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Sat, 10.17.1936

Sathima Benjamin, Vocalist born

Sathima Bea benjamin

*Sathima Bea Benjamin was born on this date in 1936. She was a Black South African vocalist and composer.

Beatrice Bertha Benjamin was born in Claremont, Cape Town, South Africa; her father, Edward Benjamin, was from the island of St. Helena off the coast of West Africa, and her mother, Evelyn Henry, had roots in Mauritius and the Philippines. As an adolescent, she first performed popular music in talent contests at the local cinema (bioscope) during the intermission.

By the 1950s, she sang at various nightclubs, community dances, and social events, performing with Cape Town pianists Tony Schilder and Henry February. She built her repertoire by watching British and American movies and transcribing lyrics from songs heard on the radio, where she discovered Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald. These musicians would influence her singing style, notably light phrasing and clear diction.

At age 21, she joined Arthur Klugman's traveling show Coloured Jazz and Variety on a tour of South Africa. When the production failed, she found herself stranded in Mozambique, where she met South African saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. In 1959, she returned to Cape Town's now thriving jazz scene, where she met pianist Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), whom she would marry in 1965. In that same year, she recorded what would have been the first jazz LP in South Africa's history. Entitled My Songs for You, accompanied by Ibrahim's trio, the recording of mostly standards was never released.

After South Africa's Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, Benjamin and Ibrahim left South Africa for Europe, settled in Zurich, Switzerland, and worked throughout Germany and Scandinavia. They were meeting and occasionally working with American jazz players, including. The artist who would have the greatest impact on Benjamin's life, however, was Duke Ellington. Benjamin met Ellington in Zurich in 1963, who insisted that Benjamin sings for him. Following this encounter, Ellington arranged for the couple to fly to Paris and record separate albums for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, for whom Ellington functioned as Artist and Repertoire representative.

Benjamin’s recording, however, remained unreleased and was presumed to be lost until its release in 1996 by Enja Records under the title A Morning in Paris. The session's engineer, Gerhard Lerner, had secretly made a second copy. She maintained her musical relationship with Ellington. In 1965, he arranged to have her perform with his band in the U.S. at the Newport Jazz Festival (when she sang the Ellington ballad "Solitude") and at one point asked her to join his band permanently. Benjamin declined the offer. Throughout the 1960s, Benjamin and Ibrahim moved back and forth between Europe and New York City as Ibrahim worked to establish his career. Benjamin spent much of the period as a manager and agent for her husband while raising their son, Tsakwe. The year 1976 marked a turning point for Benjamin.

She and Ibrahim returned to South Africa to live; she gave birth to her daughter, Tsidi (now the underground hip-hop artist Jean Grae), and recorded African Songbird, an album of original compositions. Shortly after Tsidi's birth, the family relocated to New York City in 1977. In 1979 Benjamin started the record label Ekapa to produce and distribute her and Ibrahim's music. Between 1979 and 2002, she released eight of her albums on Ekapa, including Sathima Sings EllingtonDedicationsMemories and DreamsWindsongLovelightSouthern TouchCape Town Love, and Musical Echoes.  Dedications were nominated for a Grammy Award in 1982.

In 2000, Danish second-hand book dealer and fan of South African jazz Lars Rasmussen published a collection of essays and a discography of Benjamin's music in Sathima Bea Benjamin: Embracing Jazz (Copenhagen, 2000). In October 2004, South African president Thabo Mbeki gave her the Order of Ikhamanga Silver Award for "excellent contribution as a jazz artist" and "to the struggle against apartheid." In March 2005, the art group Pen and Brush, Inc. presented her with a Certificate of Achievement for her work as a performer, musician, composer, and "activist in the struggle for human rights in South Africa."

In 2007, Benjamin began reissuing her back catalog for download. In December 2008, she performed at the Apollo Theater at the closing of the concert Bricktop at the Apollo; she sang "Someone to Watch Over Me." In 2010, she was the subject of the documentary Sathima's Windsong. In 2011 Duke University Press published Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz, written by Benjamin and Carol Muller, a South African ethnomusicologist, over twenty years. She returned to Cape Town in 2011, where she continued to work as a vocalist. Sathima Bea Benjamin died on August 20, 2013, at 76.

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