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.
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.
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.
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.
He should have been a Sophiatown heavy. With his two-tone brogues, tweed jackets, and occasional bowtie, he looks like something straight out of Sophiatown. Or from the Harlem of the Renaissance in the 20’s. All of which would make sense because Bongani Madondo’s literary soul mates include James Baldwin, E’skia Mphahlele and Miriam Makeba. He is a fast talking dandy armed with an encyclopedic grasp of all things Pop drawn to noire movies. He devours long reads in Esquire, Vanity Fair or the Paris Review Of Books.
At a time when so many writers peddle words mostly to pay the rent, Madondo is that rare cat who still answers to a higher cause; the art of it all. It would be incorrect to call Madondo a reporter even though he has a nose for the news. Little wonder he calls himself a storyteller. But the stories he goes in search of stay with him for a long time. As he says in his Note to the Reader in I’m Not Your Weekend Special, “Way before I’d even seen her, let alone met her in person, the story of Brenda Fassie fascinated and perplexed me on many levels”
But then again Madondo should perhaps have been a rock ‘n’ roller. A quick glance at the musicians he loves brings up the baddest rock artists of all time. Busi Mhlongo. Philip Tabane, Joni Mitchel. Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Brenda Fassie, Ali Farka Toure. If this list seems confusing, it’s because Madondo has an expansive sense of what qualifies as rock. Not for him the narrow definition of rock that bizarrely disqualifies its founders and acknowledges those who borrowed the music.
For Madondo, the ultimate rock’n roll star of them all was Busi Mhlongo. What with her ability to bring to Maskandi a devil-may-care attitude, matched by a hoarse voice that announced Maskandi as the ultimate rebel party music. And if you ever saw Busi Mhlongo in performance, dressed in a punk-meets-goddess style, then you know Madondo says she is or rock ‘n’ roll royalty. What she did to Maskandi, recognising its urban roots that harked backed to rural stories and minibus taxi gossip is the stuff of genius. If universities are teaching courses on modern day Divas, it is Busi Mhlongo who should be enjoying the bulk of the attention.
And when Busi Mhlongo sings Ebathenjini, she brings to Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song a certain wistfulness to it, but one that rests on the pillars of life’s hardest lessons. Where Mfaz’ Omnyama’s song has a boundless joy, there’s a dark blues tinged edge to Busi Mhlongo’s. And one can imagine Madondo bobbing to its hypnotic rhythm even as he clutches a dog-eared copy of Rolling Stone. When he dances, he moves to the music with the joy of a practiced hedonist. It is as if when the music gets him, it gets all of him or not at all. Then it is easy to make sense of Madondo’s close reading of these wizened artists. For like them the music reaches into the deepest parts of his being.
Madondo is good at slicing through the of minutiae of celebrity. In Hot Type we find him philosophizing on Bob Mabena in Hi I’m the new bob Mabena
“here the name Bob Mabena is not used as a third person display on an ego , tripping off the runway again, but playful metaphor, for a blind but adventurous thrill seeker and urban hedonist of days gone by ”
Where others worship at the altar of religion, it is safe to say that if Madondo has any faith that moves him at all, it is the connection with the ancient souls that walk this earth disguised as musicians. As he writes in Hot Type on hearing Magwaza by Johnny Dyani;
“Yep , it was a religious experience . Hallucinatory even. The sort of ‘ high’ thousands of rock ‘n roll and jazz fanatics are prone to evoke in their countless ‘I saw Elvis’ or ‘ It rained horizontally the day Miles Davis died.” Here is Madondo implicating himself in the observations that he delights in pinpointing in fellow converts to the faith of music.
If it comes as a shock to the reader that Madondo knows his way around rock’n ‘roll as much as around Kwaito or Maskandi, it will probably shock jazz purists that this cat knows his Charles Mingus from his Winston Mankunku Ngozi. When he drops in for a visit, he will pick that rare vinyl that no one else even recognizes, and he will proceed to school me on its importance in the discography of that artist. Such passion is a joy to behold, and it explains why when Madondo writes on art, it is a deadly serious matter.
For Madondo this isn’t just music. It is something else altogether, something tinged with the numinous. It will come as little surprise to learn that Madondo has been known to go on a pilgrimage to Dr Malombo, Philip Tabane’s home in Mamelodi. When Busi Mhlongo was still amongst us, Madondo also went on regular, extended pilgrimages to her home north of Durban in KwaZulu Natal. Where others just want to get the story and file it, it is obvious that for Madondo the story goes way, way beyond what the artist wants to be written about them. And perhaps that’s why he connected so deeply with artists of the highest order, such as Busi Mhlongo.
Like Busi Mhlongo, Madondo makes it his business to turn convention on its head. He speaks a language that is wholly his own. One that borrows from his hometown of Hammanskraal but embellishes with bits from his adopted Joburg and that also picks up from his spiritual homes of New York. Even in his writing, you sense that he has a fine ear and listens very closely not just to what is said, but how it is said. Interviewing Rita Marley, his essay is filled with what Madondo picks up of her diction, her Jamaican voice booming unmistakably across the page. It is a remarkable skill at a time when reading through interviews you would think linguistic nuance was a thing of the past. In Hot Type in his essay on Rita Marley he writes “Boojah! So ’tis you? Mah dear , Afreeka feels good to me. The sun, the energy, the love, shoo , I feel blessed mon. Blessed! Discussion? Oh , go get the rest in the book my brethren.”
Perhaps Madondo’s fine ear for language explains the confidence with which he delivers his musical judgements. They may sometimes be written languidly, developed with the patience of an artist painting on a delicate surface, but when he delivers them, they are sharp, direct and unforgettable. As Njabulo Ndebele remarks of Madondo’s Hot Type “Bongani Madondo’s portraits made me gasp and sigh and shake in my seat. Long after I have experienced them, I’ll be saying: ‘life is beautiful after all.’
When you catch him in a sit down with Hugh Masekela, you can tell that the connection goes way deeper than the ask-question-answer-question that is today’s sound-byte journalism. Where others might be quite content to meet their deadline, to turn in the story they promised at conference, Madondo seems to be interested only in the backstory. Not for him the glib quick shallow answers that satisfies the curiosity of a generation ever on the move. It is when the stage lights have long been switched off, the fans gone home, the stage dismantled, that Madondo moves in for the kill. He has the instincts of a hunter, patient when necessary, but well aware when it is time to ask the burning question.
He is a critic who does not fear offending the biggest names in music or the arts. If his book, Hot Type, introduced him to a wider audience, those who follow him across the various magazines, newspapers and websites for which he writes know he is bold with his opinions. But he is also insanely funny, and has trained himself to resist the performance that many artists use to shield their real selves from those who chase them for stories. He is wise enough to know that patience and persistence can wear out even the most difficult superstar.
Throughout Hot Type you see Madondo chasing after an interview. It is as if he doesn’t know when to give up. In his new book, I’m Not Your Weekend Special, Madondo tells of how long it took him to get Brenda Fassie to agree and sit down to an interview. He is a cat who is not only curious, but knows when to bide his time till the rock stars yield to his combination of charm and stubborn persuasion.
When Madondo has a new book to read, or a new record to listen to, or even an art exhibition to attend and review, he retreats into a kind of sanctuary. It is fascinating to watch him go through his rituals of coming to terms with a new piece of work. Then he will disappear, he wrestles with the demon of writing late into the night and into the wee hours of the morning. Not unlike an animal responding to nature’s call to hibernate. One senses that it is not the deadline that makes him switch off his phone and not even respond to emails, but a need to withdraw into some primeval space in which he is alone with the literary gods.
Even though politics is not his subject of choice, every now and again Madondo will tell us how the politics impedes or subverts the artists whose lives he dissects with such thoroughness. But then again perhaps it is by looking through the lens of pop culture that we may see politics for what it is, modern day theatre, complete with props. As Madondo writes in Hot Type: “Why is it that we despise self-promotion by leaders who are all sheen and no substance, yet we are inherently opposed to those hard-working types we tag as ‘lacking charisma’? But he also makes the larger point that maybe we already live in the post politics era. How else do you explain, he wants to know, why “in New York City, Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls’ funeral was attended by close to a million people, blocking the streets of Brooklyn”
In the essay Pop Among The Believers, Madondo lays bare some of the contradictions of modern day life. He is at his sharpest when asking questions. “Why is the majority of populations in democracies voice out their disdain about the cult of personality, especially as it pertains to a popular leader – say Bill Clinton – and yet go ahead to venerate another leader, Nelson Mandela?”
When he brings his sharp eye to what may seem like banal pop videos or lyrics, Madondo often draws startling conclusions. On Makhendlas he writes, again in Hot Type;
“The notion that black men are buffalo soldiers blessed with a natural gift for toughing it out on the rough edges of life has sent young black males into a cyclone of confusion , fear and unending challenges to legitimise their status in this depoliticised, insensitive, indifferent era , where the fruits of the revolution feed on their offspring.”
It is why Nathan McCall says that Madondo has “a wicked wit and a keen sense of the complex ways that pop culture intersects with politics”
There’s a special place in Madondo’s universe for Miriam Makeba. His pursuit of an interview with Miriam Makeba reads like a courtship of sorts. Here was the scribe as convert, seeking an audience with one of the deities of the music. Where others may have wanted confirmation of what they has read elsewhere, Madondo wanted to get to the core of what set Miriam Makeba apart. Not what was familiar and rehashed over and over till it became bland. But something that would explain the Songbird who had sung Soweto Blues, Sophiatown Is Gone, Ask The Rising Sun and of course the hypnotic Pata Pata. He got his story all right, but he was after something else. He wanted to reach into the inner secrets that had compelled Miriam Makeba to take on the might of Apartheid and even Uncle Sam so she could sing the songs of freedom.
Which makes you understand why Zolani Mahola of Freshlyground says of Madondo “I found Madondo slightly unsettling, not least of all least because this was not a journalist asking the usual superficial questions”
If Madondo writes with an urgency about artists, there’s perhaps another side to him that comes through Social Media. On Twitter he is not only deeply informal, but he displays a comfort with the short prose format that a 140-character limit imposes. His posts are often pithy, irreverent, but still deeply conversational Below are a few posts that show a vintage Madondo
‘Some kinda time out. Road tripping with filmmakers Deon Maas&Keith Jones to Giyani in search of the soul of Shangaan Futurism. What holiday?’
‘Great day hanging out with Mr. Rose Phaahle talking about Nat Nakasa.Later with homegal Trudi Makhaya talking new ways of Business Journalism’
And when he uses his allocation of 140 characters by Twitter Inc. to ask;
‘Sorry, but what is the National Democratic Revolution? Also can a “revolution” truly be democratic?’
You know that Madondo would make a rebel reporter in politics, one who questions even as he chastises.
He can also be wickedly funny even as he is dead serious. Here is a post to Twitter Headquarters, written in a moment of exasperation; ‘Letter to Twitter HQs: How many times should I change my password? How come I get hacked everyweek, does my machine have an incurable virus?”
At times he is just plain out to have fun. And what’s wrong with that. Pop was founded on the principle of hedonism.
‘I’m Nelson Mandela’s long lost grandson. Mother is Orphelia Madiba Madondo frm Qunu.I got meself some accent. Some1 gimme a TV talkshow now!’
‘Surely thanking any1 on Tweeter’s like peeing into the Atlantic but hey.Mad Love to YALL supporting ‘Im Not Yr Wknd Special book.’ Touching.’
Here is a man having the time of his life, chasing his dreams and stopping every now and again to peer into the abyss that separates the normal from those who suffer from artistic greatness. Bongani Madondo will read their books, listen to their music, and even get lost in their shows. But he is the cat who always gets to the bottom of their story. Little wonder that he follows so closely the work of those other mercurial readers of their culture, like Greg Tate, Deborah Willis and Binyavanga Wainana. Like them he doesn’t just want to report on his society, he wants to explode some of the myths that have turned culture into mere commodity.
Madondo has no doubt that if we look closely at pop culture, we will get to the kernel of what drives our societies. As he says in Hot Type
“If pop culture as well as political personalities bizarrely evoke God and Christ for their own crass ends, how come then, society and the media accord those ‘stars’ reverence befitting early prophets, sages, shamans, the true social conduits to higher forces, huh?”
But he is aware that many of those revered in pop culture as ‘icons’ are often reckless self promoters. As he writes in Hot Type, “Like the wickedest pop image-makers, self publicists, artists, con-artists and manipulators of the age – Don King, Muhammad Ali, Mobuto Sese Seko, Prince, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti and others (Kanye) West has a cunning internal compass wired to the root of his brain”
Naturally the last word should go to Madondo via his musings on his beloved Miriam Makeba. “Whether performing for European lefties in Paris or singing Black Power songs for guinea’s peasants, Makeba – eternally stylish and perennially edgy – knew how to carve a niche between counterculture and couture culture. For her, it was, I imagine, a matter of saying: ‘I am an artist, but if I have to speak for my people, honey, let me do it in style.’
It is always a joy to hear an old and familiar instrument given new wings. This is how I felt when I first heard Victor Ntoni play the double bass in the mid eighties. The sound was warm, insistent, perhaps even disturbingly elegant. Over the years I’ve listened to Ntoni play in small ensemble as well as big bands. In later years I heard more and more of his beautiful singing. So when news of his death struck with the usual cruelty, I called up a few of the people who I know care deeply for the man and his music. I wanted to hear their sense of his role as an arranger, teacher, composer and double bass player and singer.
First I spoke to Lex Futshane, the double bass player and teacher and this is what he told me about Ntoni.
” When I was at the University of Natal, Victor used to visit Durban to play in the city. At that time he was playing in the band Afro Cool Concept with Darius Brubeck. During his visits Victor would offer us workshops on harmony and improvisation.”
“For me I used to look forward to his visits because I used to get masterclass bass lessons from him” At this point Futshane is caught between his sense of loss and his powerful memories of Ntoni. He continues:
“Sometimes Victor would arrive without his bass, and would use my bass. For me this was an incredible honor. On top of that I would drive him around and it was wonderful to be chauffeur to such a great musician” Futshane then turns his attention to the music.
“At that time, in the late 80’s and early 90’s there weren’t many double bass players in the country and he was one of those that mastered the balance between jazz and what we call traditional or folk music. He reinforced my belief that jazz is African music” Futshane says with obvious warmth.
“Man, for me these lessons were an eye opener, he answered a lot of questions I had as far as bass playing is concerned. Some of these include the role of the bass in ensemble playing and his ideas gave me fuller appreciation of my role as a bassist” enthuses Futshane.
“His place in music was unique because I considered him a musician who happened to pay the bass. When he taught music he taught holistically and didn’t just think bass. I think this is exemplified in His album, Heritage. Which crystallized his entire philosophy and practice of music and there is nothing in the album that limits it to the sound of the bass” Futshane continues
Jazz must always swing, we are told, and Futshane reminds us that Ntoni was a master of swing. “One of the most distinctive features of the album is how he swings in his playing. His playing is in line with his peers including Tete Mbambisa, Duke Makasi, Big T and others who all came from the vocal tradition. Before they were instrument players they were vocalists. This explains why Victor could do elaborate and beautiful musical arrangements for musical plays such as Meropa”
Next I spoke to the trumpeter and composer Feya Faku who received news of the death of Ntoni on the day he returned from the funeral of the double bass player Big T Ntsele in Port Elizabeth. And so it turns out that we have not one but two gifted double bassists to mourn in the space of one week. Big T and Ntoni knew each other and had worked together in the Radio Xhosa big band to arrangements by Ntoni.
It turns out that Faku’s memory of Ntoni is very personal and deeply moving
“For me Victor Ntoni is one of the people who inspired me to study music at university. I was at Dudley’s of the Soul Jazzmen’s place in PE and there was a jam session. Duke Makasi liked my playing and he then introduced me to Ntoni. At that time Ntoni had a big band project with the SABC called Izandi zasekhaya. Through Duke’s recommendation I was invited to join this project and that’s when I decided to further my studies because I was so inspired by Ntoni’s genius”
Faku continues in his quiet, measured way.
“After my encounter with Ntoni, watching him work, improvise, I decided to read as much as possible, take private lessons and I eventually took up studies at the university of Natal. Ntoni’s understanding of harmony is unparalleled and he could write his arrangements without going to the piano. It was as if he had transcended the instrument and had reached the stage where he could hear all the notes in his head”
Faku revels in what he picked up from Ntoni “It was through Victor Ntoni and Duke Makasi that I discovered the concept of silent practice in which you practice in your head and heart and afterwards go to the instrument to play what you’ve been practicing”
As a musician Faku is known for his warm, deeply lyrical sound and his dedication to the art of composition. His assessment of Ntoni’s sound is not just some glib remark, but something deeply considered.
“His sound was very personal, he sounded like no one else and he had something to play for, as Abdullah Ibrahim always reminds us. You have to play for something. He played with a purpose, the music has a message and meaning and went beyond playing for money”
Having spoken to these two musicians, I picked up the phone and dialed Bongani Madondo, the critic and music aficionado who brings a refreshing candor to his assessment of artists. My first call went unanswered. A few hours later I called again, and this time Madondo sent a text telling me that he couldn’t take calls as he was in a meeting. But I wasn’t going to be deterred soI replied via text that I wanted to hear his reflections on Victor Ntoni the musician and the man. Unsurprisingly for the scribe that he is, Madondo interrupted his meeting to write something for me . An hour later here is what I received from the author of Hot Type:
“Victor Ntoni’s departure from this world, once again puts microscopic attention on the state of South African music and its cultural capital worth to both country and the universe. You are bound to hear all the correct and even, lyrical, elegiacal platitudes even,
from those claiming to have been touched by the man’s music or his personality, and whatnot, when how.
And that’s all right by me: nobody does mourning and the rituals of public performances of mourning than Africans. It’s in us, in our veins, topography, landscape, joy and pain. We mourn like no other. We are the Blues People. Be it contrite or heartfelt,
we cry rivers of tears and rivers of shame, shame inversely pointed to ourselves for not doing enough when the object recipient of our pain needed us most.
Bra Vic was a talented, visionary and certainly subversive composer, alright. Specific instances are to be located in his work ‘pon his return from the USA, where, after experiencing the deeper depths of his beloved jazz first hand, and music composition overall, he returned a changed and elevated spirit.
His Xhosa roots of choral music, Aftro-Jazz, amahubo secular spirituals and so on were now enjoined by the rigorous of jazz’s classicisms, and the rigorous challenges bass instrument demands of anyone foolish enough to want to own its unbending beauty.
Victor Ntoni created a new music language, as both a teacher (he was one of the greatest music teachers), performer and composer. Unfortunately, like many others Ntoni was a victim of capitalism and greed’s slash-up and slash-down of organic music, and the belittling of jazz as outmoded museum music.
He was also, at some point, a huge victim of his own attitude: no one will tell you this but Bra Victor was, for long, and understandably so, an ANGRY man. And with anger came years of non-productivity. Alas, by the time of his departure, his soul and jovial nature had revisited him and as he was getting gigs and getting recognized again, such as the
recognition given to him in Cape Town (Baxter Theatre). The man’s bass started singing and riffing up on its own, virtually conducted, through osmosis–a love between man and his machine, by its master: the conductor.
But he was also a funny man, reserving his best put downs for clowns usually celebrated by the media.
Other than Johny Dyani, I can’t recall any South African bassist with the same wide expanse of texture, colour and groove than Bra Vic’s. May he kick-up a storm in heaven. Of course pass our love to The Underdog…Mingus, Parker, Dyani and ’em”
I would like to thank Lex Futshane, Feya Faku and Bongani Madondo for their deeply thoughtful reflections on the great Victor Ntoni. I love the intimacy of their memories and the intelligence of their observations.
As we mourn Ntoni, we should be comforted by the knowledge that he lives on through his incredible music, and though his bass may now be silenced forever, his compositions, arrangements will remind us that amongst us once lived a gentle giant of this great art form we love so much. His music has inspired generations of musicians and his recent work with Black Coffee is proof of his wide appeal.
As I ponder the impossibly beautiful sounds that my namesake used to coax out of his double bass, the words that come to mind are from Breyten Breytenbach’s A Veil Of Footsteps: “This is the part I like best. Traveling alone. Anonymous in a crowd of strangers” for they are a perfect reminder that some journeys we have to take on our own.