You are on page 1of 21

Capturing the "Spirit of Africa" in the Jazz Singing of South African-Born Sathima Bea Benjamin

Muller, Carol Ann.

Research in African Literatures, Volume 32, Number 2, Summer 2001, pp. 133-152 (Article) Published by Indiana University Press DOI: 10.1353/ral.2001.0055

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by UNICAMP Universidade Estadual de Campinas at 08/17/12 9:18PM GMT

Capturing the Spirit of Africa in the Jazz Singing of South African-Born Sathima Bea Benjamin1
Carol Muller
For the image [of Africa]as identificationmarks the site of an ambivalence.
Its representation is always spatially splitits makes present something that is absentand temporally deferred: it is the representation of a time that is always elsewhere, a repetition. Homi Bhabha, Interrogating Identity 51 (original emphasis) I think the basis of everything I do is Africa. Theres a sense of rhythm that, if you really listen carefully, is there. personal communication, Sathima Bea Benjamin, April 1990

n May 1961, one of Drum Magazines reporters described the Sunday night jazz scene in Cape Town, South Africa.2 The Sunday night gatherings had been initiated by Cape Town-born jazz pianist Dollar Brand. Dollar was not his real name. It was the nickname given to the young Brand to reference his American exchanges. These were the friendships he fostered with African American sailors when their ships arrived in the Cape Town harbor in the 1950s. He would change his name once more when he later converted to Islam. Though some people in Cape Town stubbornly hold onto the more familiar Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim is the name by which he is known internationally. In the early 1960s, Dollar was the center of the Cape jazz scene: The naked light bulb, like the mood, is blue. The only other illumination in the place comes from the glowing ends of cigarettes, or maybe a stray moonbeam filtering down the slopes of Table Mountain and in through a back window. The chairs are arranged carefully, like pews, and the congregation is as devout as any other Sunday night gathering. In the darkened corner the tall, thin guy with the tight jeans and the size 12 army boots is leading his group through an original composition. The long, bony fingers slide or thump, caress or squeeze the notes out, and the horn, the bass, and the drums, catch the message and pass it on. Dark as it is, the Dollar is gleaming tonight. This is the real stuff, the pulse beat of the jazz world in the Cape, and Dollar Brand and his group are pumping it outthough this is their night off from six days of cafe-capers with the beatnik gang.3 From this center of the jazz scene, which is up an iron staircase near where the Capes trolley buses get their nightly wash and brush-up, the music world stretches far down the Peninsula, and every other month some new guy with a horn or an alto sax or a bass is coming up from the shadows to catch the ear of the people who know their music. Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 2001


Research in African Literatures

In the past few years, the Cape has taken over as THE place for music, snatching the laurel from the backrooms and cellars a thousand miles north in [Johannesburg]. Dollar was in at the start of the move south, but he doesnt understand how it happened. Anyone who has been around the Cape long enough to know his music remembers the Big Band age just after the war. But they were all African, fifteen or more, beating it out like ebony Dorseys and Goodmans. Maybe its the changing mood of South Africa that African music Cape-wards, anyhowhas faded to no more than a township tin lid. So the Coloreds have taken over, and the mood is softer, sweeter, and more serious. Dollar and his group are the lone wolves of the Cape Tin Pan Alley, dedicated jazz men all. They play it their wayand if the customers dont like it then thats tough on the customers.[ . . .] Jazz is the real classics, he says. Its all here, at the Cape. The place is dripping with talent and Im not sure I ever want to be anywhere else. (Drum May 1961:46, emphasis added) The place the Drum writer is describing is a club that was called The Ambassadors. Dollar/Abdullahs wife, Sathima, recalled: The guy who owned [The Ambassadors] was Dave Saunders, and he was a friend of Abdullahs. He had this lovely space in Woodstock. You had to climb these stairs. He had this space and he had a piano. And Abdullah started. We had thirteen people the first week, we used to do it only on Sunday nights. And after a couple of weeks, we couldnt contain all the people. It was just a place where you went and you sat down and listened. There was no dancing, no food, nothing. And, as I said, there was too much mixing going on at the time when they didnt want people to be mixing. So we had to close that down (Sathima Bea Benjamin, pers. comm., Apr. 1988) Despite his desire to stay in South Africa, less than two years later Dollar Brand realized that his beloved Cape Town had become hostile to all jazz performed not only by people of African but also of mixed racial descent. Dollar and his partner jazz singer Beatty Benjamin (who later married Dollar, and changed her name to Sathima Bea Benjamin) would have to move a long way from the intimacy and warmth of the Cape Town jazz community described above. In 1962, as the Afrikaner Nationalist government clamped down on jazz performances by people like Dollar and Beatty, who were of mixed racial heritage, these two artists realized that if they were to survive as performers they would have to leave the country.4 After a farewell concert at The Ambassadors on 21 January 1962,5 Dollar and Beatty followed several South Africans who had left before them, including singer Miriam Makeba, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and lesser known Ben Satch Masinga. Dollar and Beatty went to Europe. It was there, in Switzerland, in early February 1963, that Beatty heard Duke Ellington was performing in the neighborhood. Through a remarkable,

Carol Muller


and what Sathima believes to be a magical, turn of events, Duke Ellington scheduled Dollar and Beatty to perform on the morning of 23 February 1963 in the now defunct Barclay Recording Studio in Paris. These two young South African jazz musicians joined American jazz greats Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, to record together. The session resulted in the release of an LP shortly after that entitled Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio. This launched the international career of the South African pianist. It took another 34 years before a compact disc recording of Sathimas singing in Paris was released. Nonetheless, in February 1963 it was clear for these two South African artists that jazz performance, in either its American or Cape Town inflections, would be their passports to membership of an international community of musicians. As it was for several other South Africans, jazz became their means of survival in more than three decades of political exile from South Africa. More specifically in this period, it was their knowledge of American popular and jazz music, and several fortuitous encounters with African American jazz musicians that enabled several South Africans to settle in England, and the United States in particular. Among others, Miriam Makeba was taken under the wing of Harry Belafonte,6 and both Hugh Masekela and Ben Satchmo Masinga were guided by Louis Armstrong.7 Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima Bea Benjamin were greatly assisted by Duke Ellington. While Abdullah and Sathima both started off their musical lives in Cape Town, South Africa, over the past 40 years, they have developed two quite distinctive jazz styles. These emerged initially out of the ways in which they integrated the memories of their individual experiences living in Cape Town, the southernmost city in Africa, into the mediated sounds of American jazz that were central to life in the Cape from the 1930s to the early 1960s. Classified by the state as colored (mixed race) in the early 1950s, both Sathima and Abdullah brought to their musical composition and performance a peculiar set of experiences that had been shaped by factors of gender, language, class, educational opportunity, exposure to international media, and family history. Perhaps one of the most powerful factors in molding their musical styles and compositional output was the experience of being people of color living first inside, and then outside of South Africa for more than three decades (see Muller, Sathima Bea Benjamin, and Wicomb). In this state of alienation and for a period of time out of an individual and collective need to perform for political liberation, jazz performance became the vehicle for invoking a sense of home for Abdullah and a spirit of love and community for Sathima. Throughout this period of movement, Abdullah called his jazz ensemble Ekaya, which means at or from home, and Sathima named hers Windsong, a site of warmth and understanding she remembers feeling in the strong winds of the Cape southeaster. Similarly, in the late 1970s they established a record company based in New York City, which they called Ekapa meaning at or from the Cape. Ekapa elicits memories of a particular place and kind of experience in the southern part of Africa that their brands of jazz performance continually reference and are derived from.


Research in African Literatures

This paper focuses on the jazz singing and composition of Sathima Bea Benjamin (though it occasionally juxtaposes some input from Abdullah to try to avoid facile generalizations about colored identity and musical performance). It examines how she has articulated her memories of, and relationship to, the southern part of the African continent in her sound, style, compositional process, and ideas about jazz performance as it was framed by African American jazz singers from the 1940s and 50s. The embedding of cultural memory in musical performance is not new to jazz historians. Sam Floyd has taken the lead in suggesting that the power of black music in the United States is located in an aesthetic that is embedded in an African cultural memory. This memory derived from the movement of slaves from the western parts of the African continent to the Americas,8 and it became encoded in the oral transmission of African American performances from the earliest spirituals, the Harlem Renaissance, and contemporary popular styles. Floyd discusses specific musical characteristics that suggest historic and stylistic connections with music of the African continent. These include the use of microtonal inflections, rough vocal timbres, vocal grunts and ululations, an easy transition from speech to singing, hand clapping and foot stomping accompaniment, and the incorporation of clever figures of speech into a call-andresponse format (56). Sathima similarly believes that jazz emerged out of the experience and memory of cultural and material separation and loss, and the attempt through a particular aesthetic of jazz performance, to return to a sense of home. But her narrative relocates that experience of people of color back to the continent of Africa in the twentieth century, and more specifically to South Africa. With the movement of South African jazz musicians, like Sathima and Abdullah, away from that country, and into exile in the USA and Europe in the 1960s, the contemporary connections in jazz history and performance to the African continent necessarily take on a shape and style different from that outlined by Floyd for African American performance.9 In Sathimas case, jazz came to articulate a particular kind of regional, historical, and gendered experience and relationshipbetween people of color from the southernmost part of Africa and those in the southern United States. She connects the two spaces through an aesthetic of performance she calls the southern touch. This paper is divided into four small vignettes, each of which is shaped out of what I think are key moments in Sathimas personal narrative and creative output. Each, I hope, will point to an evolving sense of a spirit of South Africanness Sathima infuses into her jazz singing. A central part of each of these definitions of South Africanness is, ironically, injected with a shot of live or mediated, primarily African American popular song. The first moment provides some discussion of formative experiences in her path towards jazz singing, particularly as this young woman interfaced with live and mediated jazz and dance band performance in Cape Town in the 1950s. The second section describes her meeting with Duke Ellington and the subsequent recording, with its intriguing history of disappearance and retrieval, the timing of which has served to keep the memory of Duke alive

Carol Muller


for Sathima through much of her life. The third section briefly outlines her life in retreat in New York City, a retreat from apartheid South Africa and, for Sathima, into physically mothering two children and establishing Ekapa, her own record label. The fourth section is a cursory discussion of two elements of Sathimas compositional output and musical style. I focus on the spirit of South Africanness in two performances. The first is a jazz performance of early twentieth-century American Tin Pan Alley, Loveless Love (WC Handy) /Careless Love (Spencer Williams), which she sings to a Cape Town beat. The other is a set of her own compositions, called The Liberation Suite, a combination of three separate songs: Nations in Me-New Nation a Comin, Children of Soweto, and Africa.10 I include a brief discussion of how race, class, gender, and the specific political moment have intersected in her life to produce a very particular sense of musical style and performance persona as a woman singer. I suggest that her style and spirit of South Africanness are tied to her memories of life in Cape Town. These are embodied in the historical and aesthetic connections she imagines between her own experience coming from southern Africa and those of African slaves who were taken to the southern part of the United States. Sathima Bea[trice] Benjamin was born to Edward Benjamin and Evelyn Henry in Johannesburg on 17 October 1936. Her father Edward had gone to Johannesburg to find work, and though she was 7 1/2 months pregnant, Evelyn boarded the train in Cape Town and headed north. Baby Beatty arrived more than a month early. You were born like Jesus, Beattys mother later told her. We had no clothes for you. The woman who ran the boarding house where Evelyn was staying had torn a sheet into long strips and wrapped the newborn baby in swaddling clothes. Beattys fathers family had arrived on boats in the Cape Town harbor from the Island of St. Helena. Her ancestors came from Britain, the Philippines, and Mauritius. Orphaned at a young age, Sathimas mother married twice and from the two marriages had several children. When Mrs. Benjamin married her second husband, Beatty and her sister, Joan, lived with their father and his new wife for a few years. Most of their childhood was spent with their fathers mother, lovingly remembered as Ma Benjamin. In 1986 Sathima told Francis Davis of the Philadelphia Inquirer: My parents were separated by the time I was 5, and I was raised by my grandmother who was very strict, very strict, very proper, very British in her ways, though she was quite dark, quite African-looking. I was a very lonely child, and music was my solace, along with daydreaming which I indulged in constantly. (Davis, 19 Nov. 1986) Sathima added to these memories in 1990: My grandmother [. . .] drummed certain things into me, to be very submissive around men. I had to fight that. It took a long time (pers. comm., 26 Mar. 1990). One of the most profound memories of her years living with Ma Benjamin was the day the young Beatty signed away her identity as St. Helenian (or as her birth certificate indicates, of mixed St. Helenian descent) and replaced it with


Research in African Literatures

the government category called Coloured. Beatty was at home with Ma Benjamin the day a census official came around to the house and required Ma Benjamin to sign that she agreed to be classified as Coloured in what was becoming an increasingly divided society. Ma Benjamin could not do it. She came in tears to the young Beatty, and asked her to please sign the piece of paper. The official told them that there would be no more St. Helenians, that everyone would now be part of a larger category called Coloured. Proud of her ancestry, Beattys grandmother had tried to explain to the official, who refused to listen. Young Beatty did not fully understand the complexity of the issue at the time. She was already living in a Coloured neighborhood, and attending a school for Coloured children anyway. So she dutifully signed the piece of paper. Under the Population Registration Act (1950), the St. Helenian side of the family officially became Coloured. From that time onwards they were also required to carry identity cards that identified them as such. Not all of her childhood memories are traumatic ones. Sathima has fond memories of singing in the school choir. She recalls that she even went for voice lessons to learn how to sing opera, though she did not care for the particular style, which used too much vibrato for her tastes. Despite her training, she came to realize that she was never asked to perform solos in the choir. One day she plucked up the courage and asked why this was so. She was told that she scooped too much with her voice. Playing around with the pitch was just the game Sathima loved to play as she sang in the group. Fortunately, the choir director realized how much Beatty loved to sing in the choir, so he never excluded her from performing. Later, when she met up with Abdullah Ibrahim and started to listen seriously to recordings of African American jazz singers and instrumentalists, she would identify her sound and playfulness most powerfully with the music of Billie Holiday. It was not that she tried to imitate Billies voice, but rather that she heard in her sound and expressive quality that gave this young girl from Cape Town a point of reference.11 Beatty, as she is warmly remembered by family and friends in Cape Town, has several other memories of her youth, each of which facilitated a most natural, and for some time only imagined, connection for her and others, with American popular culture. She vividly recalls gatherings in the early 1950s, in which family members sang the popular songs of the 1920s,12 accompanied on the piano by her grandmother. Sathimas own mother was a bit of a rebel and a ragtime pianist in Cape Town. In her teens in the 1940s, the young Beatty Benjamin spent every weekend dancing in local community spaces with a special dance partner. The waltz, the foxtrot, and the samba were just three of the dance styles played by live bands whose rhythms shaped her sophisticated and quite relaxed sense of musical time. The young Beatty Benjamin learned the American jazz and Tin Pan Alley repertory that characterized her youth, through secondary orality by listening to the radio in particular. She recalls how she used to keep a pen and notebook hidden in her grandmothers wind-up Victrola. As a young woman in the early 50s, Bea kept the pen and paper handy so that whenever she heard a tune she really liked playing on the radio, she could

Carol Muller


easily write down the words. She could not afford to buy the sheet music or fakebooks herself. Instead she would listen to a song over and over, until she was able to get all the words. This was in the years before the radio moved from commercial to state-control. These were the days when, according to Ms. Benjamin, radio stations used to play all the music you heard in America. You could hear it in South Africa. Through the radio she listened to American popular music and jazz by the likes of Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, and Billie Holiday. During the week, the young Bea memorized the words, and over the weekend she learnt the melody as played by the band with which she moonlighted. It was from listening to the singing of Nat King Cole that she learnt to articulate the words of her songs so clearly. In this manner she imprinted into her memory a repertory of melodies and words that she continues to draw on and recreate in performance: You see, one thing about these melodies from the 20s and 30s, they were wonderful melodies. [. . .] Having grown up in Cape Town, where I heard these melodies being played, you see, the melodies were so real with me. They played in my head. I used to follow the dance bands and was always hearing the saxophone. So the melodies stayed, but I didnt always know the words. [Now] I do research [in the libraries in New York City] and I find these old things. And then its a question of running the words over in my head and seeing what I want to do with them, but still trying to recapture, you know, those moments I felt in the dance hall, listening to the melody. (SBB, pers. comm., 9 Apr. 1990) These experiences have become an integral part of Sathimas performance style and persona. She sings constantly of memories and dreams, of solitude, of the desire for love between a man and woman, and of the central place of music in shaping her sense of individual voice and identity. When Beatty completed high school she did two years of teacher training at a local teachers training college, after which she began teaching at an elementary school in Cape Town. During the week she would be the model teacher, but over the weekends, she moonlighted at social events and community dances and in jazz clubs. It was in this period that she would spend every evening in the local library reading about the African American experience. She even found an early biography of Billie Holiday, before the Nationalist government banned it. I didnt know why I was doing this. [. . .] I wasnt planning to come to this country. I never even dreamt about it, Sathima recalled (pers. comm., 29 Apr. 1990). The lifestyle did not last long. On one occasion a reporter arrived at the school looking for the young jazz singer, because he wanted to write an article on her performance. The report angered the school principal who summoned Beatty to his office and reprimanded her for her club singing. He informed her that she would have to make a choice between teaching and singing, because the two were inappropriate together. Nice [middle-class, colored women] teachers did not sing in clubs.13 So Bea Benjamin chose performance.


Research in African Literatures

In 1957, at the age of 21, the young Benjamin had joined Arthur Klugmans traveling show as a singer.14 In 1959, she became a member of Cape jazz aficionado Harold Jephthahs trio and sang in white nightclubs in the Cape Town area. These were the places where black and colored musicians performed (though it would later be prohibited), although they spent the intermissions with the staff in the kitchen just like black American musicians I had read about [including Billie Holiday] had to do in the South, Sathima commented in November 1986.15 This was about the time she met up with Abdullah, who by this stage was firmly into the path of jazz as an art form.16 In 1960, she became more intimately associated with then Dollar Brand when she joined his trio as a vocalist. And in 1961, she performed with Dollar Brands legendary group, the Jazz Epistles. Only a year later, both Dollar and Beatty scrambled their bags together and flew to Europe to begin the next phase in their lives as jazz musicians. A radio journalist once asked Abdullah Ibrahim if he heard African elements in the American jazz he listened to in Cape Town in the 1950s. Abdullahs reply is poignant. He believes that jazz is Africa-based. For this jazz pianist there was an inherent connection between the sounds of jazz and the music of contemporary Africa: For us [in Cape Town], Ellington was never an American. He was just the grand old man in the Village. Similarly, Duke Ellington is reported to have remarked on his arrival in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, After writing African music for 35 years, here I am at last in Africa!17 Sathima has a keen sense of the connections between African American experience in the USA and African experiences in South Africa, and jazz performed by people of African descent. She defines jazz in this way: All I can say is that jazz came out of a very painful experience. It started with black people being ripped away, and then innately trying to go back [. . .] They were denied so many things, and were repressed. So the music came out of that. And that we [South Africans] were drawn to it, it just seems natural to me . . .. Okay, we werent ripped away from our continent, but our continent was ripped away from us. And thats why I say it is similar, but not the same. (pers. comm., Mar. 1990) Because she sensed a connection between Cape musicians and African American jazz performers, it is not surprising that with their knowledge of his music, the young Beatty Benjamin determined to invite the great Duke Ellington to hear Dollar Brand perform when they were all in Switzerland in February 1963. The story is quite a remarkable one. After leaving South Africa in 1962, Dollar and Beatty ended up performing in a variety of clubs in Switzerland. One night, when Dollar had his trio at the Club Africana, Beattie heard that Duke Ellington was in the neighborhood. She went to his performance, going backstage to try to meet him. Ms. Benjamin was lucky that night. Ellington suggested that she wait backstage until the end of the show, which

Carol Muller


she did. He was taken by more than her sheer tenacity. Prior to meeting her, he had been asked by the US State Department to travel to South Africa. Duke Ellington had refused when he had been told he would have to perform before segregated audiences (Sathima Bea Benjamin, pers. comm., Apr. 1997). His meeting up with these two South African jazz musicians, who knew his music so intimately, was clearly a fortuitous moment for all. Duke agreed to hear the Dollar Brand Trio. He stayed for a couple of items, and then turned to the young Benjamin: And what is it that you do? Ellington asked Benjamin. Are you the manager? No, she answered. But I sing sometimes. Then you must sing, said Ellington with matter-of-fact insistence. Go and sing. (Hajdu, liner notes) The following day, Ellington met with the two South Africans in his hotel in Zurich. At the time he was both a performer and producer for Frank Sinatra at Reprise Records in Paris.18 He arranged to meet Beatty and the Dollar Brand Trio in Paris three days later. Performing with Dollar Brand were South Africans Johnny Gentze on bass and Makaya Ntshoko on drums. They played six instrumental pieces that were later released as Duke Ellington Introduces the Dollar Brand Trio. The other thirty tracks were never released in Ellingtons lifetime. Sathima sings on twelve tracks accompanied on piano by Ellington, Billy Strayhorn or Dollar Brand, and Swedish pizzicato violinist, Svend Asmussen. Ellington had told Sathima afterwards that the record company had thought the pieces were not commercial enough. Never having heard the recordings, Sathima came to believe that they had been lost or destroyed. That was until July 1994, when Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu played a cassette copy of the recording to her in New York City. While doing research for his book on Billy Strayhorn, Hajdu had met up with Gerhard Lehner, the studio engineer who was working in Barclay Studios in Paris on 23 February 1963. Lehner had been a soldier in the Nazi army during the Second World War when American soldiers captured him in Russia. Taken prisoner of war by the Americans, he had been persuaded to work for the US Armed Services Radio Service in Munich. He was subsequently hired as the chief engineer at the Barclay Studios and had been involved with the recording of many of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorns musical sessions. Lehner had been particularly taken with the recording session Strayhorn and Ellington had with the young South Africans. In fact, because he liked the sound of Sathimas voice so much, he had illegally made a second copy of the mornings work. This was the music that Sathima heard playing in her apartment in July 1994. It would take more than two years before Sathima was able to release twelve tracks of that historic morning in Paris on a compact disc she has called A Morning in Paris. The compact disc includes twelve American jazz vocal standards, like Darn That Dream, Solitude, Im Glad There Is You, and A Nightingale Sang


Research in African Literatures

in Berkeley Square. The Benjamin-Ellington compact disc was launched at a live performance Sathima did with several New York musicians and a Philadelphia jazz violinist, John Blake, in the Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Present in the front row were Duke Ellingtons flamboyant sister, Ruth Ellington, as well as several members of the Duke Ellington Society. When this recording was finally released in 1997 in New York City and Paris, Lehner was in the audience at the club in Paris where Sathima performed in December of that year. Like much of Sathimas vocal repertory, many of the songs for that recording focus on the subject of joys and sorrows of love between a man and woman. Her knowledge of the music of Ellington, Strayhorn, and other standard repertory enabled her to perform several more times with Duke Ellington over the next few years, the highlight of which was an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. In the mid-1960s her recorded output and live performances were consistent with that of other women jazz vocalists of the periodmostly jazz standards. Sathima began to include in her repertory jazz standards and her own compositions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in tandem with the birth of her two children, and her involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in exile, particularly in the United States. Sathima and Abdullah used Zurich as their base from which they moved around Europe, to the United States, and even returning to South Africa where they returned for the birth of both of their children. Sathima insisted that they had to be born on African soil. They returned quite easily to South Africa until the Soweto and related uprisings in 1976. This traumatic event, which had local manifestations throughout South Africa, was what finally caused Sathima and Abdullah to make public their support of the then banned African National Congress, the organization at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid. Abdullah tells a remarkable story about two tunes that he performed in Cape Town in 1976. These became the anthems of children in the streets of the city. They were the tunes Mannenberg (named after a township in Cape Town that is parallel in significance to Soweto in Johannesburg) and Soweto. The saxophone solos were being sung to words all over the country, as anthems of anger and resistance to the apartheid regime. Just a few months after the recordings of these tunes were released, the Soweto uprisings occurred. This was the turning point in South African history, when the South African security forces gunned down school children who were protesting against language instruction in schools. For Sathima, a mother with two children, this was the point of no return. Once they left South Africa for the United States, they declared their total support to the movement against apartheid. This experience, coupled with a deep sense of the pain caused to both Sathima and Abdullah by racial categorization and discrimination, resulted in two original compositions that Sathima recorded on her own label in the early 1980s. I shall return to these in the final section of the paper. Sathima and Abdullah decided after about fifteen years of constant movement between Europe, the United States, and South Africa to settle

Carol Muller


in New York City. With two small children and an internationally recognized pianist for a husband, Sathima withdrew from the very public nature of jazz performance into the more private domain of her home in the famous Chelsea Hotel (where she still lives) and the intimacy of the recording studio. I have written elsewhere about the close relationship she perceives between the birthing of children and a song repertory (Sathima Bea Benjamin). Suffice to say that in order to go into a recording studio, she needed to establish her own record label and company. In 1979, with the help of Abdullah, Sathima established the Ekapa label, primarily for the production and distribution of her own jazz recordings. She remembers how it came about: It occurred to me that I could make a record. . . . I really didnt know anything about it. I decided to do an album of Ellington songs because I figured, well, they dont know me here. Let me do something that is familiar. I was very unsteady with my own compositions, and I was very shy about [them]. Then I did it. I went into the studio. I did it. And then I sat there with a couple thousand LPs and I said, What am I going to do with all this? So I had to get the courage and say, now who are all the critics in this jazz music business? I am going to write a little note, package it, and send it to them. They can either look at it and throw it in the bin, or what, I dont know. I waited six months. I got feedback. I almost fell off my feet. It was so positive, I couldnt believe it. . . . I always say I have this little record company. Im the President, Im the musician, Im the messenger, I go to the post office. I do absolutely everything. (pers. comm., Oct. 1990) From 1979 through 1999, Sathima produced nine Long Playing records or compact discs of her own performance. These include a combination of her very personal interpretations of Tin Pan Alley, show tunes, and jazz standards, as well as several of her original compositions that speak to her own vision of jazz, Africa, and its relationship to a sense of South Africanness. I suggested earlier that a large proportion of Sathimas recorded output quite typically focused on the subject of sentimental love: In a Sentimental Mood, Till There Was You, and You Dont Know What Love Is are just three examples. These were the songs made popular in the 1940s and 50s, a time in the United States, for instance, when there were two separate wider cultural trends. In the early 1940s, female singers came to the fore in American popular culture as what Burton W. Peretti calls symbols of the wholesome American womanhood for which GIs fought to return home (90). With the return of men from the military in the late 1940s and early 1950s, about the time that Sathima was listening so avidly to American jazz in South Africa, there was a marked shift in the gendered division of jazz labor. In this period, jazz in America was affected by the Cold Wars spirit of machismo (116). In response or reaction to the


Research in African Literatures

independence of women afforded by men who joined the military, this was a period in the popular imagination when women were portrayed as vulnerable sex kittens needing protection. Men were glamorized in terms of male control and brute force. These images were absorbed and reinterpreted in South Africa by the young Sathima in terms of the iron will of a strict, morally guarded grandmother who required that she be ready to serve the men in her family. For a young girl who had known few warm, supportive relationships, daydreams of the romantic love of a man provided some respite. This is the innocence that one hears in Sathimas vocal renditions with Duke Ellington in Paris in 1963. By the mid-1970s, after years of inner struggle, isolation, and travel, the more mature Sathima realized that she held within herself poetry and music that was uniquely her own. She began to understand that her music was a highly individual response to the whole process of life itself. This included being a woman of mixed racial heritage who grew up in a divided and violent society, and was continuously on the move. She was also a woman who found solace and healing in the natural sounds of the wind, the ocean, the birds, and of the music peculiar to the city of Cape Town itself. One of the first original pieces that came to Sathima was the song Africa, which she composed in 1974. Both the poetry and the musical performance speak to a particular spirit and memory of Africanness that she began to long for once she had left South Africa. The text of the song is as follows: Ive been gone much too long And Im glad to say That Im home, Im home to stay. Africa, Africa. Ive come home, Ive come home To feel my peoples warmth, To shelter neath your trees, To catch the summer breeze. Africa, Africa, Africa. Ive come home, Ive come home. Im home to smell your earth To laugh with your children To feel your sun shining down on me. Africa, Africa. Ive come home, Ive come home. Sathima recalled, however, that when she sang the song in Cape Town in the mid-1970s, [s]omebody wrote in a review, Well, we dont know exactly what Africa shes singing about. And I said to Abdullah, Now, I know one thing, it is time to leave. It is definitely time to leave. And then I could come here [to New York] and sing it and people understand, you know. So, its just funny the way the things work out. (pers. comm., Apr. 1990)

Carol Muller


The disjuncture between Sathimas ideas of Africanness, that of other South Africans in the 1970s, and the understanding of Africa she experienced in the United States speaks to a complex interface between the identification of place and cultural and individual memory and imagination as it pertains to Africa. Although this is the song that Sathima told me she would sing when she returned to South Africa, it is perhaps ironic that Sathimas Africa is one whose presence is identified in terms of an image that does not truly exist. It is an image of Africa articulated as absence and deferral (see Bhabha). Having witnessed the horrors of the 1976 Soweto uprisings, Sathimas memories and dreams were no longer the whimsical imaginings and daydreaming of young girls. Instead, her personal responses began to shift to engage directly with the larger political moment. It was at this time that her dreams of a new [South African] nation, a political vision and hope for a new South Africa were powerfully articulated in her own melodic and poetic invention. The result was a three-part performance called the Liberation Suite, which she recorded in 1983 on an album called Memories and Dreams. With remarkable ingenuity, Sathima crafts her Africa composition into an integral part of the suite. Like her singing, the composition is a personal response to a historical moment. She articulates the complexity of mixed race identity, an identity that has caused considerable pain for both herself and Abdullah. She foregrounds this identity with an original piece she calls Nations in Me/New Nation acoming. The text provides a poignant portrayal of Sathimas experience and hope: I have so many nations in me Looking at my family tree I see that Im the fruit of their love Nations in me I have so many nations in me Looking at my family tree I see that Im the fruit of their love. In the land of my birth Youre told youve no worth If you are black, or have nations in you So much humiliation and pain But we know its their loss and our gain, For our struggle will not be in vain. For theres a new nation a comin Yes, theres a new nation a comin Therell be no talk about color We wont be concerned about race For were building a new nation With just one beautiful face. New nation, Im coming. The second piece, entitled Children of Soweto, is again, a personal response to the trauma of the tragic historical moment in South African history:


Research in African Literatures

Children Children of Soweto Were proud of all that you do Young Liberators Brave freedom fighters. Children Children of tomorrow You know we feel the pain with you The struggle continues The fight for what is right And music continues For we see better days in sight Yes, we see better days in sight Freedom, Freedom, Freedom. Let all our children sing And love be in their hears Freedom, Freedom, Freedom. In a bold gesture, and in response to the question What Africa is she talking about? Sathima completes her vision of a new nation, and her place in it, by firmly locating it on the continent of Africa, the kind of Africa that she likes to remember. Despite these courageous musical statements, her active involvement with the anti-apartheid movement in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as her husband Abdullah Ibrahims quite prominent place in the struggle for liberation abroad, Sathima was consistently excluded from the inner circles of the anti-apartheid movement. The reason: because she was perceived to play American music with African American musicians. It was felt that her music was not sufficiently African. Despite her very strong identification with, and vivid memory of, Africa embodied in her sound and texts, some of her compatriots failed to recognize the connection. Deeply traumatized by these responses to her music, Sathima has, once again, turned the pain to creative effect. She has called one of her more recent compact disc releases Southern Touch: Im calling it Southern Touch because, there seems to be a vocal connection between the deep South and the beginnings of this music. . . . Ive proved beyond a doubt that there is a vocal connection. Cape Town is the southernmost point . . . and this music that were busy with, comes from the deepest south. But those people came from Africa, thats where it all began. (pers. comm., 16 Mar. 1990) The album is a collection of songs she remembers her grandmother singing, songs from American Tin Pan Alley, light opera, and jazz. The opening track is a combination of two of the early songs: W.C. Handys Loveless Love and Careless Love. Her version of these two old African American tunes is played by three of Americas finest jazz musicians, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Billy Higgins. The

Carol Muller


entire track is performed over what Sathima calls the Cape Town rhythm, something like a samba, but not quite. It is a rhythmic pattern that combines the Latin rhythmic feel that went from Angola with the slaves to Brazil and then returned to Cape Town. Sathima Bea Benjamin hopes that somehow she will be able to come full circle and reconnect with her old home at the southern tip of Africa. She dreams of doing it through the musical aesthetic and historical connections she perceives between the people of the southernmost part of Africa and those from the southern United States. Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present. (Bhabha 63) What then is the spirit of Africa in the jazz performances of South African-born Sathima Bea Benjamin? It is a spirit intimately entwined with individual and collective memory and desire. In her own words, Sathimas Africa is a space of longing. It evokes images of home, warmth, earthy smells, the innocent laughter of children, and of trees and summer breezes. This is at its most obvious, though she takes it further. In Sathimas imagining of Africa, she re-members the continent without racial categorization and discrimination. Her Africa inhabits an enormous space that articulates a powerful sense of community and, indeed, of freedom. These kinds of references to the continent are not uncommon in discourses about African cultural memory. Think, for example, of the words of Brazilian jazz artist Flora Purims song, also called Africa: Now take me back to Africa Where the fathers and sons get together, When my people are running free, Take me back to Africa, And see all the love I can give, The rhythm will make me strong. Certainly, in Sathimas sound, one recognizes the qualities that Sam Floyd suggests reference an African cultural memoryher inflection of pitch, sophisticated rhythmic interplay, the stress upon the percussive and timbral qualities of sound over those of pitch, and all in a call-and-response format. It seems to me, however, that Sathimas musical and verbal discourses on her life in jazz suggest a far more complex understanding of the notion of Africanness. It is a diasporic position of Africanness, but perhaps a less conventional one. This is because her memories of a spirit of Africa are those of a fairly recent part of African historythat of the southernmost part of the continent in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to the rather idealized timeless vision of Africa in her song text, Sathima suggests that South Africanness invokes American popular music in a Cape Town physical environment and community at a particular historical periodthe 1940s and 1950s. In this time, American popular music was inextricably


Research in African Literatures

interwoven into local experience and cultural practice in the city of Cape Town, South Africa. In the memory of this historical moment, Africanness, or at least South Africanness, speaks of a multiplicity of experiences. It identifies with the pain and trauma of colonialism and racial discrimination as she hears it conveyed through the sounds of African American jazz. It allows for the imagining of a freedom of expressiona playful re-membering, and for saying old things in new ways: It is through image and fantasythose orders that figure transgressively on the borders of history and the unconsciousthat [like] Fanon [Sathima Bea Benjamin] most profoundly evokes the colonial condition. (Bhabha 43; my interpolations) Perhaps most significantly for Sathima, the spirit of Africa in jazz is an ambivalent signifier because it is identified primarily in movement. This occurs at several levels. Traditional sounds are integrated into new structures. Sathima and Abdullah use jazz and its connection to Africa, perhaps ironically, to move out of Africa and into exile. The ambivalence of such movement, nevertheless, is the pain of inbetweeness that political exile, mixed racial identity, and hybrid cultural practices engender. Sathimas spirit of [South] Africanness speaks to this sense of inbetweeness. She is a South African woman singing American jazz, albeit in her own style. Like her racial classification, she and her music are neither black enough, nor sufficiently white. As with her passing back and forth between South Africa, Europe, and the United States, her sound is not African enough, nor is she fully American. South African-American is the way she likes to identify herself and her music. What remains to be thought is the repetitious desire to recognize ourselves doubly, as, at once, decentered in the solidary processes of the political group, and yet, ourself as a consciously committed, even individuated, agent of changethe bearer of belief. (Bhabha, Interrogating Identity 65)

1. An article entitled Sathima Bea Benjamin Finds Cape Jazz to Be Her Home Within, which has contains some content overlap with the present article, appears in Sathima Bea Benjamin: Embracing Jazz, edited and published by Lars Rasmussen, who has ceded all rights for this article to Indiana University Press, as has Carol Muller. 2. Quoting from Lewis Nkosis Home and Exile and other Selections (8), Rob Nixon describes Drum Magazine as follows: Drum magazine, the principal outlet for Sophia[town] writing, projected an expressly cosmopolitan target audiencethe new African cut adrift from the tribal reserveurbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash. (15-16)

Carol Muller


3. This is an intriguing reference to the Beat movement in Greenwich Village, New York. The relationship between the jazz avant-garde of African American musicians and the Beat movement in the Village is explored in Jon Panishs The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar America. This was one of numerous connections between South African musicians and those in the United States that some South African scholarship has begun to explore. See for example, Ballantine; Erlmann; and Coplan. 4. Positioning a history of South African jazz alongside that of the United States introduces a provocative set of contrasting explanations for changes in repertory and performance possibilities. When American jazz history explains stylistic shifts in the 1950s and 1960s, it conventionally argues that Cold War anxieties, African American anger against social injustice articulated in be-bop and the introduction of a television culture changed jazz. From a mainstream social dance form, it became a highly sophisticated, technically demanding art form (see Peretti, for example). These explanations are markedly different from those in South African jazz history. While Cold War anxiety was certainly reflected in contemporary South African English language newspapers, television was not introduced into the country until 1976. The rise of rocknroll in South Africa is sometimes cited as a reason for the change from dance bands and small avant garde ensembles. In the minds of South Africans the forces that squashed the live performance culture associated with commercial and art forms of jazz were to be found in more immediate repression of the Nationalist government. The tangible evidence of forced removals, security forces, police raids, constant harassment, and ultimately political and cultural exile offered more compelling reasons for shifts in the community based culture of jazz performance remembered by Sathima and Abdullah, among many others. This requires more detailed historical analysis. 5. Cape Argus, 12 Jan. 1962. A small advertisement was placed in the Cape newspaper announcing the concert and imminent departure to Europe of the two musicians. 6. Makebas travels in Europe and the USA are discussed quite frequently in Drum; see for example an article by Lewis Nkosi (Drum April 1962: 17, 19, 21, 23) in which Miriam Makebas experiences are described through text and pictures. 7. Ben Satch Masinga first met Louis Armstrong when both were touring in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1960. Ben was with African Jazz and Variety (Drum May 1962:46-47). 8. This is a useful concept for understanding an aesthetic of African American style, but it is less helpful for discussions of contemporary Africa, because it suggests that Africanness is just a memory and not a living reality. I shall have to flesh this out in a subsequent publication. 9. I am certainly not the first to write about South African jazz. David Coplans In Township Tonight! (1985) is perhaps the first substantial exploration of the jazz scene in South Africa. Christopher Ballantines Marabi Nights (1993) makes an important contribution to the early history of black South African jazz and vaudeville, mostly from the Johannesburg area (though this is not explicitly stated). Several MA theses have been written on popular and jazz performance in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. These include Allen (1993), Gassert (1988), Jeppie (1990), Layne (1995), and Lunn (1986). Michael Nixon (1995) has written a short piece on jazz in inner Cape Town, and Gary Baines


Research in African Literatures



12. 13.


15. 16.

(1996) on jazz in the eastern Cape, the university town of Grahamstown specifically. Miriam Makebas autobiography (1987) provides a couple of chapters on her involvement with the jazz scene in Johannesburg in the mid-late 1950s. Sathima recorded these two as a single item on her compact disc entitled Southern Touch on 14 Dec. 1989. The disc was released in 1992 by Enja Records, Munich Germany. The Liberation Suite was recorded on 7 Oct. 1983 on an album called Memories and Dreams, on the Ekapa label. I have realized that there are striking parallels between the life stories of Sathima and Billie Holiday. This became particularly poignant for me in reading Stuart Nicholsons recently published biography, Billie Holiday. Sathima told me on one occasion that she had read Billie Holidays autobiography after it was published in the mid-1950s. She had found it in a neighborhood library in Cape Town before it was banned in South Africa. This practice paralleled a resurgence of nostalgia for 1920s music in the United States at about the same time (Peretti 120). Miriam Makeba describes similar community retribution for her participation as a female vocalist in a jazz band, though she remarks that it had been her fathers desire that she go into music and she received the full support of her mother . It was the wider community who whispered about her: So-and-sos daughter is a whore because she is on stage. I can imagine what they are saying about me: She left her husband to show herself on stage! Why isnt she at home raising her child, instead of having her mother do it so she can sing? (Makeba 46-47) Arthur Klugmans Coloured Jazz and Variety was a parallel, though less visible and successful production to African Jazz and Variety. There are numerous articles in the African press in the late 1950s on African Jazz and Variety. Robert Kavanagh discusses it briefly, explaining that white impressario Alf Herbert became convinced in the early 1950s that there was plenty of talent in the African and mixed race communities, a talent he sought to harness. One of the results of this was the creation of the traveling show called African Jazz and Variety. (Musicians who performed in this show have commented to me recently that there was almost nothing that was African in this show, besides the actors themselves. Nevertheless, South African jazz singer Dolly Rathebes performing career was considerably enhanced by her star roles in AJ and V in the 1950s.) Following the success of African Jazz and Variety, the newly formed Union of Southern African Artists organized the now well-known Township Jazz concerts in white areas (recordings of these sessions have been reissued by Gallo Records (South Africa). African Follies, Drums of Africa, and the Golden City Dixies were three other productions popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Subsequent to the success of the African Jazz and Variety and Township Jazz stage productions, the King Kong musical was written and produced. It toured South Africa and ultimately went to London for a good run. A trip had also been planned for New York City, but, characteristic of these productions, they ran out of money and so disbanded in London. Several South Africans decided not to return to South Africa, but to stay abroad. Miriam Makeba was one of these. See Francis Davis, Phildelphia Inquirer 19. Nov. 1986. Both Sathima and Abdullahs formative musical experiences began in the home. Abdullah recalls that his earliest moments with music took place in his home: his grandmother was a founding member of the African Methodist Episcopal church in District Six in Cape Town. (Ironically, the AME was an

Carol Muller


American-based church organization). His grandmother was the pianist in her church, so from an early age, Dollar Brand was exposed to African American bishops and missionaries, spirituals, and the Alexander Hymnal. Once he moved out of his home, he listened to American jazz on radios playing in his home community. And as a young boy, he heard Malay choirs and traditional Xhosa and Sotho music and he participated in the large groups of musicians in the New Year parades of mixed race music and dance colloquially known as the Coon Carnival (see Martin). Finally, this gifted musician spent many hours playing for social dances, known in the Cape as langarm dance (see Nixon and Layne). 17. Qtd. from Will Friedwald in an article entitled Missing Links(Village Voice 22 Apr. 1997). 18. There is an additional connection between Frank Sinatra and South Africans at this time. The Cape Argus ran several articles on engagement of South Africanborn Juliet Prowse and Frank Sinatra in 1962, including a piece on Sinatras visit to South Africa to meet Ms. Prowses parents. See for example, The Cape Argus 8 Jan. 1962, S.A. film actress spurns politics; 9 Jan. 1962, Juliet is a wonder girl, says Sinatra: wedding day undecided; 20 Jan. 1962, What is it about Sinatra?; and 8 Feb. 1962, No more work for Juliet, says Sinatra.

Allen, Lara. Pennyswhistle Kwela: A Musical, Historical, and Socio-Political Analysis. U of Natal, MMus Thesis, 1993. Ballantine, Christopher. Marabi Nights: Early South African Jazz and Vaudeville. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1993. Baines, Gary. The Little Jazz Town: The Social History and Musical Styles of Black Grahamstown in the 1950s and 1960s. Papers Presented at the Symposium on Ethnomusicology 14. Ed. Andrew Tracey. Grahamstown: ILAM, 1996. Bhabha, Homi. Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995. 40-65. Chapman, Michael, ed. The Drum Decade: Stories from the 1950s. Pietermaritzburg: U of Natal P, 1989. Coplan, David. In Township Tonight! South Africas Black City Music and Theater. New York: Longmans, 1985. Davis, Peter. In Darkest Hollywood: Exploring the Jungles of Cinemas South Africa. Athens: Ohio UP, 1996. Erlmann, Veit. Music, Modernity and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. . African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. Floyd, Samuel. The Power of Black Music:Interpreting its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Gassert, Richard. Bop Till You Drop: An Oral Study of Popular Musical Cultures in Cape Town from the Late 1940s to the Early 1960s. History III Long Essay, U of Cape Town, 1988. Hajdu, David. Liner Notes. Sathima Bea Benjamin: A Morning in Paris. Munich: Enja Records, 1997. ENJ- 9309 2.


Research in African Literatures

. Lushlife: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Farrar, 1996. Jeppie, Shamiel. Aspects of Popular Culture and Class Expression in Inner Cape Town ca. 1939-1959. Unpublished MA Thesis. U of Cape Town, 1990. Kavanagh, Robert. Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa. London:Zed, 1985. Layne, V. A History of Dance and Jazz Band Performance in the Western Cape in the Post-1945 Era. Unpublished MA Thesis. U of Cape Town, 1995. Lunn, H. Antecedents of the Music and Popular Culture of the African Post-1976 Generation. MA Thesis. U of the Witwatersrand, 1986. Makeba, Miriam. Makeba: My Story. With James Hall. New York: New American Library, 1987. Martin, Denis-Constant. Coon Carnival: New Year in Cape Town, Past and Present. Cape Town: David Philip, 1999. Molefe, ZB, and Mike Mzileni. A Common Hunger to Sing: A Tribute to South Africas Black Women of Song, 1950-90. Cape Town: Kwela, 1997. Muller, Carol, with Sathima Bea Benjamin. A Home Within: Cape Vocal Jazz in Exile. With Compact Disc. (Forthcoming) Muller, Carol. Sathima Bea Benjamin, Exile, and the Southern Touch in Jazz Creation and Performance. African Languages and Cultures 9.2 (1996): 127-43. Nicholson, Stuart. Billie Holiday. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1995. Nixon, Michael. The World of Jazz in Inner Cape Town, 1940-60. Papers Presented at the Symposium on Ethnomusicology 13. Ed. Andrew Tracey. Grahamstown: ILAM, 1995. Nixon, Rob. Homelands, Harlem, and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond. New York: Routledge, 1994. Nkosi, Lewis. Home and Exile and Other Selections. London: Longmans, 1983. Panish, Jon. The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997. Peretti, Burton W. Jazz in American Culture. American Ways Series. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1997. Placksin, Sally. Sathima: Music Is the Spirit within You. Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 2.3 (1984): 21-31. Purim, Flora. Fourth World. Worthing, UK: B & W Music, 1993. BW 030. . Abdullah Ibrahim: A Discography. Copenhagen: The Book Trader, 1999. Rasmussen, Lars, ed. Sathima Bea Benjamin: Embracing Jazz. Copenhagen: The Book Trader, 1999. Wicomb, Zoe. Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa. Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-95. Ed. Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. 91-107. Most Recent Recordings (except for Cape Town Love, these are distributed by Enja): Sathima Bea Benjamin. Lovelight. Enja Records, 1988. R 27905. . Southern Touch. Enja Records, 1989. ENJ-7015 2. . A Morning in Paris. Enja Records, 1997. ENJ-93092. . Cape Town Love. Cape Town: Ekapa Records, 1999. SA 001.