Recently the life and career of Cape Town-born jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin has been the subject of both popular and scholarly attention. In the last two years alone, she’s been the subject of an excellent documentary film (“Sathima’s Windsong” by anthropologist Daniel Yon) and she is 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 the book are Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren and the African-Americans Randy Weston and Ahmed Abdul Malik.) Most significantly, Benjamin has now collaborated with University of Pennsylvania music professor Carol Muller to produce a book-length study of Benjamin’s life and career, Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz.
Muller (also a South African) 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.”
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