THIRTY-seven years ago, Cape Town jazz singer Bea Benjamin finally released her debut album. It had been a long time coming.
As far back as 1959, the 23-year-old Benjamin had recorded what would have been the first South African jazz long player, had it been released.
It wasn’t. Nor, until more than 30 years had passed, was the album she made in Paris a few years later for the Reprise label at the instance of none other than Duke Ellington, with whose band she would later sing at the Newport Jazz Festival.
But, in 1976, Johannesburg record-store owner Rashid Vally’s Asshams label recorded and actually put out, albeit in a limited run of no more than a few hundred copies, her third attempt at vinyl endorsement, the exceptional African Songbird, credited to Bea Benjamin with Dollar Brand.
Husband and wife Brand and Benjamin, Abdullah Ibrahim and Sathima Bea Benjamin since their conversion to Islam but still using their old names on the record, had recently returned to South Africa to live after years abroad interrupted by occasional visits home.
Their plan was clearly reflected in the opening track, the haunting Africa, 21 minutes long and yet deeply, rivetingly spiritual in its construction and delivery rather than the daunting epic its length might suggest.
"I’ve been gone much too long", sang Benjamin, her fabulous voice evincing a mixture of relief and intent before evolving into the heartfelt repetition, part celebration, part lament, of the title, "and I’m glad to say that I’m home, I’m home to stay".
But it was not to be.
The South African political situation soon drove them back to the US, the South African government revoked their citizenship, and African Songbird languished, more heard about than heard except among the fortunate few, its legend deservedly if incrementally growing as Benjamin’s own star began to ascend and the establishment of her own record label, Ekapa, led to several international releases and even a Grammy nomination.
She returned to Cape Town permanently in 2011, and, just a couple of months ago, African Songbird was eventually reissued, on CD and vinyl, to considerable if still fairly circumscribed acclaim, by Matsuli Music. This tiny label, whose catalogue the release of African Songbird has swelled by 50%, is busy growing out of the wonderful Electric Jive website dedicated to the preservation and proselytisation of great but largely forgotten, and sometimes completely overlooked, South African music of the past.
This is music that would very likely not otherwise be heard anymore, other than by the handful of collectors lucky enough to own copies of the original records, but it can now be heard again at the touch of an internet button.
I had always thought that the vinyl copy of African Songbird I picked up in the 1980s must have been a reprint, but it seems that this is the album’s first-ever reissue, a fact that becomes more remarkable with each listen to the beautifully presented new edition.
Opening with Brand’s throbbing electric piano chords, the album consists of three Benjamin originals whose titles — Africa, Music and African Songbird — would appear to form a sort of autobiographical trilogy that starts with the singer fronting a superbly sympathetic band of South African and American musicians, among whom Basil "Manenberg" Coetzee stands out, as he nearly always did, on powerful tenor sax and playful flute.
The album then gradually sheds its instrumental accompaniment until it ends with Benjamin’s solo voice, naked, exposed and, unlike so many more prominent divas, devoid of artifice and unnecessary theatrics, and therefore all the more dramatic for its emotional directness, fading to the natural sounds of the Cape sea and its bird life.
Sathima Bea Benjamin died suddenly last week at the age of 76.