Sathima Bea Benjamin

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Sathima Bea Benjamin
Birth nameBeatrice Benjamin
Born(1936-10-17)17 October 1936
Claremont, Cape Town, South Africa
Died20 August 2013(2013-08-20) (aged 76)
Cape Town
GenresSouth African jazz, vocal jazz, soul jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, lyricist
Years active1955–2013
Associated actsJean Grae, Abdullah Ibrahim, Buster Williams, Onaje Allan Gumbs

Beatrice "Sathima Bea" Benjamin (17 October 1936 – 20 August 2013) was a South African vocalist and composer, based for nearly 45 years in New York City.

Early life[edit]

She was born Beatrice Bertha Benjamin[1] in Claremont, Cape Town, South Africa;[2] her father, Edward Benjamin, was from the island of St. Helena off the coast of West Africa, and her mother, Evelyn Henry, had roots in Mauritius and the Philippines.[3] As an adolescent, she first performed popular music in talent contests at the local cinema (bioscope) during the intermission. By the 1950s she was singing at various nightclubs, community dances and social events, performing with notable Cape Town pianists Tony Schilder and Henry February, among others. She built her repertoire watching British and American movies and transcribing lyrics from songs heard on the radio, where she discovered Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald. These musicians would come to influence her singing style, notably in terms of light phrasing and clear diction.

At the age of 21, she joined Arthur Klugman's travelling show Coloured Jazz and Variety on a tour of South Africa. When the production failed, she found herself stranded in Mozambique, where she met South African saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. In 1959, she returned to Cape Town's now thriving jazz scene, where she met pianist Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), whom she would marry in 1965. In that same year she recorded what would have been the first jazz LP in South Africa's history. Entitled My Songs for You, with accompaniment by Ibrahim's trio, the recording of mostly standards was never released.[1]

Sharpeville Massacre and Europe[edit]

In the aftermath of South Africa's Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, Benjamin and Ibrahim left South Africa for Europe. The couple, along with Ibrahim's trio of bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makhaya Ntshoko, settled in Zurich, Switzerland, and worked throughout Germany and Scandinavia, meeting and occasionally working with American jazz players, including Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Ben Webster, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. The artist who would have the greatest impact on Benjamin's life, however, was Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington[edit]

Benjamin met Ellington while he was in Zurich in 1963. Standing in the wings during most of his band's performance, once the concert ended she insisted that Duke hear her husband's trio at the Club Africana, where Ibrahim's band had a standing engagement. Duke obliged, but insisted that Benjamin sing for him. Following this encounter, Ellington arranged for the couple to fly to Paris and record separate albums for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, for whom Ellington functioned as Artists and Repertoire representative. Ibrahim’s record, Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio, was released the following year and subsequently helped him build a following in Europe and the United States. Benjamin’s recording, however, remained unreleased and was presumed to be lost until its release in 1996 by Enja Records, under the title A Morning in Paris. The session's engineer, Gerhard Lerner, had surreptitiously made a second copy.[4]

She maintained her musical relationship with Ellington. In 1965, he arranged to have her perform with his band in the U.S. at the Newport Jazz Festival (when she sang the Ellington ballad "Solitude"),[1] and at one point asked her to join his band permanently. Due to her recent marriage to Ibrahim that same year, Benjamin declined the offer.[5]

South Africa, America, and Ekapa[edit]

Throughout the 1960s, Benjamin and Ibrahim moved back and forth between Europe and New York City, as Ibrahim worked to establish his career. Benjamin spent much of the period as a manager and agent for her husband while raising their son, Tsakwe. The year 1976 marked a turning point for Benjamin. She and Ibrahim returned to South Africa to live; she gave birth to her daughter, Tsidi (now the underground hip-hop artist Jean Grae); and recorded African Songbird, an album of original compositions, for South Africa's Gallo Records. Shortly after Tsidi's birth, the family relocated to New York city in 1977, to the famed Hotel Chelsea.[1]

In 1979, Benjamin started the record label Ekapa to produce and distribute her and Ibrahim's music. Between 1979 and 2002, she released eight of her albums on Ekapa, including Sathima Sings Ellington, Dedications, Memories and Dreams, Windsong, Lovelight, Southern Touch, Cape Town Love, and Musical Echoes.

Dedications was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1982.[3] Benjamin's collaborators on these albums have included saxophonist Carlos Ward, pianists Stephen Scott, Kenny Barron, Larry Willis and Onaje Allan Gumbs, bassist Buster Williams and drummers Billy Higgins and Ben Riley. For the most part, Benjamin has used American musicians for her U.S. recordings and South African musicians when in Cape Town.[6] Her 2002 recording, Musical Echoes, featured American pianist Stephen Scott with two South Africans, bassist Basil Moses and drummer Lulu Gontsana.[7]

Later career[edit]

In 2000, Danish second-hand bookdealer and fan of South African jazz Lars Rasmussen published a collection of essays and a discography of Benjamin's music in Sathima Bea Benjamin: Embracing Jazz (Copenhagen, 2000). It contains two compact discs of Sathima's music: Cape Town Love and an Embracing Jazz compilation with photographs.

In October 2004, South African president Thabo Mbeki gave her the Order of Ikhamanga Silver Award for "excellent contribution as a jazz artist" and for her contribution "to the struggle against apartheid."[8] In March 2005, the art group Pen and Brush, Inc. presented her with a Certificate of Achievement for her work as a performer, musician, composer, and "activist in the struggle for human rights in South Africa". Benjamin was profiled in the March 2006 issue of JazzTimes.[3]

Her album SongSpirit, was released on 17 October 2006 in celebration of her 70th birthday. A compilation record, it includes tracks from her earlier albums, plus a previously unreleased duet with Abdullah Ibrahim from 1973.

In 2007, Benjamin began reissuing her back catalogue for download. Cape Town Love, released 19 June, began the process, while A Morning in Paris was reissued in October 2007 to mark her 71st birthday. It was released for download on 16 October, and reissued on CD on 22 January 2008.

In December 2008 she performed at the Apollo Theater at the closing of the concert Bricktop at the Apollo, hosted by film director Jordan Walker-Pearlman.[9] She sang "Someone to Watch Over Me".

In 2010, she was the subject of the documentary Sathima's Windsong, directed by author and professor Daniel Yon.

In 2011 Duke University Press published Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz, which was written by Benjamin and Carol Muller, a South African ethnomusicologist, over the course of twenty years.

She returned to Cape Town in 2011, where she continued to work as a vocalist. She died on 20 August 2013 at the age of 76.[10][11][9]


  • African Songbird with Dollar Brand (The Sun, 1976)
  • Sathima Sings Ellington (Ekapa, 1979)
  • Dedications (Ekapa, 1982)
  • WindSong with Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Billy Higgins (Ekapa, 1985)
  • Memories and Dreams (Ekapa, 1986)
  • LoveLight (Ekapa, 1988)
  • Southern Touch (Enja, 1989)
  • A Morning in Paris (Enja, 1997)
  • Musical Echoes (Ekapa, 2002)
  • Cape Town Love (Ekapa, 2003)
  • Song Spirit (Ekapa, 2006)


  1. ^ a b c d Chinen, Nate, "Sathima Bea Benjamin, Jazz Singer and Activist, Dies at 76", The New York Times, 29 August 2013.
  2. ^ "Sathima Bea Benjamin", South African History Online.
  3. ^ a b c Kelley, Robin D. G., Sathima Bea Benjamin: The Echo Returns, JazzTimes, 1 March 2006.
  4. ^ "Sathima Bea Benjamin", Two Hundred and Ten, 1 February 2013.
  5. ^ "Sathima Bea Benjamin - biography". Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  6. ^ Kelley, Robin. "Sathima Bea Benjamin, Vocalist". National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
  7. ^ Dryden, Ken. "AllMusic Review by Ken Dryden". AllMusic.
  8. ^ "Presentation of National Honours", 29 October 2004.
  9. ^ a b "South Africa: Jazz Singer, Composer Sathima Bea Benjamin Dies", AllAfrica, 21 August 2013.
  10. ^ "RIP, Sathima Bea Benjamin", Ottawa Citizen, 20 August 2013.
  11. ^ "Jazz songstress Sathima Bea Benjamin dies", SABC, 21 August 2013.

External links[edit]