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Africa’s Songbird

In Jazz there are those singers who are unafraid to do something truly different. They will sing against the grain, or play in a new way that often shocks the establishment at first. Where so many others can’t resist the temptation to imitate the latest style, to sound like some already famous singer, these singers bravely trust their own voice. Sathima Bea Benjamin was one of these singers, her voice pared down to the last timbre. Like Billie Holiday, she turned her limited range into her greatest strength.

Like all the most outstanding jazz singers her art was as beautiful as it was political. She traced her roots to St Helena, and believed that Jazz was the cry of a woman. You hear this pain, and the beauty in her haunting tribute Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine. If ever a song could be at once poignantly beautiful but also palpably defiant, Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine does so. On this song Sathima is accompanied by Larry Willis, Ricky Ford, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.

This piece was initially supposed to be a celebration of the reissue of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s African Songbird on vinyl. When word got out that African Songbird would be reissued on vinyl, I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy. Jazz is full of albums that quickly become fabled, and African Songbird had become one of these albums.

For those who may wonder why she goes under the name Bea Benjamin on the album, the name Sathima was given to her by the South African bassist Johnny Dyani. But over a course of six weeks of following the musician and her music, the piece also became a note of her death. Thankfully the truly great artists do not die, they live on through their music.

Sathima

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her  singing
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her singing

Amongst lovers of high jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin belongs in that very small circle of singers who sing with little adornment. Nat King Cole with his clean lines and perfect pitch was an influence. But it was Billie Holiday with her limited range who gave her the confidence to tell her story through song. In her records, Sathima Bea Benjamin chose only the best accompanists. Miriam Makeba was known as Mama Africa, but it is easy to see why Sathima Bea Benjamin can lay claim to the title of African Songbird.

In July of 2013 a limited edition of this famed 1976 recording that has become a truly rare collector’s piece was reissued. In the UK, copies of the original vinyl fetch as much as £600. On the record Sathima Bea Benjamin is accompanied by South African jazz royalty, Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Mannenberg Coetzee and Monty Weber with an impressive list of American sidemen.

After years of hunting for a copy of this record, I walked into a record store in Soho, London and as I was browsing the vinyl section, I stumbled onto African Songbird, in mint condition. When I went to pay for it, the storeowner Wayne told me of the story of the album’s reissue. Little did he realise that I had been on a quest to find this album.

Sathima Bea Benjamin’s story should be told widely, for she is unique in the world of jazz in that her debut album, A Morning In Paris, had not only Duke Ellington at the piano, but also Billy Strayhorn and her husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand. She enchanted the great Ellington with her interpretation of his compositions. It was with Duke Ellington’s help that she relocated to New York together with her husband.

For those who hear platitudes from our arts officials that South African artists need to conquer the global market, it is worth reminding them that in the 60’s Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Chris McGregor, Caiphus Semenya, Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu and of course Sathima Bea Benjamin had already won the world over.

One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin
One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin

When you put the album on the vinyl, side one has only the one song, Africa, a deeply moving tribute to the continent that Sathima Bea Benjamin credits with the birth of jazz. It begins with a lush, even orchestral interplay between the percussions and the basses, the drummer eliciting a richly polyphonic sound out of his instrument. About 9 minutes into the track, Abdullah Ibrahim is incredibly inventive on the Fender Rhodes. Basil Mannenberg Coetzee’s tenor sax is truly irresistible. This is quite possibly the most elegant musical tribute to the continent.

But it is on African Songbird in which Sathima Bea Benjamin sings without accompaniment that you grasp the depth of her musical power. Little wonder those who know this album treasure it as one of Jazz music’s greatest moments. Perhaps it is also the reason why she was not known to the bigger market as her style was devoid of the vocal theatrics that delight pleasure seekers.

In the second week of August 2013, Sathima Bea Benjamin was honoured by the Joy of Jazz for her contribution to the music. On a beautifully lit stage at The SABC, she sang an impromptu song from the Duke Ellington Songbook. As it turned out, it was to be her last performance. It was fitting that she should honour Duke Ellington, the man who had set her musical trajectory on the path towards mastery. A week after receiving this rare honour in the country of her birth, Sathima Bea Benjamin died in Cape Town.

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin

Perhaps in death Sathima Bea Benjamin will gain the kind of following that her music deserved. On each of her albums, she poured her heart out, singing with the warmth of a storyteller and at the grace of a minimalist. Luckily for us African Songbird, her masterpiece, has been reissued on CD and the music sounds as if it was produced just yesterday.

 

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Culture

Jazz Is The Highest Art Form, says Abdullah Ibrahim

“Jazz is the highest art form and the Symphony Orchestra is stuck in the industrial era, with each musician only knowing how to play his part and not the whole piece” Abdullah Ibrahim said at the weekend. He recounted an incident when he gave a score to a conductor for a performance he was to do with an orchestra. “They did not bother to practice, and I knew exactly what was going to go down” Ibrahim said with a smile. Ibrahim says the day before the performance the conductor asked him if he did not have a CD of the music. The hapless conductor was out of luck and Ibrahim says he had to stop the performance and ask the musicians to try again. It was perhaps telling that Ibrahim warned against the dangers of mistaking information for knowledge.

Ibrahim singles out the ability to improvise as what truly sets jazz musicians apart from their counterparts who play classical music. In his gentle but wise voice he wonders why classical musicians are revered so much if they can only play what is written for them and are unable to improvise.  Even as he ponders some of the most enduring contradictions in music, it is clear that Ibrahim remains fascinated by mastery of the simple. Where some musicians bet their careers on virtuosity and playing at impossibly high speeds Ibrahim’s style is often spare. Like Duke Ellington before him, his greatest instrument is the band that he plays with.

His own music is a study in paring down so that each note is heard with a purity that is startling. A key to his practice as a musician, as a composer and a pianist may lie in his life long study of martial arts. Ibrahim reveals that he can spend several years to master one simple movement. Similarly in his playing, he plays the same song over and over again till he discovers to borrow from him, he discovers the 99% that lies hidden beyond the obvious.”

Ibrahim told a story of a young man who found Art Tatum playing and he walked over to him and said he knew all of Tatum’s music and he could play it perfectly. To demonstrate his point, the young man went over to a piano and began playing like the great pianist. But Tatum was oblivious of the young man and he focused on his drink till a friend sitting next to him, said, “Listen, this young man is playing your music”, whereupon Tatum responded, “He knows what I play, not why I play it”.

In his two shows at the Linder Auditorium and at the ZK Matthews Hall in Pretoria, Ibrahim played some of the most wondrous, most irresistibly memorable jazz, and his band Ekaya was able to go to places where only the bravest and most skilled improvisers dare go. On songs like Mindif and Calypso Minor, the band played with a joy that sent palpable electricity across the hallowed halls.  Both the Linder and the ZK Matthews halls have some of the best acoustics in the country and this allowed Ibrahim and the band to play with as little amplification as possible. The sound was rich, pure, and intimate, full of a raw intelligence that comes from hearing men like Ibrahim whisper their secrets through their music.

 

The great composer, pianist and bandleader, Abdullah Ibrahim

Whether he was eliciting the bluest notes from the minor keys of his Steinway, or coaxing the brightest, warmest notes that convey his love for this art form, it is clear that Ibrahim’s music is made from a place that is deep and beautiful and ultimately unknowable. As he came to play for Joburg and Pretoria, we were lucky to hear Ibrahim take an unprecedented number of solos in a performance with a band. Such is his generosity that when he is on stage, Ibrahim prefers to let the spotlight shine on the musicians that accompany him. In his last performance at The Linder, he gave up his seat at the piano to Andile Yenana.

It is worth noting that in both his performances at the Linder and at the ZK Mathews Hall, Abdullah Ibrahim did not once utter a word. Not a single word. He came onto the stage and only spoke through the music. He only gestured acknowledgement of applause and he and his band members were one in speaking to us through the language of their music. His refusal to speak was perhaps a necessary reminder that at its zenith, it is perhaps unnecessary to paraphrase music. If we remain truly curious, and we listen with clarity and sincerity, perhaps we earn the right to hear the notes that would otherwise remain hidden from those that only hear the obvious.

The music that Abdullah Ibrahim has composed in a career that’s well over 60 years is some of the most beautiful, some of the most daring, but also some of the most radically African. Once he gave us Mannenberg, Abdullah Ibrahim reminded us that Africa’s music has a beauty that eclipses much of what we’ve previously elevated to the apex of culture. But it is when he plays an extended set of just under three hours that you begin to grasp the incredible magic of this pianist and composer who has always painted in the most unusual colors with the sound of his piano.

Jazz music is the African diaspora’s greatest gift to the world, and we should listen to it knowing that we are in an encounter with the highest of the art forms. Abdullah Ibrahim belongs in a line of our greatest griots that includes Duke Ellington, Madala Kunene, Kippie Moeketsi, Johnny Dyani, Marks Mankwane, Miriam Makeba, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Princess Magogo, Philip Tabane, Ali Farka Toure and Bheki Mseleku. We should count ourselves lucky that Abdullah Ibrahim is playing for us when his quest for perfection has been realized.

 

A portrait of Abdullah Ibrahim next to his piano