Remembering Sathima Bea Benjamin

Sathima had the unique ability to strike first at your heart, not unlike the experience of hearing Billie Holiday for the first time.

The cover of Sathima Bea Benjamin's debut album recorded under the direction of Duke Ellington.

With what feels like a physical blow to the body I try to make sense of it all.  “Hi Rashid, is it true?” “Yes Matt she is on the other side.” Barely a month earlier I was in Cape Town for what was to be Sathima’s swan song: a live performance at Tagore’s in Observatory celebrating the reissue of her 1976 masterpiece African Songbird that I’d just reissued on my label. Although suffering from flu Sathima commanded the room with the voice of an angel. The electric atmosphere and crowded space only enhanced the palpable sense of being in the presence of greatness.

As we mark Sathima’s birthday today I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Her long struggle to be heard, never playing on her African roots and resolutely uncommercial with a complete commitment to classic jazz idioms. And a big shadow cast by her partner Abdullah Ibrahim, the challenges of motherhood exacerbated by exile and an uneasy homecoming from the Chelsea Hotel in New York where she said she felt most at home.

Sathima had the unique ability to strike first at your heart, not unlike the experience of hearing Billie Holiday for the first time. She cites hearing Billie’s performance in Lady Sings the Blues as being pivotal to her development as a singer. And Sathima’s original compositions like Africa and Nations in Me eschew the commonly prescribed categories of race and nationhood propagated by Apartheid. It’s a powerful combination.

Her final performance at Tagore’s was highly anticipated and packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Some initial microphone issues before Sathima took to the stage, backed by the Hilton Schilder Trio, to perform one more time her classic songbook tunes, laments and the anthem Africa. “I’ve been gone much too long/and I’m glad to say that I’m home, I’m home to stay…” I was so happy for her despite the knowledge that perhaps this might all be too late. We spoke late into the evening at the Labia Cinema on Sunday and at the Mahogany Room on Tuesday about taking this forward.

Too late, and now she’s on the other side. And that’s our lament: that home is still the other side.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.