Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sathima Bea Benjamin: "I have so many nations in me"

“Hi Rashid, is it true?”, “Yes Matt she is on the other side.” With what feels like a physical blow to the body I try to make sense of it all. Barely a month earlier I was in Cape Town for what was to be Sathima’s swan song: a live performance at Tagore’s in Observatory celebrating the reissue of her 1976 masterpiece African Songbird that I’d just reissued on my label. Although suffering from flu Sathima commanded the room with the voice of an angel. The electric atmosphere and crowded space only enhanced the palpable sense of being in the presence of greatness.

As we mark Sathima’s birthday today I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Her long struggle to be heard, never playing on her African roots and resolutely uncommercial with a complete commitment to classic jazz idioms. And a big shadow cast by her partner Abdullah Ibrahim, the challenges of motherhood exacerbated by exile and an uneasy homecoming from the Chelsea Hotel in New York where she said she felt most at home.

Sathima had the unique ability to strike first at your heart, not unlike the experience of hearing Billie Holiday for the first time. She cites hearing Billie’s performance in Lady Sings the Blues as being pivotal to her development as a singer. And Sathima’s original compositions like Africa and Nations in Me eschew the commonly prescribed categories of race and nationhood propagated by Apartheid. It’s a powerful combination.

Her final performance at Tagore’s was highly anticipated and packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Some initial microphone issues before Sathima took to the stage, backed by the Hilton Schilder Trio, to perform one more time her classic songbook tunes, laments and the anthem Africa. “I’ve been gone much too long/and I’m glad to say that I’m home, I’m home to stay…” I was so happy for her despite the knowledge that perhaps this might all be too late. We spoke late into the evening at the Labia Cinema on Sunday and at the Mahogany Room on Tuesday about taking this forward.

Too late, and now she’s on the other side. And that’s our lament: that home is still the other side.

Bea Benjamin
Photo Credit: Gregory Franz.

First published at Africa is a Country

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