This recording is an absolute gem. A few years ago Matsuli Music re-issued African Songbird, the spiritual jazz masterpiece from South Africa’s greatest jazz singer, Sathima Bea Benjamin. Originally released in 1976, African Songbird was a debut long overdue. A 1959 recording, which would have been one of South Africa’s first ever jazz LPs, was shelved. Her 1963 recording with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn was put aside by Reprise’s then head of A&R, Frank Sinatra, for not being commercial enough.
African Songbird is a tour-de-force, and arguably the most dramatic and powerful release on Rashid Vally’s As-shams label. The opener, ‘Africa’, is the album’s fulcrum, a statement of breath-taking musical, personal and political complexity. It is a song of exile, of loss, and of return: a song that is both personal and universal, speaking for a people made homeless in their own land, speaking to those whose ambivalent embrace of exile ached for a homecoming. It speaks too of hope and resolution.
(17th October 1936 – 20th August 2013)
Africa is a personally powerful declaration from a remarkable African woman: a song of deferred self and dislocated space finally resolved in an emotional homecoming. It is a song of celebration and mourning – a heartfelt paean to her home that is shot through with the raw sorrow of lament.
Sathima’s voice, wholly unique in jazz singing, gradually sheds its musical supports as the programme develops. From the thickly-layered tumult of Africa, through the characteristic Cape Town swing that informs Music, the instrumentation is quietly reduced, then finally dispensed with. The title track is performed acapella, but for the natural sounds of the sea coast, the gulls and surf of the Cape itself. After many years of silence, two deferred albums, and over a decade of rootless exile from a home that had been made inhospitable by the inhumanity of apartheid, Sathima’s voice is finally heard, alone with her song, naturally, like a bird.
Sathima’s career was challenged throughout by a struggle to be heard. Her repertoire was resolutely uncommercial. She never played on her African roots to gain acceptance internationally, and her complete commitment to classic jazz idioms never wavered: as an African artist, this made it difficult for audiences, critics and record companies to understand the nature of her talent. The unique genius and global success of her husband Abdullah Ibrahim (previously known as Dollar Brand) cast its own shadow, and as the mother of two children, Tsakwe and Tsidi (underground hip-hop artist Jean Grae), music could not always be her first priority. These challenges were exacerbated by the pressures of political exile, and for Sathima, due recognition was late to arrive.
Benjamin’s compelling life was the subject of a 2010 documentary film entitled Sathima’s Windsong, directed by author and professor Daniel Yon. Listen to her masterpiece African Songbird below.