JAZZ singer Sathima Bea Benjamin died last Tuesday aged 76 in Cape Town. Her death illustrated once more how little we understand about how to treat our great musicians, since most local newspaper obituaries talked in bare terms about the facts of her life, dwelling most on the famous men with whom she had been associated — "married to Abdullah Ibrahim … mentored by Duke Ellington …" and so on. Few mentioned what her music sounded like.
That is simply not good enough.
Benjamin was an inspired and powerful jazz musician, and that, not her associations, is what will resound down the years. When I taught at Columbia University, Center for Jazz Studies colleagues declared her one of the finest singers they had ever heard.
Her musicianship had two core components: the way she styled a song; and the ways her life and work negotiated sophisticated paths through many of SA’s complex identities — person of colour, activist, African, woman, musician.
As a song stylist, she belonged to the school of Abbey Lincoln or Cassandra Wilson. She made each note her own. It did not matter that the song was some apparently hackneyed dance-tune: that was the music she had grown up hearing, and it was woven into her character.
But that did not stop her from re-visioning fresh melodies around the notes on the score.
Or dropping into an almost-recitative so that the story in the lyrics could be more clearly told, or making the listener wait, and wait, for what they knew must be the next note, until the impact of the last one had been absorbed.
She wrote her own songs — Lady Day, Musical Echoes, all the material on African Songbird — creating clean, beautiful melodies for her poetry.
And she brought the flavours of the Cape to both standards and originals: not only the syncopations of goema, but also the inflections of music from far further East.
She did it all with a freshness that jazz historian Robin DG Kelley described thus: "She doesn’t sing the blues; she renders every love song like a first kiss. Benjamin can create emotional truth and innocence in part because she doesn’t rely on vocal acrobatics or melisma (the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession) — just pure, crystalline sound."
On a sleeting, freezing New York evening in 2008, I asked her accompanist, Onaje Allan Gumbs, if he’d had trouble reaching the venue for her recital. "Don’t worry," he replied. "I’d walk across the city if I had to, to play with this lady."
Benjamin was Grammy-nominated, received the South African Order of Ikhamanga Silver in 2004 and was one of this year’s Standard Bank Joy of Jazz honorees.
But she was never granted what she longed for and what South Africa needed from her most: a place where she was honoured as a teacher and could share her skills.
Too few South Africans walked across the city to hear her when she came home, and now we can never do so again. Hamba Kahle.
FOLLOWING in the foot-steps trodden early by Benjamin, other South African musicians continue to build musical relationships away from home.
Joburg-born guitarist Vuma Ian Levin, for example, has studied in Amsterdam and his quintet, In Rhythmic Colour, includes Netherlands drummer Jeroen Batterink, Italian bassist Marco Zenini, German pianist Lennart Altgenug and Spanish saxophonist Bernard van Rossum.
He brings the group home with a concert on Saturday evening at King Kong Building, 6 Verwey Street, New Doornfontein, (011) 614-8526.
For details, contact Levin on 076-819-2678 or go to www.facebook.com/pages/Vuma-Levin-European-Quintet-In-Rhythmic-Colour/111781078861447
For Joburg, the first Sunday of spring is traditionally Jazz on the Lake day. The event runs at Zoo Lake on Sunday, with gates opening at 10am and closing at 6pm.
The music promises to be cheerful and energising: Don Laka, Mafikizolo, singer Brenda Mntambo, maskandi maestro Phuzekhemisi and more.
Residents in the vicinity of Zoo Lake can find details of the many but vital road closures and diversions on the City of Johannesburg website, www.joburg.org.za.