SATHIMA BEA BENJAMIN / “Something To Live For”
Sathima Bea Benjamin is a jazz vocalist from South Africa who sings with sensitivity albeit with a very limited vocal range. The ex-wife of Abdullah Ibrahim and mother of Jean Grae, Sathima represents thousands and thousands of artists who never reach the top tier but who are nevertheless significant in maintaining and extending black musical traditions.
I’ve chosen four cuts that span Sathima Benjamin’s recording career. We open with “Darn That Dream” from the album A Morning In Paris. Duke Ellington was instrumental in making this album happen, but soon after the recording was completed, the tapes were lost. The album had to wait 34 years for its release when the engineer, Gerhard Lehner, fortunately located a back-up copy of the original session. Ellington and Billy Strayhorn sit in as guest pianists on two tunes each and throughout Abdullah’s South African trio (Johnny Gertze on bass, Makaya Ntshoko on drums and Ibrahim on piano) is joined by Swedish violinist Svend Asmussen who plays pizzicato (plucking the strings rather than using a bow). On this rendition of the standard “Darn That Dream” it’s Abdullah filling the piano slot.
“You Go To My Head” is one of my favorite jazz standards. I happen to like the shape of the melody. It’s from Sathima’s most recent release, Cape Town Love (2008) featuring Henry February – piano, Basil Moses – bass, and Vincent Pavitt – drums.
“Children of Soweto” is from the career spanning anthology Song Spirit. The song is an overtly political tribute to the youth of Soweto who initiated a major South Africa uprising in 1976. The band is Onaje Allan Gumbs – piano, Buster Williams – bass, Billy Higgins – drums, and Carlos Ward – alto. This original combines African elements with the new world jazz tradition.
The final cut is the feature, “Something To Live For,” which was co-written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. This beautiful ballad is featured on Benjamin’s 2006 album, Musical Echoes, featuring Stephen Scott – piano, Basil Moses – bass, Lulu Gontsana – drums. Scott’s piano solo is particularly noteworthy.
For over fifty-plus years Sathima Bea Benjamin has stayed steady in the music while at the same time working as an independent artist and successfully home-schooling her children. Samthima is a cultural stalwart and sterling example of a socially committed artist. Though not a superstar, Sathima has been super-strong in producing and propagating the music.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Strengths and weaknesses
I don't know how much Sathima is involved in the musical direction of her bands, but the instrumental parts of these tracks are really happening. For example, "Something To Live For." That whole middle section is gorgeous. I love the way the acoustic bass sounds. I can see why Kalamu picked it as the feature.
But as Kalamu mentions early on, Sathima's voice is limited. Also, I sometimes find her phrasing ponderous. Sathima's voice does have a pleasant quality to it though - she could probably get away with her limitations if she were a pop singer. Matter of fact, she sings better than a lot of people you'll hear on the radio. But the kind of music she sings (or maybe the tunes Kalamu selected?) are structured so that the vocalist's strengths and weaknesses are clearly on display.
The one exception is "Children Of Soweto." Sathima sounds good on that one. I don't think it's a coincidence that "Children" is the most pop-sounding of these four records. One reason "Children" succeeds is Sathima's voice is just one part of the mix instead of standing way out front as it does on the standards. Again, I don't know the level of Sathima's involvement musically, but "Children" has an excellent arrangement. I like the way it seamlessly merges African music and jazz. Nice record.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Sathima be calling the shots
She arranges. She writes. She produces. The whole nine. BTW, you say you like the way "Children" "seamlessly merges African music and jazz." Well, all the musicians are from this side of the Atlantic (all are America born except Ward who is originally from Panama and was a long time member of Abdullah's band). So it's funny that the most African sounding doesn't have any continental African musicians playing on it. On the other hand, one of the reasons you may be digging on "Something To Live For" is because it employs a modified secondline beat in the vein of Ahmad Jamal's "Poinciana." It's amazing how the influences flow back and forth.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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