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How One Singer Made Four Debut Albums

Sathima Bea Benjamin in 1974.
Ian Bruce Huntley
Courtesy of Matsuli Music
Sathima Bea Benjamin in 1974.

About a month before she died last week at age 76, Sathima Bea Benjamin finally properly celebrated her debut album. That's a bit of a complicated claim, of course, because depending on how you count, the South African vocalist either made her debut album in 1959, 1963, 1976 or 1979.

In 1959, as Beatty Benjamin, she recorded the LP My Songs for You. It was produced by the pianist Dollar Brand, who was later known as Abdullah Ibrahim; he was also her boyfriend and later became her husband. However, it was never released.

In 1963, then living in Europe, Benjamin recorded with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Danish violinist Svend Asmussen and Ibrahim's trio. Ellington personally paid for Ibrahim, his band and Benjamin to travel to Paris to make two separate albums for Reprise Records, the label founded by Frank Sinatra. (It's a wonderfully serendipitous story worth reading in full, as toldto several interviewers.) Reprise put out Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio, jump-starting her future husband's career, but never released Benjamin's languid, plotted album; the label was supposedly pessimistic on its commercial prospects.

In 1976, she was back in South Africa long enough to record for a local independent label called As-shams (meaning "The Sun"). The LP African Songbird was the product; it featured Ibrahim and other Cape Town musicians. But the record languished in relative obscurity and soon fell out of print.

In 1979, now based in New York, she recorded for her own new record label, Ekapa Records. Sathima Sings Ellington was, obviously, an album of songs by and associated with Ellington, featuring New York musicians. In the process, it also saluted the would-be benefactor and bandleader who asked her to sing with his band several times, including at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival.

You could call Sathima Sings Ellington a debut because, despite the previous attempts, this was the first recording of her own to actually make it to the U.S. commercial marketplace. The 1959 recording, which would have been South Africa's first jazz album, never saw the light of day. The 1963 recording of Ellingtonia and standards finally came out more than 30 years later in 1996, as A Morning In Paris. The 1976 album was so off-the-radar that it wasn't even mentioned in the book Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking In Jazz — the biography and ethnomusicological analysis Benjamin co-wrote with University of Pennsylvania professor Carol Ann Muller.

With a fresh start and the Ellingtonian touchstone in place, Benjamin finally began to concentrate on her own musical identity. Her albums included her own songs, which often were inspired by South African memories, politics or sense of identity. And she does this while raising two children in New York City, handling all recording business herself and helping to manage her itinerant husband's career. As a "coloured" (ethnically mixed, in official apartheid classification), transnational woman who didn't grow up with American notions of race and the blues, she developed a distinct perspective on jazz's African influence. In Muller's book, she's quoted as saying:

My gut feeling is that jazz came out of the feeling of being ripped away from your continent, unwillingly, and your culture being taken away from you. That is why I say jazz from South Africa is similar, but not exactly the same as from the U.S.

Perhaps you can hear that difference on her 1976 album, African Songbird. The small, crate-digging British record company Matsuli Music reissued that LP this year, and you can hear it via Bandcamp or Soundcloud.

The album's three tracks are originals, and though she would record those songs later, it's notable that she'd already written them by 1976: before permanently moving to New York, before Ekapa Records, before she was publicly anything more than the woman who managed and sometimes sang with Abdullah Ibrahim. They're sung in her characteristically drawn-out, deliberate style over hypnotic grooves — the title track is even done solo, apart from the recorded sounds of seagulls. But these are songs that speak of personal experience. Take "Africa," which occupies all of side A:

I've been gone much too long
And I'm glad to say that I'm home
I'm home to stay
Africa, Africa

Curiously, she wrote those words in 1974. In early 1977, less than a year after African Songbird was released for the first time, the apartheid regime became too much to bear, and her family moved to New York permanently. She would later tell Muller that the song imagined how it might feel to finally return home for good. American audiences, she also said, intuitively understood the sentiment.

In July, about a month before she died, Matsuli Music threw a few release parties for Benjamin and the African Songbird reissue in Cape Town, where she had returned in 2011. She even performed at one — and, thanks to a recording, we know she sang "Africa."

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