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Culture

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

Some thoughts on why I started The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast

By Victor Dlamini

It is the age we live in that gives one that rush of blood to the head – and you suddenly feel as if you were a David of sorts, ready to slay your Goliath. I mean only in this new millennium would one be so foolhardy as to dare to dream of starting a new show on a completely new media platform. But then there is all around us a keenness to try out new ideas, and the young generation, the ‘digital natives’ have shown us just how big the ‘information age’ is destined to become. It is nearly a year now since I left traditional broadcasting and embarked on what may have seemed at first like a perilous plunge into the unknown, and in this piece I would like to share some of my own thoughts that led me, perhaps even compelled me to start the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast

Much is made of what is called ‘New Media’ but since we all know that nothing stays new forever, and that certainly ‘New Media’ is no longer new, this convenient term seems destined for the dustbin. Whatever the term that will come to define this shift from the ‘traditional’ media such as Radio, Television and Print to a web based digital platform, it seems clear that it presents new and exciting possibilities to democratize mass communication without recourse to expensive financing of ‘broadcasting’ infrastructure.

The rise of ‘citizen journalism’ has been one of the most fascinating effects of new technology on our society, and I believe that in a few years some of the old-school broadcasters will be totally out of touch, chasing a dwindling and ageing audience. Once I’d grasped this idea that one no longer needed to be tethered to the inflexible edifice of the corporate media to reach readers and listeners, I knew that I had to break free, become independent and start the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast.

Citizen journalism is a symptom: a deeper social reality is reflected by the phenomenal rise of Podcasting and Blogging, probably two of the most important developments in our recent history as social beings. Podcasting and Blogging bring with them a promise of democratizing speech in an age when ‘big media’ wields more power than most countries. All around us we can see that the interests of the powerful, be they vested in big corporations, big countries, big individuals, or big institutions, are stifling the voice of the independently minded.

One of the things that I found quite frustrating about South Africa’s public broadcaster was that there one had to try and deliver a high-quality programme whilst working with so many ill prepared, inexperienced individuals that had been given jobs that are well beyond their means. It is not just a question of training, but also of simple common sense, and if you have members of the team who think it is their birth-right to pitch up at the last minute, without any preparation, then the institution is doomed to deliver content of substandard quality. If there ever was a recipe for failure this is it, and I weep for this potentially World Class institution. It is of course heartening to see that many of the so-called big players have since followed my lead, right down to emulating or copying my technical solution to deliver high-quality Podcasts. That is one of the joys of possessing a pioneering spirit, but the benefit is for the larger community that loves the arts and now has more choice.

The poet, publisher and activist, James Matthews

It is one of the great ironies of our age that at a time when newspapers and magazines are getting bigger by the day there is actually less to read. Radio and television are much the same – with the possible exception of a few hours here and there on talk radio. This is because publishers and media owners, with the tacit agreement of editors, reserve more and more space to satisfy the demands of commerce. Little wonder that in so many parts of South Africa the consumer culture has become the primary impulse of most workers, who spend what little time they ‘have to themselves’ rushing to the nearest shopping mall.

One of the truly outstanding features of Podcasting is that it offers ‘content on demand’. Those who wish to tune in can do so at any time and no longer do they have to sit around waiting for their favourite programme to go on air. After my first ten shows I was struck by how quickly the Podcast had established a truly international audience. Clearly, the availability of the content 24/7 is one of the features that suits such an audience: time differences and geographical or even political barriers that still plague traditional media do not affect it in the same way.

Independence is one of the most cherished words in any language, and there was once a time when freedom and independence were used almost interchangeably. But nowadays the terms seem on the verge of divorce, and there has been a sense of the retreat of the latter – especially when it comes to individual freedom in public spaces. Since it was founded, The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast has given writers, social critics, cultural activists and other creative voices a unique platform to express their ideas freely on this independent show.

I have always been attracted by the purity of ideas, not their popularity: that is why I love the deep conversations that I have with those who come on to the show. It is a truly great delight to listen to someone who has the gift of language and imagination express his or her ideas without any limitation. So far, since starting the podcast, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down to have at least two such conversations each week with remarkable individuals.

The writer and language activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I suppose, finally, that on a personal level I have also always loved the notion of turning what at first seems like an impossibly small or remote idea into something substantial. I think that Podcasting is still in its infancy today, but the success of the iPod shows that its growth as a legitimate medium is assured. No longer do individuals care to have someone else choose for them the things they listen to and watch. Part of what is truly exciting about working in this field, using these tools is that power and choice are returning to listener. To me Podcasting is a fascinating confluence of content, technology and freedom – the freedom to create choice on an untold scale for audiences across the globe, and the corresponding freedom to decide when you want to tune in.

I have no doubt that through my conversations with so many outstanding writers, thinkers and other creative individuals on The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast, I have an opportunity to add to our ability to imagine beyond the confines of our circumstances. In these conversations those I speak to have never ceased to surprise me by how much they are prepared to open up to me, and I think that all of us can glean something from their answers. In the final analysis I do believe that the import of all this is that through the Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast we may once again realize that an untethered, unfettered imagination, as found in our various literatures, fictions and other narratives, may provide us the greatest freedom of all.

It has been a pleasure to post my conversations with artists such as Andre Brink, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Dennis Brutus, Kgebetli Moele, Emmanuel Dongala, Gabeba Baderoon,Shailja Patel, Maestro, Ben Zander  Breyten Breytenbach, Lewis Nkosi, Vusi Mchunu,Eben Venter, Sandile Ngidi, Mbulelo Mzamane, Nawal El Saadawi, Anne Landsman, Njabulo Ndebele, Gcina Mhlophe, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Napo Masheane, Sello Maake Ka Ncube, Ben Williams, Antjie Krog, Kevin Bloom, Rosamund Zander, Zapiro, Sindiwe Magona, Ravi Naidoo and many others

 

A view of city Johannesburg, one of the world’s greatest cities
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South Africa Finds Its Literary Voice

 

Portrait of a Nobel Laureate

By all accounts South African literature is enjoying its finest hour. Even as the scandal of dumped and undelivered textbooks in Limpopo was raging, the Polokwane Literary Festival was a welcome respite. That writers could descend on a town whose very name now resonates with the politics of succession and connect with readers was an act of faith in the power of literature. The Bloody Book Week was a great success and it brought to SA fiction A-listers Jeffery Deaver,  John Connolly and Mark Giminez. Jefferey Deaver is known for The Bone Collector that was turned into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. He has also written the James Bond thriller, Carte Blanche, part of which is set in Cape Town.

Portrait of Zakes Mda

 

There’s a renewed vibrancy in South African writing and some of the authors are finding devoted audiences both at home and abroad. It is always a great treat to be at a book shop in a foreign country and to stumble across a novel by Lewis Nkosi or Deon Meyer. It’s wonderful to see South African fiction attracting bidding from movie producers for the film rights for their books. The latest to join this list includes Deon Meyer, Margie Orford and Lauren Beukes.

 

Portrait of a Thriller writer, Margie Orford

The growth in literary events is testimony to the optimism that pervades the industry. From boutique by invitation only private events, to the larger literary festivals, SA has renewed its love affair with books. There is also a healthy presence of private book clubs that can be founded dotted across the country, from Soweto to Umlazi and across the country’s provinces.

 

Social Media has inspired and carried lively literary debates & Twitter #tags like #mustreadbooks reflect the important role this medium is playing in promoting our literature. Sharing articles and photos has never been easier across Social Media, and much of the shared material reflects growing interest in books and the ideas contained in them. If the literary purists were initially suspicious of Social Media, Twitter has certainly shown that it is a compelling way to share and reflect on literary issues.

 

The writers Tsitsi Dangarembga, Gcina Mhlophe, Nawal El Saadawi & Kadija George

 

SA’s youth have been under-served by the market and outside of textbooks, very few titles aim at them in the same way that other markets do. The youth market is an important one as has been seen abroad with titles for the teen market selling in the millions. It is heartening to see Pan Macmillan launch The Youngsters , its series  five pocket-sized books written by young South Africans: Anele Mdoda, Shaka Sisulu, Nik Rabinowitz with Gillian Breslin, Danny K and Khaya Dlanga. Other publishers should join the youth party and bring the voice of youth into fresh writing.

A vibrant literary scene: Anele Mdoda & Mimi Selemela

 

2012 has in many ways been watershed year for the country’s writers as they find new readers in increasingly large numbers. The popularity of political books has also laid to rest the myth that SA is done with politics. It is important for SA to enhance the vibrancy of the titles on offer as books have to compete for their share of the wallet. This is a time of fundamental change, but also great turmoil. Bookshops are closing down and e-books are claiming a larger share of the market. The growth in mobile digital devices and Apps presents new opportunities for both writers and publishers to reach their readers.Those that still doubt the relevance of e-books and self publishing need only look at the phenomenal success of some of the titles to realize that change is already here.

 

The writer and artist Breyten Breytenbach

One of the publishing success stories of the year has been Rev Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September. This book on the Removal of Thabo Mbeki reflects on the unprecedented events surrounding the recall of South Africa‘s president from office in 2008. Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like The Present has been another literary highlight. In this new novel from the grand dame of South Africa’s literary invites South African book lovers to a story that is at once familiar but also deeply surprising.

 

Portrait of a poet, Rustum Kozain

It is fair to say that the arrival of a new Gordimer novel is a very serious treat for book lovers across the world. South Africa’s literary universe is a deeply contested one and novels are dismissed or praised in line with deeply held positions. But Gordimer’s literary eye remains as sharp as ever and her storytelling focused on the contradictions that bedevil South Africa’s politics of identity.

 

Each year, Durban kicks off South Africa’s literary festival with The Time Of The Writer and after that it’s off to the idyllic setting of Franschhoek for the book festival named after this beautiful Winelands village. This festival reflects many of the most telling contradictions that define South Africa. It is set in a tiny village of extreme affluence and the audience has remained a largely white one. It is not a cheap festival to attend as the hotels and restaurants cater to a predominantly well heeled clientele. The village has truly gorgeous venues and the Green Room remains one of the best places to run into a writers for a quiet conversation.

 

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

But the festival has grown quickly and in its sixth year, the Franschhoek Literary Festival once again stuck to its eclectic formula that brings in a mix of the best in South African writing to political debate, environmental issues, genre fiction, poetry, press freedom, publishing and even social media.

 

The names on this year’s programme included literary big hitters like Imraan Coovadia, Ivan Vladislavic, Michiel Heyns, as well as new writers like McIntosh Polela and Yewande Omotoso. In keeping with the festival’s tradition of drawing speakers from a wide range of genres, satire will feature prominently, with the likes of Gareth Cliff, Ndumiso Ngcobo and Azad Essa likely to heat things up with their irreverent take on things.

Portrait of a novelist, Yewande Omotoso

Lovers of crime fiction were spoilt for choice as top drawer writers Deon Meyer, Marge Orford, Andrew Brown, Joan Hichens brought their voices to the event. In the past the Franschhoek  festival has attracted big hitters like Richard Ford, Andre Brink, Antjie Krog, Mandla Langa and Muriel Barbery. Poetry has featured strongly at the festival, and poets like Gabeba Baderoon, Rustum Kozain and James Matthews have walked the streets of this quaint village.

 

Novelist Richard Ford

 

This year saw the return of The Cape Town Book Fair after it was unexpectedly cancelled in 2011. The
relaunch of the festival will coincided with the hosting of the International Publishers Association AGM in the Mother City. But there is no doubt that this once powerful event has lost its way and its return largely confirmed how quickly things can go wrong.  I still remember the excitement when the Cape Town Book Fair was first established. It has faltered as quickly as it had established itself as probably the most important literary and book event in
the country.

 

Poet Gabeba Baderoon

The Cape Town Book Fair is now planned for every two years. In a historic first for Cape Town, The International Publishers Association held its 29th IPA Congress, the first time it was held in Africa. Other literary events that spring to mind include the Jozi Book Fair, the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival and Poetry Africa, which all  add to the country’s burgeoning literary calendar. The book may be threatened in print form but writers and readers are finding each other in this brave new world where the storytelling remains the supreme arbiter even as the medium changes.

 

Portrait of a Novelist. Ngugi wa Thiong'o

 

International writers visit SA on a regular basis and in the past year we’ve hosted the likes of Nawal El Saadawi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Kwame Dawes, Chris Abani, Kadija George, richard de Nooy, Tsitsi Dangarembga and many others. This shows that SA is a viable destination for the world’s major literary voices and it reflects our interest in literature.

 

Potrait of a novelist & activist, Nawal El Saadawi

 

One of the stand-alone events of the year was the visit to South Africa by Zakes Mda, the novelist, dramatist, traveler, teacher, painter and bee-keeper who visited Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg & Pretoria. Mda may have been here to launch his latest play, Our Lady Of Benoni, but his presence in South Africa is always cause for celebration amongst book lovers. His is one of the most authentic voices in SA fiction and his prolific output an important barometer of the health of our fiction.

 

The writer Bongani Madondo

 

The passion of people like Phakama Mbonambi, Jenny Crwys Williams, Darryl Accone, Elinor Sisulu, Sandile Ngidi, Jenny Hobbs, Ben Williams, Mmabatho Selemela, Georges Lory, Karabo Kgoleng, Raks Seakhoa, Gcina Mhlophe, Chris Thurman, Bongani Madondo, Peter Rorvik, Vusi Mchunu and others acts as a catalyst for literature’s growth. Sponsors remain a crucial catalyst for realizing these literary events and they should be thanked for playing such a vital role in encouraging reading and making it possible for writers to be seen and not merely read.

 

Portrait of a writer & walker, the one & only Richard de Nooy

 

Lewis Nkosi
The writer and his hat: Lewis Nkosi