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South African Singer Sathima Bea Benjamin Dies at 76

Wife of Abdullah Ibrahim, Benjamin was admired by Ellington, others

Sathima Bea Benjamin

South African vocalist and composer Sathima Bea Benjamin died Aug. 20 in Cape Town, according to a report from the South African Broadcasting Corporation and other African news agencies. The wife of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, Benjamin was 76 and had been based in New York City for nearly 45 years, until returning to her homeland in 2011. The cause of death was not reported but reports said that her death occurred suddenly.

Born Beatrice Benjamin in Johannesburg Oct. 17, 1936 and raised in Cape Town, Benjamin began singing at local talent shows during her childhood and turned professional in her teens, influenced by popular American jazz vocalists. At age 21, Benjamin went on the road with Arthur Klugman’s traveling show, Colored Jazz and Variety. She returned to Cape Town in 1959, met Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) in 1960 and together they left South Africa for Switzerland, in order to escape apartheid. Duke Ellington became a fan of both artists upon hearing them in Zurich and arranged for them to record in Paris-Brand’s session was released but Benjamin’s was not and the tapes were assumed lost until 1996, when released as A Morning in Paris by the Enja label. Brand, Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and South African musicians Johnny Gertze (bass) and Makhaya Ntshoko (drums) contributed to the recording.

Benjamin sang with Ellington’s orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. She recorded more than 10 albums in all, for Enja as well as her own ekapa imprint and other labels. Song Spirit, a compilation of her work, was released in 2006. Her 1976 album of original compositions African Songbird was reissued this year. Benjamin was the subject of the 2010 film Sathima’s Windsong.

South African president Thabo Mbeki presented Benjamin with the Order of Ikhamanga Silver, in recognition of her jazz career and anti-apartheid work, in 2004. This month, the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg honored Benjamin.

Benjamin was featured in JazzTimes in 2006.

Originally Published