York City, her home from 1977.

While in exile, Benjamin’s racial identity (Muller describes Benjamin at one point as “a women of ambiguous racial marking”) and the fact that she sings in English, complicated her position. The exiled ANC would often exclude her from singing at their events because she was “not African enough” and American music executives and promoters preferred the equally talented Miriam Makeba singing in “exotic” African languages.

The book (part of a Duke book series on “Refiguring American Music”) contributes to a growing literature on the intersection of US-South African cultural politics and history (see, for example the work of Rob NixonRobert Vinson, James Campbell and younger scholars like Tyler Fleming). Musical Echoes also contains sections on South African musicians and Cold War politics. Muller reveals Benjamin and Ibrahim’s entanglements with the CIA-sponsored Transcription Center in London—“the most significant site for South African musicians, artists and writers”—throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Sathima was “not enthusiastic” about revealing these connections.

Muller has preoccupations similar to Robin Kelley’s: both aim to complicate jazz history by showing how Africans reshaped American jazz in the twentieth century. For Muller, Benjamin’s transnational travels and influences “constitute a worldwide, comparative, and more equitable representation of jazz historiography” from the “margins of jazz history. The aim is not to read jazz cultures—in the US and elsewhere—in parallel, but “to put jazz cultures in dialogue with each other.” Muller describes Benjamin as “a voice that is incessantly in exile,” negotiating a complicated relationship with New York City, where she lived and performed for much of her professional life, and Cape Town, where she started her career and where she recently returned to live.

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